Why do people still care about dinosaurs? The ‘Introduction’ explains how dinosaurs were officially ‘born’ in 1842 with the work of Richard Owen, and gained fame in the reopening of the Great Exhibition in 1854. Dinosaurs are popular because they pull on the creative imagination and link real life to myth and legend—Protoceratops fossils look startlingly like the mythical griffin. Nobody has ever seen a living dinosaur, but scientific analysis has provided insights into how these animals lived on Earth between ~230 and ~66 million years ago (Ma). Their very existence and extraordinary body forms incite curiosity, inspiring many children to pursue careers in all walks of scientific life.
Dinosaurs: facts and fiction
Dinosaurs were ‘born’ officially in 1842 as a result of some truly brilliant and intuitive detective work by the British anatomist Richard Owen, whose work had focused upon the unique features he had identified in some extinct British fossil reptiles.
At the time of Owen’s work he was reviewing a surprisingly meagre collection of fossil bones and teeth that had been discovered up to that time and were scattered in private or museum collections around the British Isles. Although the birth of dinosaurs was relatively inauspicious (first appearing as an after-thought in the published report of the eleventh meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science), they were soon to become the centre of worldwide attention. The reason for this was simple. Owen worked in London at a time when the influence of the British Empire was arguably at its greatest. To celebrate such influence and industry, the Great Exhibition of 1851 was devised. To house this event a huge but temporary exhibition hall (Joseph Paxton’s steel and glass ‘Crystal Palace’) was built on Hyde Park in central London.
Rather than destroy the Crystal Palace at the end of 1851 it was dismantled and moved to a permanent site in the London suburb p. 2↵of Sydenham (the future Crystal Palace Park). The land surrounding the exhibition building was landscaped and arranged thematically. One of the themes depicted our understanding of natural history and geology, and how these subjects had combined to unravel our Earth’s ancient history. This geological park, one of the earliest of its kind, included reconstructions of genuine geological features (caves, limestone pavements, geological strata, and faults) as well as representations of the inhabitants of the ancient world whose fossilized remains had been found in these rocks. Owen collaborated with the sculptor and entrepreneur Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to populate the parkland with gigantic, iron-framed, and concrete-clad models of dinosaurs (Figure 1) and other prehistoric creatures known at this time. The advance publicity generated before the relocated Great Exhibition was re-opened in June 1854 included a celebratory dinner held on New Year’s Eve 1853 within the belly of a half-completed model of the dinosaur, Iguanodon. Coverage of this event in the press excited keen public interest in Owen’s dinosaurs.
The fact that dinosaurs (‘fearfully great lizards’) were extinct denizens of unsuspected earlier worlds, and the embodiment of the dragons of myth and legend, probably guaranteed their adoption by society at large; their names even appeared in the novels of Charles Dickens, a personal acquaintance of Richard Owen. From such evocative beginnings public interest in dinosaurs has been nurtured and maintained ever since. Quite why the appeal should have been so persistent has been much speculated upon: it may have much to do with the importance of story-telling as a means of stimulating human imaginative and creative abilities. It strikes me as no coincidence that in humans the most formative years of intellectual growth and cultural development, between the ages of about 3 and 10 years, are often those when the enthusiasm for dinosaurs is greatest—as many parents can testify. The buzz of excitement created when children glimpse their first dinosaur skeleton is almost palpable. Dinosaurs, as the late Stephen Jay Gould—arguably our greatest popularizer p. 3↵p. 4↵of scientific natural history—memorably remarked, are popular because they are ‘big, scary, and dead’. And it is true that their gaunt skeletons exert a gravitational pull on the imaginative landscape of youngsters—just watch their reaction when glimpsing their very first dinosaur skeleton in a museum … they are transfixed.
A remarkable piece of evidence in support of the notion that there is a relationship between the latent appeal of dinosaurs and the human psyche can be found in mythology and folklore. Adrienne Mayor (a historian at Stanford University) has shown that as early as the 7th century BC the Greeks had contact with nomadic cultures in central Asia. Written accounts at this time include descriptions of the Griffin (or Gryphon): a creature that reputedly hoarded and jealously guarded gold; it was wolf-sized with a beak, wings, four legs with sharp claws on its feet, and a long tail. Furthermore, Near Eastern art of at least 300 BC depicts Griffin-like creatures, as does that of the Mycenaeans. The Griffin myth arose in Mongolia/north-west China, from traders using the ancient caravan routes that visited gold mines in the Tienshan and Altai Mountains. This part of the world (we now know) has a very rich fossil heritage and is notable for the abundance of well-preserved dinosaur skeletons. Skeletal remains are remarkably easy to observe because their white fossilized bones stand out clearly against the soft, red sandstones in which they are buried. Of even greater interest in this context is the fact that the most abundant of the dinosaurs preserved in these sandstones is Protoceratops; these are approximately wolf-sized, have a prominent hooked beak, and four legs terminated by sharp-clawed toes. Their skulls also bear striking upswept bony frills behind, which might easily be the origin of the ‘wings’ that are depicted in Griffin imagery (Figure 2). It seems likely that Griffins owe their origin to genuine observations of dinosaur skeletons made by nomadic travellers passing through Mongolia or north-western China; they demonstrate a remarkable connection between exotic mythological beasts and genuine dinosaurs.
Looked at through the harsh lens of objectivity, the cultural pervasiveness of dinosaurs is extraordinary. After all, no human being has ever seen a living non-avian dinosaur (no matter what some of the more absurd creationist literature might claim, or what you might see in some movies). The very first recognizably human members of our species lived a mere 500,000 years ago. By contrast, the very last non-avian dinosaurs trod our planet approximately sixty-six million years ago and perished, along with many other creatures, during a cataclysmic event in Earth history (see Chapter 7). Dinosaurs, as a group of animals of quite bewildering variety, are thought to have persisted on Earth for over 170 million years before their sudden demise. This surely puts the span of human existence and our current dominance of this fragile planet (in particular, the debates concerning population growth, utilization of resources, pollution, and global warming) into a decidedly sobering perspective.
The very fact of the recognition of dinosaurs, and the very different world in which they lived, today is a testament to the human intellect and the explanatory power of science. The ability to be inquisitive: to probe the natural world and to keep asking that beguilingly simple question—why?—is one of the essences of being human. It is hardly surprising that developing rigorous methods in order to generate plausible answers to our questions is at the core of all science.
Dinosaurs are undeniably interesting to many people. Their very existence and extraordinary range of body forms incite curiosity; this can be used in some instances as a means of introducing unsuspecting audiences to the excitement of scientific discovery and the application and use of science more generally. Just as fascination with bird or whale songs could lead to an interest in the physics of sound transmission, echolocation, auditory physiology, and ultimately applications such as radar, on the one hand, or linguistics and psychology on the other, so it can be that an interest in dinosaurs—their lives, their evolutionary p. 7↵relationships, their behaviours, their locomotor mechanics, or even their metabolic physiologies—open up pathways into a surprising and unexpectedly wide range of scientific disciplines. Outlining some of these pathways across various branches of science is one of the underlying purposes of this book.
Palaeontology is a branch of science that has been built around the study of fossils; technically these are the remains of organisms that died more than 10,000 years ago (that is to say prior to the time when human culture began to have an identifiable impact on the world). The latter is the province of archaeology. Palaeontology attempts to bring fossils back to life: not literally, as in resuscitating dead creatures (as portrayed in the Jurassic Park films), but by using science to understand as fully as we can what such creatures were really like, how they fitted into their world, and how that world differs from the present one. When a fossilized animal is discovered its remains present the palaeontologist with a series of tantalizingly incomplete clues, not unlike those faced by the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes on his arrival at the scene of a crime (however, in this particular ‘case’ the skeletal remains are of a very long-dead creature). Basic observations and clues can prompt a range of questions:
What type of creature was it when it was alive?
How long ago did it die?
Did it die naturally of old age, or was it killed?
Did it die just where it was found, buried in the rock, or was its body moved from somewhere else?
Was it male or female?
How did the creature appear when it was alive?
Was its body colourful or drab?
Was it fast-moving or a slow-coach?
What did it eat?
How well could it see, smell, or hear?
Was it capable of complex behaviour?
Is it related to any creatures that are alive today?
p. 8p. 9↵These are just a few examples of the questions that might be asked, but all tend toward the piecemeal reconstruction of a picture of the creature and of the world in which it lived. It has been my experience, following on from the first broadcasting of the television series called Walking with Dinosaurs, with their realistic-looking virtual dinosaurs and the incredible CGI dinosaurs created for the Jurassic Park franchise, that many people have been sufficiently intrigued to ask: ‘How do we know that they moved like that? … looked like that? … behaved like that? … sounded like that?’
Questions driven by straightforward observation and basic common sense underpin this book. Every fossil discovery is unique and has the potential to teach the inquisitive among us something about our heritage. I should, however, qualify this statement by adding that the particular type of heritage that I will be discussing relates to the natural heritage that we share with all other organisms on this planet. This natural heritage spans ~3,800 million years according to most modern estimates. I will be surveying a comparatively small portion of this staggeringly long period of time during which life has existed on Earth: just that interval between ~230 million years ago (MA) and ~66 Ma, when dinosaurs seemed to dominate most aspects of terrestrial life on Earth (see Figure 3).