December 11, 2012
Dinosaurs are often thought of as kid’s stuff. In America, at least, going through a “dinosaur phase” is just another part of childhood, and somewhere along the way we’re expected to stop acting like walking encyclopedias to Mesozoic life. Yet this narrow view of dinosaurs as nothing more than pre-teen kitsch obscures the essential truths these animals can share with us about evolution, extinction, and survival.
As paleontologist Michael Novacek argues in the video above, the history of dinosaurs is also our history–our mammalian ancestors and relatives snuffled and scurried through a dinosaur-dominated world for more than 150 million years. We can’t understand where we came from without considering dinosaurs. And, says paleontologist Matt Bonnan, “Dinosaurs put our place in the world into perspective.” By asking questions about dinosaurs–when did they live and what was the world like then?–the history of life on Earth comes into focus, and the answers to these queries help us better understand the pervasive forces of evolution and extinction through time.
These critical aspects of nature can be difficult to detect on the timescales of our lives, but become much more apparent when we can peek into deep time by sifting through the remains of creatures that roamed the Earth long ago. An individual dinosaur discovery might not have any practical use or even significantly change our understanding of the past, but when considered together with the ever-growing body of research about dinosaurs, it can help us understand how we came to be on this planet and may even give us some clues about the future–how species emerge and decline, how creatures adapt, and how life evolves after catastrophic extinction events.
What do you think is the best case for the importance of studying dinosaurs?
October 18, 2012
About 95 million years ago, in Cretaceous Australia, an aggregation of small dinosaurs scurried along an ancient lake margin in what is the world’s only known “dinosaur stampede.” Exactly what caused the dinosaurs to scatter is a mystery. A set of larger tracks, found at the same quarry, have been cast as the footprints of a big predator who was stalking the mixed herd. But, as the rock record shows, this bigger dinosaur passed by at a different time than that of the stampede. And that bigger dinosaur may not have been a carnivore. A recent reassessment of the site raised the possibility that a large herbivore, akin to Muttaburrasaurus, left the tracks. We really don’t know what caused so many little dinosaurs to skitter away, or even come together in such numbers.
Nevertheless, the dramatic imagery of something like Australovenator pouncing on little ornithopods is hard to beat, and the Lark Quarry site–where the stampede is preserved–recently spawned a hyperbolic documentary. Now there’s a musical version, too. At the 2012 Museum’s Australia National Conference in Elder Hall, Adelaide, performers Michael Mills, Amy Donahue, Tahlia Fantone, Morgan Martin and Tom Goldsmith played out their own version of the dinosaur stampede.
Sadly, the performance perpetuates the myth that the stampede was sparked by a prowling carnivore. The truth is that we don’t know. I can’t necessarily blame the creators, though. Singing “You have to run, run, run. You have to hit top speed. Why? We don’t really know. But there’s still evidence of a dinosaur stampede!” doesn’t work quite as well.
September 25, 2012
I’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink about feathered dinosaurs over the past few weeks. Despite assertions to the contrary, bristles, fluff and feathers make dinosaurs more interesting and exciting than they have ever been before. Of course, not every attempt to put plumage on dinosaurs does the animals justice. Case in point–Dino Time 3D.
I’ll watch just about anything with dinosaurs in it. This blog is all about tracking dinosaurs through science and pop culture, after all. But I am not going to subject my brain to Dino Time 3D (formerly DinoMom). Anything that “stars” Rob Schneider and two (!) Baldwin brothers is best avoided, especially since the movie’s trailer is uncomfortably close to this parody trailer of a typical Rob Schneider film.
But the film’s attempt at fluffy dinosaurs may the worst thing of all. I don’t even have a clear idea of what the feather-bearing species are supposed to be–they look like failed attempts at Carnival costumes. And it’s not like it’s impossible to create roughly accurate cartoonish dinosaurs. Many of the animated species on PBS’ Dinosaur Train hit the right balance and show off feathers without looking ridiculous. With a little attention to detail, feathery dinosaurs don’t have to look stupid.
[Hat-tip to Talcott Starr for telling me about this movie.]
July 26, 2012
From professional paleontologists to kids, there are dinosaur lovers of all ages. But one of the most enthusiastic I’ve ever seen is “the Tiny Paleontologist” – a 4-year-old dinosaur fan who shares his passion through occasional video updates on this blog. In the latest entry, the tiny paleontologists rhapsodizes about dromaeosaurs, or the group of carnivorous dinosaurs with retractable sickle claws on their toes. He’s a little off on some of the particulars, but there can be no doubt that this kid absolutely adores dinosaurs. I hope he holds on to that enthusiasm as paleontologists continue to discover more.
June 13, 2012
Apatosaurus means “deceptive lizard.” It’s really the perfect name for the bulky Jurassic sauropod. “Brontosaurus“—a dinosaurian fan favorite whose memory lives on even after being relegated to the taxonomic dustbin—turned out to be a species of Apatosaurus, and for decades, paleontologists assigned the wrong head to Apatosaurus because of a confused view of who the dinosaur was most closely related to. Apatosaurus continues to play tricks. The sauropod tracks placed behind the American Museum of Natural History’s Apatosaurus skeleton were actually made by much different sauropods that lived millions of years later.
The cartoon series “I’m a Dinosaur” presents a different interpretation of the sauropod’s name. A grey, blunt-headed Apatosaurus—who sounds like the Jurassic precursor to Mortimer Snerd—tells the tale, while delivering a few basic facts along the way.
Apatosaurus isn’t the only dinosaur to present a short cartoon autobiography. The same series also features a regal Tyrannosaurus, a Baryonyx suffering ennui, and an anxious Beipiaosaurus who dreams of flying. The educational content is pretty thin—generally how big the dinosaurs were, where they lived and what they ate—but this is cartoon kid’s stuff, after all.
Then again, if Apatosaurus is such a deceptive dinosaur, why should we believe anything he says?