June 4, 2012
Life for Tyrannosaurus was undoubtedly tough at the start. Not only were there huge, ornery Triceratops to worry about, but the young tyrants also had to watch out for bigger members of their own kind. (As the fossil record has shown, Tyrannosaurus weren’t above eating their own when the opportunity came up.) But it’s still fun to imagine big-eyed little tyrants running around the Cretaceous world, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of all around them. And while it’s definitely on the sillier side, that’s just what the animation trailer for Pangea – The Neverending World envisions.
I haven’t seen Pangea in its entirety. Until this morning, I didn’t even know the movie existed. The film’s official page describes it as a story within a story—a plastic Tyrannosaurus puppet a little girl receives from an old museum caretaker fires her imagination, and so little “Rexy” comes to life. (The style and tone remind me of a Stanley and the Dinosaurs, a claymation short film I saw as a kid.) As the trailer shows, Rexy wanders away from the nest to enthusiastically investigate everything from butterflies to pterosaurs and sauropods. Rexy is definitely a troublemaking little tyrant.
January 5, 2012
Get this kid a museum job. Stella, a four-year-old dinosaur expert, correctly points out that a so-called Triceratops toy is, in fact, a Styracosaurus. She even hits three of the major differences in skull anatomy—Triceratops had a shorter nasal horn, longer brow horns and smaller, triangular bones around the border of the frill. This has to be the most adorable dinosaur correction I have ever seen. I would love to see Stella give a talk at next year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting.
December 14, 2011
New discoveries, historical tidbits and paleo-pop are all regular features here at Dinosaur Tracking, but there is far more dinosaur news out there than even this blog can cover. This week, especially, has seen a flurry of new research and dinosaurs in the headlines. I’ll be getting to some of the new papers during the remainder of this week and next, and here’s a rundown of recent dinosaur happenings.
Guard dinosaur: Need to leave your car unattended for a while? Why not employ a dinosaur to stand guard. That’s what an owner of a crashed car did in Clothiers Creek, Australia. Granted, the plastic Tyrannosaurus may not have been as frightening as an actual trained theropod, and the efficacy of toy dinosaurs as deterrents is unknown at this time, but it’s better than nothing.
Giants From Abroad: Last weekend, Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute opened the exhibit “Giant Mysterious Dinosaurs.” Among the featured guests, most being skeletal reconstructions of dinosaurs from Argentina and Mongolia, are the relatively small ceratopsian Psittacosaurus and casts of the immense sauropod Argentinosaurus. The exhibit also has a local hook: dinosaur aficionado and Philadelphia resident Don Lessem organized the traveling display.
Jersey Dinos: Pennsylvania isn’t the only East Coast town to be visited by dinosaurs. Earlier this month, New Jersey residents got a preview of Field Station: Dinosaurs, a temporary animatronic dinosaur park plunked down in the wetlands of Secaucus and due to open in May. (See the video above for footage from the press conference.) Early reports state that the park will include 31 robotic dinosaurs scattered across a path through the Jersey swamp. I hope some of New Jersey’s own dinosaurs make an appearance. Tyrannosaurus is an undisputed fan favorite, but I would love to see the garden state’s own tyrannosauroid, Dryptosaurus, on display along with the state dinosaur, Hadrosaurus.
Pleo, Take 2: Robotic dinosaurs aren’t just growling, jerking monsters of roadside prehistoric parks. In recent years toymakers have been trying to encapsulate dinosaur attitudes in home versions of the prehistoric creatures. Among the latest is Inu, a baby sauropod that looks like the next iteration of the previously released Pleo toy. With these little mechanical dinosaurs, at least you don’t have to worry about the complicated dietary needs of a real, fast-growing baby sauropod.
An Adventure How Many Years in the Making?: Jurassic Park IV will happen eventually. We have been hearing that for years now, and the series’ scientific adviser Jack Horner has even dropped a few hints about the plot. (Pssst… the genetically-modified dinosaurs may be altered even further to become true monsters). Now Steven Spielberg, the director and producer behind the series, has reaffirmed that the movie is on his to-do list, although who knows when the movie will actually make it to screens. Just remember what I said, Mr. Spielberg: We need feather-covered raptors this time. And please, please, avoid the family drama schtick of your other dinosaur project, Terra Nova.
Oh, to be a Dinosaur Hunter: Finally, the “Kids Post” section of the Washington Post has a profile of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s own paleontologist Matthew Carrano.
December 5, 2011
Dinosaurs have changed a heck of a lot since I was little. I’m not just talking about how science has altered what we know about their biology. During the early part of my dinomania in the mid-1980s, there were no computer-generated dinosaurs. Puppets, stop-motion creatures, and traditionally animated dinosaurs ruled the day. Some were better than others. Phil Tippett’s sauropods, ceratopsids, tyrannosaurs, and hadrosaurs in the documentary Dinosaur! were the best I had ever seen, while late-night showings of movies like Unknown Island, The Land Unknown and The Land That Time Forgot introduced me to bad puppet dinosaurs. But there was one film that kept showing up over and over again as representative of the Mesozoic: Disney’s mash-up of classical music and animation, Fantasia.
I didn’t care all that much for Mickey Mouse as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” To me, the real stars of the movie were the dinosaurs. They made their appearance about midway through the film to the slightly rearranged melodies and dissonances of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring“—a composition meant to represent archaic humans choosing a sacrifice to bring back warm weather. The piece wasn’t just about dinosaurs. Although the word “evolution” was never actually said during the piece’s introduction in Fantasia, composer Deems Taylor told audiences that the animated interpretation was meant to be a “coldly accurate” retelling of the growth and development of life on this planet. The origin of the planet through the evolution of early, single-celled life is included, but dinosaurs take up a greater part of the screen-time than any Precambrian organisms.
Criticizing the accuracy of the dinosaurs in Fantasia by today’s standards—or even by the scientific image of dinosaurs when I first saw the movie—would be pointless. Fantasia premiered in 1940, and paleontologists have drastically revised their understanding of dinosaurs since then. The general image of dinosaurs from the Fantasia era is probably best represented by a huge mural made a few years later for Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History—Rudolph Zallinger‘s The Age of Reptiles. The fat, lumbering, splay-legged dinosaurs of Zallinger’s mural are a beautiful and well-rendered representation of everything that turned out to be wrong about dinosaurs, but the painting was considered to be scientifically accurate at the time. Many of the Fantasia dinosaurs look like moving versions of the dinosaurs Zallinger would paint a few years later.
But Disney’s animated dinosaurs created a contradictory image of what life was like during the reign of the non-avian dinosaurs. Before the start of “The Rite of Spring,” Deems Taylor told audiences that dinosaurs ranged from “little crawling horrors” to “100-ton nightmares.” They primarily ate plants and, as a rule, “they weren’t very bright.” Nevertheless, there were “bullies and gangsters among them”—towering predators such as the Tyrannosaurus that takes a starring role in the segment. This was the entrenched view of dinosaurs at the time. They were big, dumb, and ruled the world through brute force.
All of these points can be seen in the dinosaurs Disney’s animators created, but there was more to the segment than that. The dinosaurs were actually quite active and displayed some complex behaviors. Small groups of ornithomimosaurs strutted together through the forest, and cute baby Triceratops remained with their parents. The box-headed, three-fingered Tyrannosaurus was given a slightly more horizontal posture than was common for the time, and many of the dinosaurs appeared to be active, almost bird-like creatures. This was a common occurrence in restorations. The cold-blooded, ugly, reptilian nature of dinosaurs was emphasized in words, but the animals themselves were often restored as dynamic and agile.
There was plenty that Fantasia got wrong, but the film also got some things right by breaking from the scientific image of dinosaurs as crocodiles writ large. Maybe that’s part of why I kept seeing the film clip for so long during the dinosaur revival of the 1980s and 1990s. Fantasia‘s dinosaurs were squamous and drab, but they were also relatively nimble and social animals that fit into the emerging image of dinosaurs as unique, complex animals. How could anyone look at the skeleton of a dinosaur and not imagine the living animal as something more bird-like than reptile-like? It just took some time for science and art to really hear what the bones had to say.
November 1, 2011
Halloween has come and gone, but it’s never too late for a cool dinosaur jack-o’-lantern. And, if the two snapshots sent in by our readers are any indication, this is a good year for Triceratops. The first, above, was sent in to us by Kevin McDunn. Reader Nicole Sexton sent in a photo of her son’s own Triceratops carving (below). When it comes to pumpkin popularity, it looks like Tyrannosaurus has some competition.
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