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June 26, 2005

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  How Do You Want Your Dinosaur?

In my misspent youth, I used to read the Turok: Son of Stone comic book, about a pair of North American Natives who find themselves trapped in a lost valley of dinosaurs. (This was before Turok was transformed into a travesty of its former self prior to being put out of its misery in 1998.)  In one adventure, our intrepid heroes are pursued by a dinosaur -- what they call "a honker" -- that is strangely immune to the poison berry juice with which they tip their spears.  In the end, it turns out the honker has been eating the poisonous berries and developed tolerance to them.  That story was called "The Honker that Would Not Die".  I mention this because it will be relevant later on.  Be patient.  It will be worth it.


As a kid, I spent several months languishing in Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital.  It was mind-numbingly  boring, particularly as my family didn't live in Toronto, so couldn't visit me regularly.  When they did drop in, they would take me out on a day pass and invariably we would pay a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).  There, while I enjoyed scampering about the many exhibits, gawking at the Egyptian mummies and the Japanese samurai armour and the stuffed rattlesnake that shook its rattle when you triggered an electric eye, always, without fail, before anything else, I would make a bee-line for...the Dinosaurs!

I couldn't get enough of those dinosaurs.  I could stand there for hours (hours, I say!) just staring at those colossal fossilized skeletons, trying to picture how they must have looked, when alive, with flesh and skin -- and moving.  At the same time, I was always tormented by a feeling of dissatisfaction.  I don't know what I expected or wanted, but I just felt those skeletons weren't enough.  I wanted something more. 

Or maybe I just wanted something different.  Different positions, different specimens, something, anything I hadn't seen the last dozen times I had dropped by.

I think, to some extent, that same ill defined need for "something different" is at least partly responsible for the recent so called "revolution" in the way scientists now portray dinosaurs.  This month's Newsweek cover story was titled "Rediscovering Dinosaurs" and, though the article portrays its subject as something new, in reality this Dino-renaissance has been going on since at least the mid-70s.  It was then that a young, brash, enfant terrible named Robert Bakker (whom you've no doubt seen in his trademark white cowboy hat -- in fact, his surrogate had the honour of getting eaten in Jurassic Park 2) published an article in Scientific American where he argued that everything we had taken for granted about dinosaurs till then was probably wrong.  Far from being slow, stupid, cold blooded reptiles (said Bakker), dinosaurs were in fact quick, intelligent, warm blooded creatures, perfectly suited to rule the planet for nearly 150 million years.  And, while the dinosaurs clearly did go extinct about 65 million years ago, in a very real sense they live on today in the form of birds.  Birds, said Bakker, are dinosaurs.

The connection between dinosaurs and birds was nothing new.  No sooner were the first dinosaur fossils discovered in the 1800s than it was recognized that they were clearly close kin to our little feathered friends.  From three-toed digitigrade (tip-toe walking) feet to hollow bones, the similarities were fairly obvious.  But, over the years, that seemed to have been forgotten.  Until Bakker revived it and suddenly everyone was looking at dinosaurs through fresh eyes. 

If birds are dinosaurs, they argued, doesn't it stand to reason that dinosaurs probably had other bird-like characteristics?  For example, birds, unlike many animals, can see in colour.  What if dinosaurs could see in colour too?  Surely then, colour would play a big part in their world. In other words, just as birds have bright, colourful plumage, dinosaurs might be expected to have had bright, colourful hides rather than the traditional drab crocodile-inspired green seen in Ray Harryhausen flicks.  Furthermore, if birds arose from dinosaurs, doesn't it stand to reason that feathers originally evolved, not for flight, but as a dinosaur alternative to mammalian fur?  Feathers served as dino-insulation long before the first theropod took wing.

So far the question of colour remains merely speculative -- it's awfully hard to imagine how we could ever prove or disprove the colour of a T-rex.  But feathers are a bird of a, you know.  Already exquisitely preserved fossils of feathered dinosaurs have begun turning up, notably in northern China's Liaoning Province. (Yeah, like you know where that is, too.).  While so far they have only been proven for small, obscure dinosaurs (and, let's face it: anything smaller than your neighbour's German Shepherd ain't worth the name), it is widely believed that even Mr. Jurassic Park himself -- the velociraptor -- likely had plumage.  Feathered "raptors"?.

Which brings me to my main point. 

The next time you're in a book store, take a look at the dinosaur books.  You'll be amazed.  Everywhere you turn, the dinosaurs look nothing like the creatures we grew up with.  Everywhere there are gaudily hued beasts, physically shaped like the dinosaurs of old, but with fantastic designs, stripes and spots festooning their hides.  Worse, there are feathers, heaps of feathers, themselves brilliantly coloured, turning even the familiar velociraptor into the world's ugliest chicken.  And, believe me, it's only going to get worse.  Where will it end?  Perhaps someday we may see even the mighty T-rex himself transmogrified into the Churkendoose!

And yet...and yet, I can't help but think the public will refuse to accept this new vision. Refuse?  Aye, refuse.

A true vision it may be.  Scientifically valid, beyond dispute, however you want to put it, the real deal.  And yet, interest in dinosaurs has always been part science to three parts circus.  It is as much about entertaining as it is about enlightening.  The public has always shown a passion for dinosaurs that far outstrips interest in just about any other field of scientific enquiry.  They can't get enough of the big guys.

But that is because of what dinosaurs are...or rather, what we thought they were.  Great big lizards.  Dragons!   Robbed of that image, transformed into the Churkendoose, and they may no longer hold the public's interest as they once did.  And, if interest wanes, you can bet the publishing industry will take note, as will Hollywood and the comic industry and ultimately even museums.  To win back their audience, they will revert back to the original image of the dinosaur as dragon, never mind that the scientists howl in disgust.   If the public wants dragons, dragons it will get!

Think it couldn't happen?  It already has.  When Steven Spielberg made the Jurassic Park movies, he decided to portray the dinosaurs as the traditional drab green rather than brightly hued, which by then was already the accepted theory. (For that matter, Spielberg made the velociraptors considerably larger than real velociraptors, because he felt the real ones wouldn't have been scary enough.  And, yes, I'm well aware they later found Utahraptor which was about the right size, but that came later.  Spielberg just caught a lucky break.)

At the risk of wandering too far afield, a similar form of such wilful ignorance can be seen in our modern vision of the classical statues of ancient Greece and Rome.  (Think I can't connect this?  Oh ye of little faith...)  When we picture the classical world, we see it all as pristine white marble statues with blank pupil-less eyes (kind of like Little Orphan Annie, come to think of it).  This image took root way back during the Renaissance (not the Dino-renaissance, the renaissance Renaissance) when the art of the classical world was first rediscovered and, ultimately, imitated by the likes of Michelangelo and, uh, Michelangelo's friends.  Those imitations, like the classical statues, were also stark white marble with blank eyes. 

So where does the "wilful ignorance" come in?  Archaeologists have long known that the statues of the classical world were in fact brilliantly painted.  It's just that after more than two thousand years of wear and tear they have all lost that paint. But, through modern science, it is possible to reconstruct what colours were used from even the minute traces left behind.  And that is precisely what was done last year at the Vatican museums.  A display called The Colours of White took copies of famous classical statues and painted them according to the best information science could supply. 

The result was something akin to a real classy freak show.

As white marble statues, Greek and Roman statuary has an elegant beauty, a godlike iconic simplicity.  The pupil-less eyes, especially, lend classical statues a haunting otherworldliness.  But painted in bright, gaudy hues, the eyes filled in and staring, the statues seem suddenly cheap and tawdry.  The magic vanishes and we are left with something that seems less suited to the Louvre than to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  (Grumbled my brother: "And they don't even move!")

The consensus seemed to be pretty well universal.  The Colours of White exhibit was an interesting experiment but no one was in a hurry to take it any further.  Where classical statues are concerned, we don't want reality, we want what we had.  Even if it is a lie.

Returning now to dinosaurs -- I began by saying that I thought this Dino-renaissance was partly driven by an ill defined "need" for change.  I'm not saying the scientists are wrong -- most likely dinosaurs did have feathers and bright colours.  T-rex almost certainly never really looked anything like the way Harryhausen portrayed him.  (Or, more properly, the famous dino-artist Charles R. Knight, whose art served as the basis for just about all screen portrayals of the great beasts.)  But paradoxically, I have said that the public will likely reject that vision for the opposite reason -- they don't want change.  Well, which is it?  Want change, don't want change.  Both can't be true, can they?

Sure they can.  Among dinosaur scientists, before the Dino-renaissance, there was a feeling that the entire field had gotten into a rut.  Nothing ever seemed to progress.  The field of palaeontology amounted to little more than finding and naming dinosaurs, book keeping. There were no "great" discoveries the way Physics had its Einstein and Genetics had its Watson and Crick.  Then Bakker came along and showed them that maybe there was life in the old girl yet.  Maybe dinosaurs were vibrant, exciting, even warm-blooded animals.  Maybe they were birds.  That Bakker was probably right only partly explained the passion with which the scientific community embraced his vision.  They were quick to accept it because they wanted it to be true.

Or, rather, they thought they wanted it to be true.  I could be wrong, of course, but I think this fascination with feathered dinosaurs is only temporary.  Oh, certainly dinosaurs will remain feathered in the pages of scientific journals.  But in the popular imagination, in the movies and the comics and novels, even in books supposedly intended to teach children science, I think things will eventually revert to "normal".  Sales figures will demand it.  The old beasts will once more rear their lizardy heads, drag their tails, and forsake feathers for crocodilian hides.  And once again dragons will roam the earth.  Green dragons.

Because just as you can't change a leopard's spots, when it comes to colour, a honker just will not dye.

Get it?

Get it?

(Now wasn't that worth it?)

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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