The Dinosaurs We Used to Know

The reconstructed skeleton of a Deinonychus, representing the modern image of dinosaurs, in front of the outdated 'Age of Reptiles' mural in Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History. Photo by author

I have already said plenty about Discovery’s new prehistoric tribute, Dinosaur Revolution, but my paleo-blogging colleague David Orr recently brought up one aspect of the new program that has been nagging at me since I finished watching the screeners for the miniseries. Like many other programs, the show claims to overthrow the old, outdated image of Apatosaurus and company, but how far behind is the public’s understanding of dinosaurs? As David puts it:

If asked to picture the world of the Mesozoic, does the average person on the street see the vision of Zallinger or Spielberg? We’re now almost twenty years into the Jurassic Park era, and the idea of the “raptor” has ascended to a level of popularity arguably equal to Tyrannosaurus rex. … Are we beating a dead horse when we boldly claim to be killing obsolete ideas about dinosaur life?

In a way, it almost feels as if we sometimes resurrect the drab, lumpy and grossly outdated images of dinosaurs only to have them quickly dispatched by the swift, hot-blooded dinosaurs of the modern era. (Lest I be called a hypocrite, I have been guilty of this, too.) As David points out, Jurassic Park popularized an updated vision of dinosaurs almost twenty years ago, and to pick another benchmark, the acrobatic and active dinosaurs in Robert Bakker’s 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies no longer look as scientifically sacrilegious as they did when the book initially came out. Not all of Bakker’s ideas are accepted today, but the overall vision he helped promote has become entrenched. Images of slow and stupid dinosaurs were tossed out a long time ago—the last time I can remember seeing a vintage dinosaur on screen was when Peter Jackson effectively brought the “Brontosaurus” back to life for his 2005 remake of King Kong, and even that dinosaur was pretty agile and light on its feet compared to the swamp-dwelling sauropods of old.

But the trouble with dinosaurs is that they are not entirely objects of scientific scrutiny that are constantly being updated according to new research. Dinosaurs are everywhere, and there are so many reconstructions and restorations that we sometimes create conflicting images. Let’s say that a young dinosaur fan watches Dinosaur Revolution and starts incessantly bugging her parents to take her to the museum. When she arrives, she may encounter dinosaurs in their outdated, early 20th century garb. The majority of the dinosaurs in Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History are still static tail-draggers, and a number of the famous mounts in the American Museum of Natural History are sorely out of date because they could not be safely re-posed (just to pick two examples). Even in some of the greatest dinosaur showcases in the world, modern dinosaurs stand right alongside more archaic visions of dinosauriana.

Depictions of dinosaurs in movies, documentaries, books and even museum displays are going to lag behind that latest science. That may say more about the rapid progress of paleontology in recent years more than anything else. Add that to the fact that the dinosaurs we adore during our childhood tend to stick with us. Though I pride myself on trying to keep up with the latest science now, for a time I just could not accept that many dinosaurs were covered in feathers. They looked silly and I had no idea what the state of the evidence was. Given the choice between the mean, scaly Deinonychus I knew and the more bird-like version paleontologists were talking about, I preferred the version I grew up with. (At least until I understood the actual science of the reconstructions that made me initially uneasy.) Even if dinosaurs are not changing as dramatically as they did during the heyday of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, ongoing research continues to alter our perspective on our favorite monsters—the dinosaurs we know from childhood may look unfamiliar to us when we re-encounter them later, be it in a museum or movie theater.

Nevertheless, perhaps we are putting the wrong emphasis on the actual “dinosaur revolution” now underway. The idea that dinosaurs were active, complex creatures and not just big lizards has been established for more than 30 years now. That isn’t new. What is novel about this period in science is that we are gaining a more refined picture of dinosaur lives thanks to numerous fossil discoveries and a variety of new techniques for studying those remnants of the Mesozoic world. The real dinosaur revolution isn’t so much about an image change—it is our ability to begin to answer, or at least approach, long-running questions about how dinosaurs actually lived. Perhaps, rather than beating a dead Camarasaurus, we should focus on how science is refining our picture of dinosaur lives.

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