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Thinking About Dinosaurs

by James Patrick Kelly


Why are we (or is it just me?) so crazy about dinosaurs?

We’ve certainly been fascinated ever since the Victorians gave a name and a shape to these incredible animals. Perhaps it is because they loomed out of the mists of time so unexpectedly to challenge our notion of ourselves. We’d been puzzling over fossils since antiquity. Aristotle supposed that fossil shells, so similar to those he could find strewn across beaches, must have been the remains of long dead sea creatures. In some cultures, fossils were thought to be dragon bones, in others they were all that was left of the unfortunate beasts that perished in the Great Flood. In 1546, Georgius Agricola <www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/agricola.html>, sometimes known as “The Father of Mineralogy,” invented the word fossil in his book De Natura Fossilium, from the Latin “having been dug up.” However, Agricola used his new coinage to discuss not only the mineralized remains of dead creatures, but also other inorganic mineralogical deposits.

Dinosaurs would remain in their stony graves for another three centuries, until Sir Richard Owen <www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/owen.html> proposed the existence of a clade of extinct “terrible lizards” in 1842: “The combination of such characters . . . all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles, will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or suborder of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria.” Dinosaurs were interesting to the scientific community because of their ubiquity, their antiquity, and their tragic demise. In the decades after Owen, we learned that the dinosaurs were the dominant land animals for some 135 million years, from the Triassic, 231 million years ago, to the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago. But the most provoking fact about the dinosaurs was that they were extinct. How did such successful creatures disappear so completely? The question became even more disturbing when the new science of paleontology discovered that the K-T extinction event <www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/education/events/cowen1b.html> that killed the dinosaurs happened over the course of a few centuries—a blink of an eye, as least in geological terms.

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old and new


The dinosaurs that stalked through popular culture in the last century had little to do with the sober theorizing of the early paleontologists. Over the years, abetted by sensationalist fictionalizers, dinosaurs came to occupy a place on our imaginative continuum somewhere between mythic dragons and scifi’s most lurid monsters. Your grandfathers’ and fathers’ dinosaurs were either lumbering, tail-dragging plant-munchers or malign killing machines, red in tooth and claw. The lot of them were big as houses; nobody much cared about the vast populations that were the size of turkeys or even of rats. These were the monstrous dinosaurs of Jules Verne’s <www.najvs.org/publications.shtml> Voyage au centre de la terre (1863) <www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19513>, Arthur Conan Doyle’s <www.arthurconandoyle.com> The Lost World (1912) <www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/139>, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s <www.edgarriceburroughs.com> Pellucidar series, the first of which was At the Earth’s Core (1914) <www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/123>, as well as the movies that were made from them.

Through the middle of the twentieth century scientists regularly cataloged new dinosaur species, but our overall understanding of their nature fell into the doldrums. This changed during the so-called Dinosaur Renaissance <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinosaur_renaissance>, led in part by John Ostrom <www.yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/3921/the-man-who-saved-the-dinosaurs>. His study of Deinonychus <www.dinosaurs.about.com/od/typesofdinosaurs/ss/10-Facts-About-Deinonychus.htm>, whose name derives from the Greek “terrible claw,” led him to the theory that they and other dinosaurs might have been warm-blooded. Acrobatic predators that hunted prey by leaps and bounds and killed by slashing them to death, deinonychus are the velociraptors of Jurassic Park <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jurassic_Park> fame. While Ostrom was cautious about advancing his ideas, other paleontologists were not, in particular his flamboyant former student Robert T. Bakker <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_T._Bakker>, who was a consultant on Jurassic Park. In 1995, Bakker also penned Raptor Red <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raptor_Red>, a creditable dinosaur novel that is told from the point of view of Red, a female Utahraptor living in the Early Cretaceous. At first Bakker and others argued that most dinosaurs were endothermic. Current thinking is more nuanced. While dinosaurs were more active and had higher metabolic rates than living reptiles and some might have been warm blooded, the larger animals probably had some intermediary metabolism. Another theory popularized by Ostrom and Bakker was that today’s birds are a group of therapod dinosaurs. The consensus of most paleontologists is that this is the case, although their evolutionary path is by no means clear.

Even as the endothermy debate raged, another controversial theory changed our ideas about dinosaur extinction—and raised the possibility of our own demise. In 1980, a team led by the noted physicist Luis Alvarez <www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1968/alvarez-bio.html> proposed a new explanation for the K-T extinction. The Alvarez team discovered levels of iridium in the narrow geologic boundary between the Cretaceous (K) and Tertiary (T) Eras that were much higher than expected normally in the Earth’s crust. Since certain meteorites and asteroids show similar levels of iridium, they posited a cataclysmic asteroid impact, which would have spewed iridium—and dust—into the atmosphere, triggering rapid climate change and ecological collapse. Alvarez pointed at an enormous crater off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan as the likely impact site. The asteroid theory <www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/extinction/dinosaurs/asteroid.html> adds weight to our current concerns about climate change and the potential that a killer rock with our name on it lurks somewhere out in space. While most accept that an asteroid played a major role in the death of the dinosaurs, it is by no means settled science. Some argue that the Deccan Traps <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deccan_Traps>, one of the largest volcanic features in the world, which erupted at the end of the Cretaceous, offer a terrestrial explanation. The gases released when this area erupted could well have caused catastrophic climate change. Late last year, scientists at Berkeley uncovered evidence <http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/10/01/asteroid-impact-volcanism-were-one-two-punch-for-dinosaurs> that asteroid impact may have triggered volcanism, or that volcanoes erupting in tandem with an impact may have been responsible for killing off the dinosaurs—and much of the rest of Earth’s flora and fauna.

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pretend dinos


While there have been some great dinosaur novels and stories, there haven’t been as many as we might expect. Certainly other SF tropes, like time travel, aliens, and robots, have yielded more literary treasure than fictional saurians. Part of the difficulty is that, despite what Hollywood scriptwriters and the creationists would have us believe, humans and dinosaurs have never lived at the same time. At least, not yet! That means that to bring a dinosaur onstage a writer has to posit an unlikely enclave of saurian survivors or invent a time machine or move them off planet. (Hey, it worked for me!) Nevertheless, Tor.com offers a list of ten essential dinosaur novels <www.tor.com/2013/04/03/10-essential-books-featuring-dinosaurs-in-science-fiction>; however, two of them are old standards, the Verne and the Doyle, and another is Michael Crichton’s <www.michaelcrichton.com> Jurassic Park <www.wikia.com/wiki/Jurassic_Park_(novel)>, the book that spawned the movie franchise. Wikipedia wizards cite some fifty dinosaur novels and stories <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Novels_about_dinosaurs> that they deemed worthy of our regard. Meanwhile, the Science Fiction Encyclopedia offers a more scholarly list of dinofiction <http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/dinosaurs>. For me, the standout on all these lists is Ray Bradbury’s <www.raybradbury.com> illustrated collection Dinosaur Tales <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinosaur_Tales>, which includes two of my favorite dinosaur stories, “The Fog Horn” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fog_Horn> and “A Sound of Thunder” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Sound_of_Thunder> —although it might be argued that the latter classic cares more about its time travel paradox than its dinosaur safari. With the possible exception of Crichton, who spun great ideas, but who was not necessarily a great stylist, Bradbury was the master of the written dinosaur. Another reason to check out the Bradbury collection is that his friend, Ray Harryhausen <www.rayharryhausen.com>, the great master of the cinematic dinosaur, contributed an introduction.

Speaking of movies, here is a list of the top twenty-five dinosaur movies <www.screenrant.com/best-dinosaur-movies-jurassic-park-world/?view=all>. Alas, it reinforces my recollection that there haven’t actually been many truly great ones, although I do endorse its ranking of Jurassic Park and its remake/reboot Jurassic World <www.jurassicworld.com> as the top two. (Be careful wandering into the state-of-the-art Jurassic World website; you may find yourself frittering away the better part of an afternoon!) Some of the movies on this list feature the stodgy beasts of yesteryear; others rely on the clumsiest of special effects. Too many of them ask us to believe in cuddly cartoon dinosaurs. I’m afraid I have a particular aversion to these; I like my dinosaurs wild! If you’ve screened all the movies on the list in your home theater and still want more, check this list of forty-three <www.ranker.com/list/best-dinosaur-movies/all-genre-movies-lists>. It goes deeper into the subgenre and gives some love to the Godzilla franchise <www.godzilla.wikia.com/wiki/Godzilla_%28Franchise%29>, which the first inexplicably leaves out.

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Dinosaur science continues to evolve, with many new species being discovered every year. The best place to keep up with current developments is Dinosaur News <www.dinosaurnews.org>. This news aggregator site from New Zealand, which bills itself as “The Site With Bite!,” is a comprehensive resource for dinosaur aficionados that does not take itself too seriously. As I type this, some of the top stories are The 10 Most Incredible Fossil Finds Of 2015 <www.forbes.com/sites/shaenamontanari/2015/12/28/the-10-most-incredible-fossils-finds-of-2015/#2715e4857a0b56b4abc15206>, Digging Up Dinosaurs: 5 Trends That Will Be Bigger Than T. Rex <www.livescience.com/53240-future-of-dinosaur-research.html>, and The most outlandish theory yet for what killed off the dinosaurs <www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2015/12/09/the-most-outlandish-theory-yet-for-what-killed-off-the-dinosaurs> (hint: dark matter!). There is an excellent links page, a great bookshop, a hilarious gift shop, and a colorful pinterest page.

Growing up in the suburbs as an impressionable young science-fiction-writer-to-be, my favorite family trip to New York City was the annual visit to the American Museum of Natural History <www.amnh.org>. For me the best parts of this venerable institution were the dinosaur halls. I experienced a thrill of nostalgia recently when I stumbled across the museum’s excellent website and got to revisit the well-documented and awe-inspiring exhibits <www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/fossil-halls> of my childhood. However, as amazing as that museum is, it didn’t make CNN’s list of the World’s Best Dinosaur Museums <www.cnn.com/2015/06/16/travel/world-best-dino-museums>. Rather than be disappointed, I was elated by this omission. I immediately added several new venues to my bucket list.

See, I’m still crazy about dinosaurs!

Copyright © 2016 James Patrick Kelly

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