When you go from being a little boy with a completely age-appropriate obsession with prehistoric animals to an adult male with a somewhat inappropriate vestigial obsession with dinosaurs, an entire new panoply of earthly delights (literally) unfolds before you. All of those mental gymnastics you were forced into in school, from learning trigonometry to trying to decipher what the hell was going on in ancient Hellenistic texts (raise your hand if you needed your professor to help you locate the stanza where Achilles dies) were just a warm-up, a training ground. Resistance training for your neurons all for the sole purpose of getting you to this point: the point where you can now go back and check dinosaurs out with an adult brain.
Well, that’s what helps me sleep at night anyway.
Revisiting your old childhood fascinations is a rewarding, yet bittersweet experience, the amounts of each depending mostly on how much you’ve matured in the interim, not unlike going to your 10-year high school anniversary. I will just point out that if you’ve developed a drinking problem, dinosaurs won’t judge you. For all we know they could have been raging alcoholics themselves. Now there’s an extinction theory I think merits some inspection. Did anyone see that dinosaur special narrated by Werner Herzog where a dinosaur eats mushrooms and starts tripping? I totally didn’t…either.
It’s demystifying, to say the least, to approach dinosaurs not as the otherwordly dragons that enchanted our childhoods but as real, terrestrial riddles in rock to be solved with the application of scientific theories and hypotheses and other words than can sometimes be tricky to pluralize.
And in this post, and its follow-up, I’m going to write about what is probably the most mind-blowing reality the amateur dinosaur fanatic first has to come to grips with—the commonly held assumption that most of the dinosaurs we know come from reasonably complete fossil specimens. This could not be further from the truth. Yes, there are a few dinosaurs that for whatever reason, are relatively abundant in the fossil record, possibly because of their sheer abundance in life, or maybe because their particular behavioral habits exposed them more frequently to the conditions necessary for fossilization. The vast majority, however, aren’t.
So what does that mean? A couple things. Firstly, it means that vertebrate paleontologists are absolute beasts. They can describe, with relative accuracy, a completely new species with just a fragment of a jawbone, for example, or as has often been the case lately, gin up a new round of hysteria over a potential biggest dinosaur ever just by finding a unprecedentedly large femur alone. These guys know vertebrate biology so well, and dinosaur skeletal structures with such profound familiarity, that they can basically figure out what species of dinosaur they’re dealing with (or if it’s a new one altogether), its size, its place in the evolutionary chart, its place in the food chain, and what kind of music it liked based on the most fragmentary remains. Personally I think that’s absolutely amazing. Dinosaurs were first discovered, in fact, by an English doctor (a doctor!) out for an evening stroll who happened to notice a tooth (a tooth!) that he recognized as suitably weird and not belonging to any presently living animal. If I can even get halfway to that level of gnarly before I die, I’ll be impressed with myself.
(Proper dino fans will fold out their kneelers, remove their beanies, and pay a moment of respect to the great Doc Gideon Mantell. All rise)
Secondly, what this means, and if you had a really bad time with finding out Santa wasn’t real I advise you to stop reading, go back to Facebook and click the “Like” button on cat photos until all memory of this post and the danger you narrowly avoided has passed. If you’re still here—when you go to the Dinosaur Hall at the museum, you’re looking at exactly zero dinosaur bones. Best case scenario, you’re looking at casts of actual bones. Usually not even that. Chances are, that theropod you’re looking at is fashioned from a cast of the single instance of its foot that’s been recovered and is currently chilling in the annex of the LA NHM, its skull is a cast of the only skull that’s been recovered, specimen AMNH 512 which is in a drawer in the basement of the American Natural History museum, surrounded by bodyguards, and the rest of what you see in front of you is a combination of casts from bones recovered from its closest relatives and casts of well, just casts really, allowing that bones are pretty predictable in form, size and placement among similar animals and scientists can safely extrapolate from what they do know for sure.
You can actually tell them apart - casts of real fossils will be pitted, rough, and often have a compressed-looking quality to them, which one would expect from sitting under miles of rock for millions of years, while the “fill-ins” will be smooth and more robust, approximating more accurately their unsmashed shape in life.
This is, of course, why paleontologists absolutely FREAK OUT when a complete or nearly complete skeleton of Dinosaur X is found and they finally get to fill in the missing gaps, because it usually involves a serious update of not only that particular dinosaur species but more often than not several related species as well. Sometimes there are serious implications for paleobiology as well, such as having to revise ideas about how the dinosaur stood or how it held its neck. This kind of thing is going on, even now, all the time, which is why it’s a really exciting time to be paying attention to dinosaurs. This idea that all of our favorite dinosaurs just got dug up at some point out in the desert and got sent to museums, reassembled, and case closed, let’s go out and find a new one seems so boring compared to the discovery, refining ideas, extrapolation, guesswork, discovery, repeat that really makes up what dinosaurs are all about, have always been all about.
So…what does this have to do with Ankylosaurus? In part two, I bring it home, post the finished painting, and make fun of Michael Bay at least twice.
Thanks for reading friends.