September 28, 2011
Old dinosaurs have a way of hanging on. New discoveries are announced every week, and our understanding of how dinosaurs actually lived is constantly changing, but the public image of dinosaurs doesn’t always keep up with the pace of scientific discovery and debate. I was reminded of this tension after stumbling upon a short, 1970 documentary called Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards.
Dinosaurs regularly popped up during my early elementary school education. From preschool through third grade, at least, dinosaurs made a cameo or more during the school year, and I remember at least one field trip to see the animatronic dinosaurs at the Monmouth Museum in central New Jersey. The dinosaurs jerked and bellowed, as the robotic creatures are wont to do, but what really stuck with me was seeing Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards in one of the museum’s little alcoves. Animatronic dinosaurs were nice and all, but in the era before computer-generated dinosaurs were the rule, the stop-motion dinosaurs in the film were the closest thing to seeing the real animals come alive.
Created by special effects artist Wah Chang, the dinosaurs of the short film were as I had always known them. They dragged their tails, moved slowly and were generally covered in a drab palette of muted greens, browns, greys and reds. All the standard behavioral tropes were there, too: “Brontosaurus” lived near the side of the swamp, hadrosaurs escaped danger by fleeing into the water and Tyrannosaurus was such a force of destruction that not even the armor of ankylosaurs could stop it. In some cases, the film looked like the paintings of 20th century paleo artist Zdeněk Burian come to life, and since Burian’s art filled many of my dinosaur books I had no reason to think that scientists had already eviscerated this older image of slow, stupid dinosaurs.
I can’t blame the creators of the original film for portraying the 20th century image of dinosaurs as plodding, dim-witted animals. That was the general view at the time the movie was made. But the film was still playing in the museum I visited in 1990. By this time the scientific “Dinosaur Renaissance” had already been in full swing for well over a decade, but the big-time dinosaur image shift hadn’t happened yet. The dinosaurs in the 1970 video fit in perfectly with the ones I saw in museum displays, books and in the classroom. I had little understanding of just how much had changed since the time the stop-motion film was made.
Even though we’re not due for another wholesale shift in our understanding of dinosaurs, I think that we’re still suffering from the same science communication problems. Science continues, but library books and museum displays continue to present outdated information. That’s just the way things go, yet this fact is especially frustrating during a time when discovery and discussion are accelerating. How many students are initially meeting outdated dinosaurs, rather than the dinosaurs we know now?
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