October 5, 2012
The end of the Cretaceous ended in one of the most catastrophic mass extinctions of all time. Among the various forms of life that were toppled were the non-avian dinosaurs. Triceratops and company didn’t exactly fall like dominoes, but, in this short video created by Flippycat.com, domino dinosaurs replay the epic destruction. And stay tuned for the behind-the-scenes video at the end. Just as the last non-avian dinosaurs had an evolutionary backstory stretching back millions and millions of years, it took a long time to set up the toy dinosaurs for their downfall.
February 17, 2012
Dinosaurs once roamed in the vicinity of Washington D.C. They did not leave very much behind. No one has found a beautifully articulated skeleton under the city streets—the city’s most famous dinosaur, “Capitalsaurus,” is known from only fragments—but paleontologists can use isolated teeth to take a census of which kinds of dinosaurs were present in the area. In the video posted above, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s dinosaur curator Matthew Carrano explains how paleontologists identify dinosaurs on the basis of teeth alone.
June 23, 2011
Dinosaurs undoubtedly played host to other organisms—parasites have a deep history—but animator Eddie West took the idea in a different direction. Part “Flintstones”, part “Dino-Riders”, West created this short film about dueling towns on the backs of enormous dinosaurs. Naturally, though, the cartoon leaves plenty of unanswered questions—like how often the town is partially demolished because the dinosaurs feel the need to itch some of the masonry off their backs.
[Hat-tip to ART Evolved]
May 5, 2011
I thought that I had seen just about every major dinosaur documentary from the 1980s, but I just found out that I missed at least one: the Smithsonian Video Collection’s Dinosaurs. It was one of many programs—like A&E’s miniseries Dinosaur!—that were inspired by deep changes to what we thought dinosaurs were like, and the show acts as a snapshot of a vibrant time in paleontology just before Jurassic Park kicked dinomania into full gear.
Narrated by James Whitmore, Dinosaurs was a typical look into the science of bringing dinosaurs back to life. There were no computer-generated dinosaurs to be found. Instead, paleoart old and new was mixed in with interviews of paleontologists to give viewers a general understanding of dinosaurs. The show was the video equivalent of the innumerable books on dinosaurs that I pored over as a kid.
Dinosaurs followed the standard documentary format of its time. After briefly mentioning the pop-culture appeal of dinosaurs, the show proceeded through a number of video chapters that touch on the great “Bone Wars” of the late 19th century, how fieldwork is almost the same today as it was a century ago, and how paleontologists reconstruct dinosaur anatomy, before touching on the debate over dinosaur extinction. All pretty standard stuff, but what makes it worth another look is that it contains interviews with a few Smithsonian paleontologists rarely seen in other programs.
During the time Dinosaurs was created, paleontologists were fiercely debating the physiology of dinosaurs. Did dinosaurs maintain high, constant body temperatures and have active metabolisms like birds and mammals? Or did they have lower metabolic rates and variable body temperatures, like crocodiles? Even though most paleontologists agreed on the new image of agile, dynamic dinosaurs, the actual physiology of dinosaurs remained hotly debated, and Dinosaurs featured a unique head-to-head argument between Robert Bakker—the primary advocate of “hot-blooded” dinosaurs—and Smithsonian curator Nicholas Hotton. The two scientists did not actually debate each other on camera, but Hotton was given the chance to respond to each of the lines of evidence Bakker proposed. My favorite moment is when Bakker argues that the rapid rate of dinosaur evolution is evidence for bird-like physiology, and Hotton incredulously responds, “for cryin’ out loud, that’s the silliest argument I’ve ever heard!”
Hotton passed away in 1999, but some of the other Smithsonian paleontologists are still at the National Museum of Natural History. Early in the show we meet Hans-Dieter Sues, the current curator of vertebrate paleontology, and in a later segment current collections manager Michael Brett-Surman takes viewers on a tour through the maze of cabinets containing most of the Smithsonian’s dinosaurs. Together the paleontologists explain the historical importance of the Smithsonian collections and the way scientists are finding new ways to look at old bones. Even though much of Dinosaurs will be familiar to dedicated dinosaur fans, the peeks behind the scenes at the Smithsonian are a treat.
April 18, 2011
The way I look at dinosaurs now isn’t the same way I looked at them when I was five or 10. Like the above video from a Sydney school shows, kids still feel that mix of joy and fright when they get up-close-and-personal with dinosaurs. That kind of interaction can be used to educate—as museums such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Utah Museum of Natural History do with their dinosaur shows—and it can also be tapped for theme park scares.
Though the video shows an actor in a dinosaur puppet costume, it reminds me of the popular robotic dinosaur displays I saw when I was about the same age. I was simultaneously enthralled and terrified by them. Years before computer-animated dinosaurs were a regular staple of TV and movies, they were the closest thing to living dinosaurs I had ever seen. I still remember peeking out from behind a wall at the robotic Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in a temporary exhibit at the Morris Museum, fearing that they might snatch me up and eat me if I got too close.
I have mixed feelings about those animatronic dinosaurs. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his essay “Dinomania” in Dinosaur in a Haystack, the ranks of jerking, growling robots are welcomed into zoos and museums in the hope that visitors will then wander among more educational exhibits and learn something before leaving—but this is more of a hope than a reality. Presented in the right way, galleries of animatronic dinosaurs could be very educational, but often they are more akin to theme park attractions than anything else.
That’s the trouble with dinosaurs. Not only were they living animals that are objects of scientific study, but they are also malleable cultural icons that can terrify as much as enlighten. Mixing the two—using their monstrous appearance to educate—is a tricky act.
[Hat-tip to Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs for the video]