A reconstruction of the tyrannosaur Teratophoneus on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah.
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Photo by Brian Switek.
A reconstruction of the tyrannosaur Teratophoneus on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

For the Love of Dinosaurs

Last month, Scientific American/FSG Books was kind enough to publish my ode to dinosaurs and the science that is changing our perceptions of how they lived – My Beloved Brontosaurus. I wrote the following op-ed to accompany the book’s release, published here after failing to find a niche elsewhere.

I was a little dinomaniac. I can’t recall exactly when the fever set in, but I ceaselessly pestered my parents to tape every movie and television show even remotely associated with the word “dinosaur”, my curiosity further fueled by museum trips, toys, and lavishly-illustrated books. I’ve still got the bug. Even now, I feel the same compulsion to chew on scattered dinosauriana, in both their scientific and pop culture garbs. But why?

The inexorable pull of dinosaurs is a mystery. When I talk about dinosaurs to anyone who isn’t quite so enamored as I am, but remembers their own dinosaur phase or is suffering through that of their own children, they often ask why dinosaurs have such a persistent hold on pop culture and our imagination. Dinosaurs are seemingly everywhere, from lunchboxes and sports mascots to bleeding-edge scientific discoveries. The creatures are vaunted symbols of scientific adventure – who hasn’t daydreamed about being a paleontologist? – and are a ubiquitous form of kitsch. Of all the animals ever to exist on Earth, why are the dinosaurs simultaneously so cherished and derided?

No one has satisfactorily answered this question. The late, great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould considered that the answer was in good marketing. That might explain why he was hurt by his peers with the epithet “fossil face” as a child, but young prehistory aficionados of the 1980s and 90s found more kinship than derision in their youthful fixation. (I’m one of those.) But Gould’s explanation was a reaction to an even more popular notion, which still clings on with pop-psych talons today, that dinosaurs are so attractive because they are big, fierce, and extinct.

The dental equipment of a Tyrannosaurus rex could slam down on you with over 12,000 pounds of force, splitting you in two. At that point, the dinosaur might toss one chunk or the other over fifteen feet into the air with a surge of its neck muscles before catching the morsel again and swallowing. Since the tyrant has been gone for 66 million years, though, the petrified remains of the carnivore are not especially threatening. Hence the culprit of such ancient carnage, and its diverse compatriots, are a respectable source of speculative fixation for kids who admire the hints of prehistoric power and may aspire to wield such formidable force themselves as they try to imitate their favorite monsters. The imaginary bloodshed of an Apatosaurus at the jaws of an Allosaurus is not so terrible if the event can never reach beyond the realm of daydreams and nightmares.

Yet there is something more to our love of dinosaurs than admiration for voracious appetites and an organism’s capacity for destruction from the safe viewing distance of speculation and Hollywood special effects. Our affection for dinosaurs runs deeper than that.

I regularly imagine dinosaurs walking along the side of the road, or ambling over the colorful rock outcrops of the western national parks where their bones and tracks are preserved, but I don’t think of them running down tourists or crushing cars as they did in the hyper-gory “Dinosaurs Attack!” cards I hoarded when I was too young to see illustrated viscera spilled so freely. I instead try to envision an animal seemingly unperturbed by the modern world – to see the dinosaur as the creature truly was, or at least as well as my imagination can render the animal. Even as science revives and restores dinosaurs with ever-greater clarity – from aspects as subtle as the positions of their nostrils to details as grand as the color of dinosaur feathers – the Mesozoic celebrities remain at the crux of where science and imagination meet. Dinosaur visions require both hard-won technical details and flights of fancy to live. And that is the spirit that has kept us chasing after them since even before there was a name for their celebrated fossils.

One of the most crucial events in fossil history is when the British anatomist Richard Owen coined the term “Dinosauria” in 1842. But naturalists had already been puzzling over the bones of these animals for decades by then. The ferocious Jurassic predator that came to be known as Megalosaurus – named in 1824 and originally envisioned as a huge terrestrial crocodile – debuted in the protopaleontological literature in 1676 as a fragment of a femur. (The piece was so suggestively shaped that almost a century later the physician Richard Brookes dubbed it “Scrotum humanum”, which would have gone into the scientific record books as the first official dinosaur name had the moniker not been an informal caption. Such a shame.) The full extent of the dinosaurian trail goes back further still.

Geomythologist Adrienne Mayor has documented that people of the northeast’s Delaware tribe found the clawed, three-toed footprints of Jurassic dinosaurs in the Connecticut Valley. The Native Americans ascribed these traces to monsters that lived and perished during some distant past. Likewise, Mayor has convincingly argued that the white bones of the Cretaceous dinosaur Protoceratops eroding out of the Gobi Desert may have inspired tales of a beaked, lion-bodied animal that got passed along the Silk Road to Europe, sparking the mythological invention of the griffin. Other examples of prescientific legends and folklore growing from fossils abound.

Dinosaurs did not simply lie in wait for scholars to develop the discipline of paleontology and come searching after them. The remains of dinosaurs have been tumbling out of the ground for millennia, and humans who have come across the strange remains have continually felt compelled to come up with some explanation for the ruins of the ancient animals, often in the form of monsters and strange creatures that inhabited the world within deep history. If you saw the bones of a Tyrannosaurus peeking out of the rock, and how no conception that such magnificent animals ever existed, how would you explain the remains? I think this basic fascination is closer to the truth of why our culture is continually dino-obsessed.

There is no way to gaze at the skeleton of an Apatosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, or Stegosaurus and not wonder what that animal looked like, how the creature moved, and what sounds the titan made, just to start. The skeletal framework is familiar – an evolutionary archetype that goes back to before our ancestors split from those of dinosaurs over 312 million years ago – but many dinosaurs are not quite like anything alive today. Velociraptor and kin are close enough to birds to see the immediate connection, but living shields such as Ankylosaurus, long-necked giants such as Supersaurus, and agile carnivores such as Ceratosaurus have no equals among modern animals. Dinosaurs – of the extinct, non-avian sort – have a hint of familiarity but are alien in such a way that they immediately spark our imagination. And by answering the questions that spring from fossils, we place our own existence in context by recognizing the realities of evolution, extinction, and survival. No creatures sum up the truths of persistent change and Deep Time quite like the dinosaurs.

But wonder is only part of the answer. Dinosaurs are not strictly a 21st century fad. Whatever ebbs and flows of their prior celebrity, dinomania has been going strong since the 1980s, at least. The fact that we’re still being promised a Jurassic Park IV and that Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur will debut next year alone are a testament to ongoing cultural dinosaur dominance. Marketing and our appetite for the unusual helps fuel such trends, but there is yet another facet – what dinosaurs might reflect about our own eventual fate in a universe indifferent to our existence.

Dinosaurs have traditionally been the symbols of our fears and emerging hopes. In the 20th century, dinosaurs were viewed as animals that grew too large and lavish for their own good. In economic guise, dinosaurs were titanic businesses that refused to adapt and eventually crumbled while smaller, more nimble operations – the equivalent of mammals – overran them. This was “going the way of the dinosaur”, a phrase still common in business and tech boilerplate. Anti-WWI protesters employed “Jingo” the Stegosaurus as a mascot for what too much investment in defense might cause, too. All armor and no brains could only lead to extinction.

The “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970s and 80s eliminated this imagery by totally revitalizing dinosaurs – lifting their tails from the ground, supercharging them with a hot-blooded physiology, and making them more complex and flexible organisms than anyone supposed. And the discovery that an asteroid, conspiring with volcanic activity and other factors, ended the Age of Dinosaurs in a virtual instant 66 million years ago made them tragic creatures who issued warnings against novel dangers such as the nuclear winter feared from mutually-assured atomic destruction. Going the way of the dinosaur became a more shocking and violent prospect than ever before.

With scientific discoveries since the close of the Cold War, the recognition that one variety of dinosaur is still with us – the birds – has spoken to the resilience of nature and hope against ultimate oblivion. There are lessons yet to be learned from the dinosaurs, including clues about the shape of the future. By investigating how dinosaurs and other organisms have responded to climate change and invasive species in the distant past, paleontologists are beginning to outline the possible consequences of what are now human-driven ecological catastrophes. The past may very well be the key to the future.

Dinosaurs can be kitsch and kids stuff. But they are not only that. We have felt the persistent beckoning of their bones and found our own place in Earth’s history by trying to unravel Mesozoic mysteries. Not only did dinosaurs shape the evolution of our ancient mammalian ancestors, which skittered around for over 150 million years in a dinosaur-dominated world, but they have been a milestone for us to gauge our own history and evolutionary success against. Without dinosaurs, we would not be who we are.

[For more on My Beloved Brontosaurus and why I wrote the book, see this interview at National Geographic’s Pop Omnivore blog.]