“Emblems alike of success and failure, of continuity and extinction, of weirdness and familiarity, they are fit objects on to which we can project all our manifold obsessions and concerns: as mutable and contradictory as human society itself.”
– Tom Holland, The Guardian
Dinosaurs have occupied humankind’s imaginations since the first discovery of their fossils in the 1800s. Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Isaac Asimov all used them in their fiction, and we can see that keen interest continue right up through to the popularity of Jurassic Park (the book and the film) and its sequels. When Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex was unveiled at The Field Museum, adults and children flocked to see her, and she maintains a Twitter account with some witty banter with the public. The arrival of Máximo the titanosaur has similarly inspired the public to visit. However, I noticed a look on my friends’ faces when I told them about the Titanosaur Sleepover for adults at The Field Museum; it was one of quiet amusement, and one friend congratulated me on rediscovering my inner child. “It’s funny,” said another friend, “when we’re six, we all love dinosaurs and somehow by twelve we have moved on to other things.”
Yet there are scientists who have not forgotten and moved on, adults studying dinosaurs, publishing papers, and digging for fossils. Millions of dollars and hours go into dinosaur research, and some people have suggested that this funding could be better used in other places. This is a narrow view of the world. Often people do not realize the stories of dinosaurs and humans are inseparably intertwined and that dinosaurs offer us insights we may not find anywhere else. Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara writes, “Dinosaurs are long-lasting champions of resilience and persistence.” Indeed, they are the most successful terrestrial vertebrates, spanning two hundred million years on all seven continents. Their incredible evolutionary diversity means they occupied every biological niche. In fact, despite what we have been taught about comets and asteroids killing off all the dinosaurs, dinosaurs live among us today: birds. Surely incredibly adaptable and successful animals like dinosaurs deserve our attention.
The more we learn about dinosaurs, then, the more we learn about species’ primacy and decline, how animals adapted or failed to adapt, and the whole evolutionary process that led to where we are today. Reflect on the fact that our ancestors and relatives coexisted with dinosaurs: quite literally, the story of the dinosaurs is also our story. An example of useful information that dinosaur study might yield is the determination of specific factors that contributed to mass extinctions and how we might survive and adapt to cataclysmic events of our own time period. The fossil record also provides clues about climate change, a phenomenon we are experiencing now with alarming intensity. We know from the record that change is normal, so we need to determine if the changes we are seeing now in climate, geology, weather patterns, etc. are also normal or something caused by humans. If it is caused by us, how can we stop the changes to ensure the survival of our species? Our study of dinosaurs has the potential to help us figure this out. But for the study of dinosaurs, we might not have developed the great geological literacy we have today which has revealed important facts about plate tectonics and biogeography.
There are also other applications for knowledge gained by studying dinosaurs. We learn more and more about plate tectonics from paleontology, and this becomes more relevant as we see events like the recent volcano eruption in Hawaii. Methods for breaking down and studying molecules in dinosaur fossils could provide breakthroughs for techniques used in the medical field to save lives. Speaking of the medical field, vertebrate paleontologists have to be experts at anatomy and thus many can be found at prestigious universities teaching future doctors and veterinarians. That’s right: lives are saved every day because of paleontology. Also, because dinosaurs were so long-lasting and amazingly diverse, they can teach us about solving practical engineering problems like carrying heavy loads in a rough terrain safely, creating more efficient cooling systems, and repurposing technology. As Lacovara points out, dinosaurs did all of these things long before humans entered the scene. Perhaps it is time to retire the view of dinosaurs as clunky, unintelligent creatures in favor of understanding them as biomechanical “miracles.”
Another thing dinosaurs do is pique children’s and adult’s interest in science, starting with paleontology and often branching out into other disciplines. A cognitively-based interest like dinosaurs engages children and nurtures curiosity and scientific inquiry. For many children, their learning about dinosaurs represents the first time they can demonstrate mastery to adults, usually surpassing adult knowledge of the animals, and this increases children’s confidence in an academic domain. Intense interest also helps children’s development in other ways, including a focused attention span, increased knowledge, increased persistence, and deepened information-processing skills. Plus, as I mentioned above, dinosaurs are something fun that seem to interest the whole family. It is a good excuse to make an excursion to the museum where a range of natural sciences are represented.
My favorite dinosaur is the Cryolophosaurus (literally “cold crest lizard”) from the early Jurassic period 194 to 188 million years ago in Antarctica. At twenty feet long and one thousand pounds, it is one of the largest known theropods (think large carnivores with small arms like our friend T. rex) of its time. The meme I made to accompany this post is a picture of a skeleton reconstruction at The Field Museum’s new Antarctic dinosaurs exhibit. The Titanosaur Sleepover for adults rapidly sold out, and I was one of 499 other adults prowling the museum gazing in awe at dinosaurs. So, I say our interest is not rediscovery of our inner child. Rather, we never outgrew science.