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What Happened to the Dinosaur?

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, Gregory S. Paul, Princeton University Press, pp. 384, $39.95

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When I was young, I owned on video cassette a ten-minute stop motion documentary titled Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards. It is by no means a classic, but it is one of my favorite films. More so than any other piece of visual media, it informs my mental picture of the Mesozoic era. Millions of years ago, a dispassionate narrator informs us, huge, roughly shaped reptiles lumbered about the earth, staggering over the arid plains, lounging in the tropical seas, and munching on all manner of ferny plants. Most were peaceful, but some were ferocious carnivores. The film makes much of the supposed rivalry between the Triceratops and the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and it ends, as so many dino pictures do, with an extinction event. A volcano explodes. The sky darkens. The dinosaurs bow their heads in somber resignation. The whole thing is overlaid with a melancholy synth that would not be out of place in one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s more languid features. I have seen it more than a hundred times.

Even if you have never heard of Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards, you have probably seen it, or at least parts of it. It was made in 1970 by Wah Ming Chang, one of the most influential props designers in mid-century Hollywood (he also created many of the gadgets in Star Trek and Planet of the Apes). In the decades since, bits and pieces from it have been incorporated into all sorts of cut-rate dino media, most notably the old Land of the Lost television show. Its depiction of the dinosaurs owes much to the style of the special effects director Willis O’Brien, who through his models work on Depression-era monster movies set the standard for how most people think dinosaurs must have looked and behaved. Willis’s dinosaurs are more aggressive than Chang’s, but they are no less plodding. Who can forget the disconsolate Brontosaurus in The Lost World, stumbling clumsily through London, his tail dragging all over the place as he bumps into buildings and collapses into the Thames? Or the disastrously unagile Tyrannosaurus, easily outflanked and defeated by the giant monkey in King Kong? So powerful, yet hopelessly inept! These sequences are thrilling and goofy at the same time, and they show everything children and adults alike love about dinosaurs.

They are also all wrong. The last thirty years have seen a great upheaval in the world of dinosaurs, probably the biggest since a meteor wiped them out sixty-five million years ago. The revolution began with the Jurassic Park films, which provoked so much popular interest in dinosaurs that, for the first time since the nineteenth century, there was enough attention and funding to go around for paleontologists and other researchers to study the Mesozoic more closely. (The end of the Cold War and the opening of China to foreign paleontologists helped too.) More money meant more theorizing, and so began a great project of dinosaur revisionism that continues to this day.

And if you go down to your public library, as I sometimes do with my dinosaur-loving toddler, you will likely find that the revisionism has become orthodoxy. All the old books have been tossed aside, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and the rest. All the old images are gone: no more Charles R. Knight, no more Henry De la Beche. Now we are told everything from Richard Owen on up through Steven Spielberg was wrongheaded, backward, laughable. Dinosaurs were not sluggish beasts. They were not cold-blooded. They were not tail-dragging, slow-growing, dimwits doomed to failure from the beginning. They were something else entirely.

Of course, few dare to propose what that something was. There are no settled answers in this new dispensation. If the champions of the first great stage of dinosaur discovery cast their doubts on God and religion, then those of the second stage now doubt the dinosaurs themselves. Nothing about them is certain; the facts are always being updated. For several decades in the last century, it was generally agreed upon in the paleontologist community that the Brontosaurus—every three-year-old’s favorite dinosaur—was not a real dino. Actually, the experts said, the proper name was Apatosaurus, a pedantic distinction that was rectified only in 2015 with an equally pedantic revision. Now, these same experts advise, the Brontosaurus and the Apatosaurus are, perhaps, distinct species under the same genus, who, because of superficial similarities, are sometimes mistaken for each other. In other words, our mistake. Among paleontologists, who generally regard the Brontosaurus and its fans with disdain, this finding was dismissed as unserious. One prominent skeptic summed up the opinions of his colleagues by writing that the sauropod’s existence was a “rather trivial issue, which is not important to real paleontologists in any way.”

Something similar happened with the T. Rex. For years, the king tyrant lizard was considered the greatest predator of the Cretaceous era. But in 2022, a group of paleontologists claimed there was no such creature. In actuality, they said, the Tyrannosaurus Rex as we think of it is a composite. In its place, they hypothesized three similar species: a new, diminished Tyrannosaurus Rex and its cousins, Tyrannosaurus Regina and Tyrannosaurus Imperator. But who knows? There could be many more variations, for all we know. Or maybe the classic conception of the T. Rex is the right one after all. The study’s critics called its claims “vanishingly weak,” and one of its authors removed his name from it before publication. Nevertheless, the T. Rex question is the hottest debate in dinosaurs right now. It will likely rage for decades before it ends without a conclusion. Most dino research is like that these days, as anyone who has waded into the ongoing “feathers” discussion knows.

These debates help book sales greatly, and every few years or so some publishing house puts out a new round of dinosaur material, complete with the latest orthodoxies. One of the more amusing expressions of this tendency is Princeton’s Field Guide to Dinosaurs, which has gone through three editions since 2010. Its author, Gregory S. Paul, also happens to be one of the co-authors in the three-Tyrannosaurus study, and he is an ardent dino revisionist, eager to wipe out any memory of his field’s past.

“Dinosaurology has matured in that it is unlikely that a reorganization of a similar scale will occur in the future, but we now know enough the inhabitants of the Mesozoic to have the basics well established,” he decrees in the book’s introduction.“Sauropods will not return to a hippo-like lifestyle, and dinosaurs’ tails will not be chronically plowing through Mesozoic muds. Dinosaurs are no longer so mysterious.”

What follows for the next three hundred–odd pages is an attempt to demythologize the dinosaurs completely. Paul is an accomplished paleoartist, and he treats his work as Roger Tory Peterson did his famous bird field guides. Just as with Peterson, his pictures are not imaginative; they seek to be informative, dry records of fact. The similarity in approach is no doubt intentional, as birds are the closest living relatives to dinosaurs. More than eight hundred species of dinosaur are categorized and described, accompanied by notes about their habits and habitats. Much of the information is incomplete because, as Paul reminds us repeatedly, we don’t actually know for sure very much about the dinosaurs. Still, he is not afraid to insert his three new Tyrannosaurus species and treat them as if they are confirmed dinos in good standing. (He notes in an aside that those who disagree with him on this point are working off of “highly problematic” data.)

I spent hours flipping through the Field Guide, and I have to admit I found it dispiriting. Paul is so committed to taking the fun out of the dinosaurs that even when he allows himself a flight of fancy—such as when he envisions a world where dinosaurs “became intelligent enough to develop agriculture and civilization as well as an arsenal of lethal weapons”—he attacks his own levity as absurd, unserious, unworkable. He has all the imagination of an information technician. “If superdinosaurs had instead managed to survive in an industrial world, they would have posed insurmountable problems for zoos,” he scolds. “Feeding lions, tigers, and bears is not beyond the means of zoos, but a single tyrannosaur-sized theropod would break the budget by consuming the equivalent of a thousand cattle-sized animals over a few decades. How could a zoo staff handle a 50-foot-tall sauropod weighing 30 or 50 tonnes or more and eating 10 times as much as an elephant?” So much for Dinotopia.

What Paul misses and what so many other paleontologists seem to forget is that if their profession were to disappear tomorrow, it would not make a difference for most people. The field, like all of academia, has become highly professionalized, and few people outside of it care much about the minutiae of what is happening inside. That’s not to say most people are indifferent to dinosaurs; far from it. But the canon of species was established long ago. There’s no changing it now. Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Ankylosaurus—these are names that every child knows and whose shapes most can identify. Their pull is too powerful to be diminished by any scientific quibbling. Why should they be? They were discovered, for the most part, by amateurs—gentlemen explorers—people with little formal training in the universities, whose goal was to find the biggest and grandest and most mysterious specimens of a vanished world. And they are beloved today not for any strictly scientific reason but because of the manner in which they were first presented: as spectacles, beautiful and tragic creatures whose sheer size and exoticism demands devotion.

This is an aspect of the dinosaurs that Michael Crichton actually understood very well in the original Jurassic Park novel. (It’s a shame he dropped the idea for the movie.) There’s a particular scene I often think of where an older man watches some kids running around in a natural history museum and realizes that “children liked dinosaurs because these giant creatures personified the uncontrollable force of looming authority. They were symbolic parents. Fascinating and frightening, like parents. And kids loved them, as they loved their parents.” But it’s not only that. Children for whatever reason feel that they have some dominion over these giant beasts because, like Adam in the garden, they can name them all: “It never failed to amaze him when a three-year-old shrieked: ‘Stegosaurus!’ Saying these complicated names was a way of exerting power over the giants, a way of being in control.”

When I first read that passage back in fourth grade, I thought the author was being cute. But just a few months ago, when my two-year-old daughter and I were in LaGuardia Airport in January, I saw a version of it myself. We were stuck on the tarmac in the middle of an ice storm. Before the plane took off, a ground crew came out with a crane and hose and washed down the craft, wings and all, with a chemical solution to keep the flight equipment from freezing. My daughter and I were sitting in the very last row, and she had the window seat. When she looked out and saw those twin searchlights beaming down through the dark sleet as fluid sprayed over the wings, she knew exactly what was happening out there. “Oh, dino!” she squealed. “Hi dino!” There was no use trying to dissuade her. Throughout the rest of the trip, she peppered me with questions about the dinosaur: Was he hanging out on the wing? Or was he following us in another plane? Would he land at about the same time as us? Where was his suitcase? I really didn’t know what to say. When we landed at Reagan and walked down to the baggage claim, the dinosaur was nowhere to be seen. My daughter speculated that maybe he got lost. She was reluctant to leave the airport; she wanted to look for the dino. I hope she searches all her life.

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