A “Brontosaurus” for you

Brontosaurus may be gone, but dinosaurs belong to all of us.    

By Matthew Francis

A “Brontosaurus” by any other name is just as stupendous, but we just can’t let go of the old lug. And the sauropod’s apparition remains a cultural baseline against the ever-shifting image of what dinosaurs are. To my mind, we didn’t lose a dinosaur so much as gain a much clearer view of a real Jurassic giant. The contrast between old “Brontosaurus” and dinosaurs as we know them now shows us just how much we have learned about dinosaur biology.
–Brian Switek, My Beloved Brontosaurus

If growing up means we have to give up loving dinosaurs, let us never grow up.

Many young children, including my four-year-old niece, are dinosaur-obsessed. I certainly was when I was young; I never fully got over it, though other areas of science snagged my professional interest. However, it’s a huge mistake to think that dinosaurs are somehow kids’ stuff, and kids’ stuff only. As my fellow physicist Sean Carroll said, “theoretical physics is a cushier job than paleontology.” Digging up dinosaurs is a task for the patient and the organized, as its success depends on the vagaries of weather, landscape, and whether there are actually decent bones on the site where you choose to dig. (Minor things, I know.)

Cover of "My Beloved Brontosaurus", with author Brian Switek.

Cover of “My Beloved Brontosaurus”, with author Brian Switek.

Brian Switek’s new book, My Beloved Brontosaurus (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), stands as a wonderful overview of current research and knowledge of dinosaurs, for both lifelong dino-lovers and people who need an introduction to the prehistoric beasts. In Switek’s able hands, we see the prehistoric creatures were real animals, not monsters or fantasy creatures. From the tiniest birdlike dinosaur up to the hugest long-necked sauropod (Apatosaurus and its relatives) they hatched out of eggs, grew up, fought and cooperated and sometimes ate each other.

Switek kicks off by discussing the case of Brontosaurus, the long-necked dinosaur that was given the wrong head in the early competitive days of dinosaur-digging. When the mistake was found, paleontologists—people who study ancient plants and animals—realized the Brontosaurus specimen was actually a member of a previously known species, Apatosaurus. In other words, Brontosaurus isn’t the proper name of any dinosaur. Even though the whole episode happened over 100 years ago, people still react emotionally about it. However, the animal itself was a marvelous creature, whatever name we happen to give it.

If your last exposure to dinosaurs was elementary school or Jurassic Park, Switek’s book will catch you up quickly. Suffice to say, these are not the dinosaurs I learned about as a young kid—and in my opinion, they’re much more interesting. Over the last few decades, the basic realization that modern birds are living dinosaurs has grown, and helped us understand their extinct uncles and aunts: the dinosaurs of the distant past. (Many scientists even refer to the classic dinosaurs as the non-avian dinosaurs, meaning these are the ones that aren’t recognizably modern birds.) For example, hollow yet sturdy bones allow modern birds to fly, but they also allowed sauropods to grow into the biggest animals ever to live on land. We also know now, thanks to a number of recent finds, that probably every dinosaur lineage had feathers of some sort. As Switek wrote, “Just think of how cute a fuzzy little Apatosaurus juvenile would be.” I concur.

As a result of his emphasis on dinosaurs as real animals, Switek devotes chapters to many major topics of interest to paleontologists that don’t end up in most popular accounts. Consider his chapter on dinosaur injuries and diseases: these were big animals, who lived rough lives. They had to be tough to survive, so many dinosaur bones show signs of healed injuries, parasites, and cancers, both benign and life-threatening. Some dinosaurs show signs of scrapping with other members of the same species: triceratops bearing horn-wounds presumably from fighting other triceratops, tyrannosaurus with heavy bite wounds on their faces.

The tone of My Beloved Brontosaurus is informal, often humorous (in the tradition of great nonfiction writers like Mary Roach and Bill Bryson), without sacrificing scientific detail. The result is both readable and highly entertaining. The chapter on dinosaur sex—named “Big Bang Theory”, naturally—is particularly funny, even as it addresses some of the big questions we may never have the full answer to. Think about it: how did armored and spiky dinosaurs Do the Deed, after all? The requisite fleshy bits have yet to be preserved in the fossil record: “More than once, my friends have indulged my curiosity, jokingly suggesting that male dinosaurs had a prehensile phallus that could safely inseminate females from a distance–an idea that shocks my mind into waking anime nightmares. Unfortunately, there’s not a scrap of fossil evidence to say whether such terrifying organs actually existed.” (I um…may be one of those friends.)

While we often think of dinosaurs as big (and many of them were!), there were also a lot of small species, including the famous Velociraptor. Despite Jurassic Park‘s fanciful and terrifying depiction, real Velociraptors were about turkey-sized, as Switek reminds us. When I asked him jokingly about opening doors, he pointed out that their wrists couldn’t turn that way, based on their fossilized arm bones. (“Velociraptors were clappers, not slappers,” he said, referring to the way their hands were oriented, with palms toward each other, not the ground.) The range of sizes of dinosaurs showed how well they occupied nearly every ecological niche for land animals for an amazingly long time. The final chapter discusses the mystery of how such a successful group of animals died out, a major catastrophic event rather than an inevitable failure of a doomed lineage.

Because whatever else non-avian dinosaurs were, they were very successful. The time between the last Stegosaurus at the end of the Jurassic Period and the last Tyrannosaurus in the Cretaceous Period—80 million years—was much longer than the 66 million years between the last Tyrannosaurus and the first modern human. They loom large in our imaginations, and no wonder: despite their connection to modern birds, they are alien to us. My Beloved Brontosaurus is an excellent field guide to the real dinosaurs that walked the planet.

Although the last of the non-avian dinosaurs disappeared in that massive catastrophe 66 million years ago, they have a near-ubiquitous presence in our culture. Dinosaurs invade our music, our movies, our advertising, and our idioms (although “going the way of the dinosaur” should really mean becoming undeniably awesome, rather than sinking into inevitable extinction).

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Matthew R Francis

About Matthew R Francis

Double X Science Physics Editor Matthew Francis is a physicist, science writer, former college professor, ex-planetarium director, occasional musician, and frequent wearer of jaunty hats. He blogs about science and science communication at Galileo's Pendulum, and a regular contributor to Ars Technica's science site, Nobel Intent. He has also written for Scientific American Blogs, Culture of Science, and the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. You can't get him to shut up when he starts talking about how complex ideas in science can be understood by anyone. The cat in the photo is Pascal, named for the physicist/mathematician/ philosopher who (appropriately enough) studied randomness.

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