Dinosaurs are often proclaimed as the ultimate in prehistoric antiquity. Many people know that the world is old, and dinosaurs inhabited it before people. Few are encouraged to really consider the lifespan of the planet and the many creatures that have rose to prominence and then fell to extinction both before and after the reign of the dinosaurs.
The earliest dinosaur fossils are in excess of 200 million years old, making the long-standing Egyptian pyramids seem ridiculously recent. In contrast, the earliest known fossil remains of life may be 4 billion years old. If those reports are accurate, then life arose shortly after the planet was formed and has persisted ever since.
The first amphibians crawled out of the oceans 350 million years ago. They found that the land was already colonized by plants and insects. But more than 100 million years would pass before the first classic dinosaurs would start to appear. In fact, the famous Jurassic superstars–Brontosaurus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, and their kin–did not appear until 150 million years ago.
This is not to downplay the dinosaur dynasty in any way. No terrestrial group has ever been more successful–especially when you consider the continued flourishing of the avian dinosaurs today. And yet, after the Cretaceous extinction event, 66 million years passed with great families of mammals waxing and waning.
So it is worth considering that dinosaurs, for all their majesty, are just one chapter in the long, fascinating history of life on Earth. We, too, are a part of Earth’s biological story. How long will our chapter be?
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On this day in dinosaurs, audiences traveled to Isla Sorna for the first time. After the worldwide phenomenon of Jurassic Park in 1993, a sequel was inevitable. Visiting “Site B” with a largely new cast, supported by Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough, the second film in the JP franchise gave cinematic nods to its predecessor along with The Lost World and King Kong.
Audiences were given many more species of dinosaur in The Lost World, while still enjoying time with favorites like Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus. When the tyrannosaur breaks loose in California, a series of calamities ensues.
While not as beloved as the original Jurassic Park, this sequel is a sometimes dark, sometimes epic tale about what happens to humanity’s creations when they’re given free reign.
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On this day in dinosaurs, we present a double feature in dinosaur popularization.
1859 – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Born
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is known to most as the author of Sherlock Holmes, but to dinophiles, he’s the genius behind The Lost World–perhaps the most repeated storyline in cinema and television. Since its original publication in 1912, Conan Doyle’s tale has been recreated on innumerable occasions.
1936 – Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, SD Dedicated
Also on this day, in 1936, a popular tourist attraction opened in Rapid City, South Dakota. Situated on a sandstone ridge that bears the footprints and remains of both late Jurassic and early Cretaceous dinosaurs, Dinosaur Park was conceived as a public works project during the Great Depression. The project also served as a way to lure Mount Rushmore visitors toward the city.
Made from concrete over iron pipe framework, the dinosaurs have been a favorite climbing frame for children for the past 7 decades.
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Just a few weeks before Jurassic Park changed the world, another dinosaur film roared into cinemas. Carnosaur told the story of a scientist who wanted to destroy humanity using dinosaurs. Although two sequels were made and the movie was a success at the box office, Rogert Ebert said it was the worst movie of 1993.
Although the film is overshadowed by Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Carnosaur still has a cult following of dinophiles who cannot get enough of the miniatures and puppets used to bring the dinosaurs to life onscreen.
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We often associate dinosaur fossils with old bones and teeth. But every now and then an exceptionally preserved specimen takes our breath away by its exquisite detail. Often referred to as “dinosaur mummies” because their skin impressions have been preserved, these fossils give us an even more dramatic window into the Mesozoic.
One of the most famous dinosaur mummies is on display in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. This Edmontosaurus was baked in the sun where its soft tissues decayed but its skin became shrink-wrapped around its bones. This desiccated carcass was covered quickly by sediment, perhaps after being washed off a sandbar and into a stream. Once buried, the fossilization process began, leaving detailed impressions of the dinosaur’s scaly skin. In nearby display cases, visitors can glimpse sections of other hadrosaur skin impressions as well.
Another specimen, rumored to be even more spectacular, was purchased by the British Museum. On its way across the Atlantic, the ship carrying the treasure was caught up in the hostilities of the first World War, and sunk. The mummy may still be there, in its protective jacket, somewhere at the bottom of the ocean.
More recently, a Brachylophosaurus nicknamed Leonardo stunned scientists with its completeness:
There is also Dakota, another Edmontosaurus mummy that is exceptionally preserved. Many of these mummies are hadrosaurs, but the recent armored nodosaur discovery in Canada was nothing short of astounding. Looking like a Hollywood dragon, this beautifully detailed specimen features spikes, armor plating, and skin from the animal–allowing us to look at its face and, without much imagination, see the animal as it was in life. The nodosaur mummy is now on display at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada.
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On this day in dinosaurs, Disney brought CGI dinosaurs into its family of films. In Dinosaur, viewers meet Aladar the Iguanodon and a Mesozoic world of friends and predators that help Aladar find his place in the world after his life begins in tragedy. If you think the story sounds a little bit like The Land Before Time, you’re not the only one. Disney executives held onto the idea for the film for more than a decade, allowing the animation technology to improve and working on a plot that would differentiate their film from the cult classic.
Eventually Dinosaur became a classic in its own right. The film was a box office hit, earning nearly $350 million in global box office sales. It earned plaudits for its breathtaking visual effects and for bringing another generation of children into dinosaur fandom.
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Too often, science is presented as a final product–something that is neither under continued testing and scrutiny, nor arrived at through careful, peer-reviewed consideration. Science is not commonly seen as a process. Dinosaur paleontology can be that window into the ongoing efforts of scientists from around the world.
Science, like evolution, moves in punctuated equilibrium–long periods of stasis interrupted by bursts of activity. So although it is well established that dinosaurs didn’t drag their tails, many of the most iconic skeletal mounts are still tail-scrapers. The “error” is not an omission of the truth, but rather a collection of interconnected realities.
The first consideration of museum staff is practicality. Many skeletal mounts were constructed with display in mind, not conservation. So the fragile bones have had holes drilled through them and metal armatures forced through their mineralized cores. Disassembling these structures would be extraordinarily expensive, if not physically impossible.
It’s also important to remember how historically important some dinosaur displays have become. Their current inaccuracy reflects a change in our understanding. This communicates to the public the changing stories of dinosaur science, bringing the quest for knowledge into tangible reality.
The tail-dragging dinosaurs are nearly extinct. The last few major natural history museum dinosaur exhibits are being converted to reflect new knowledge. So the old swamp-dwelling behemoth dinosaurs are due to disappear too. Perhaps the dynamic, modern poses favored by contemporary curators better represent the Mesozoic superstars than the stately, static displays of yesteryear.
But it’s important to remember that the fossil bones are not dinosaurs. Neither are our marvelous mounted skeletons. The real non-avian dinosaurs are long gone, but live on in our imaginations–the only place where the past can return to life. So whether we are looking at the latest dinosaur models or outdated cantankerous monoliths, the “inaccurate” museum displays are only a starting point for the ever-agile human mind.
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