Thursday, June 30, 2011

Prehistory and the Press - Part 3

A series of blog posts mostly based on my undergraduate dissertation. The first post is here and the second here.

It's time to talk about...that movie again. I know, it's been eighteen years, but there are some people who just can't let go, and it's becoming something of a problem. Misty-eyed nostalgia is one thing, but for some dinosaurs can't even be mentioned without referencing that particular motion picture, however tenuously (and it's often quite absurdly tenuously). Yes, it's...

Obviously, the main problem with Jurassic Park is that it's spawned an army of people who can't let go of the precious scaly dromaeosaurs of their childhood, no matter how little sense they make. But I digress. Jurassic Park is used as a baseline, or jumping-off point for more articles about palaeontology than any other dinosaur movie. Back in March, Brian Switek wrote an article for the Guardian about the possibility of co-operative hunting in dromaeosaurs, the first line of which was "When I first saw Jurassic Park back in the summer of 1993, I was stunned." I e-mailed Brian ('cos we're totally best buds, you see) and asked him why he invoked JP, and he delivered a suitably robust response:
"[Jurassic Park is] something that I can count on as a kind of standard that I can then work from...We should not be too reliant on the film, but I think journalists often mention JP and other dinosaurs to 1) bring in as broad an audience as possible, and 2) have a bit of fun. Dinosaurs are cultural objects as well as scientific ones, and, for a writer, it is sometimes easier to make a story relevant if there is something like a movie that non-dino nerds will be familiar with."
Fair enough really, and it's easy to see why Brian might mention JP in the context of dromaeosaur hunting behaviour, given the pop-culture resonance of the film's super-intelligent creatures. However, he did go on to mention that "if you related everything back to one dinosaur or film, you run the risk of obscuring important details" - in other words, you're going to muddy the science behind the story. For a superlative example of this, one doesn't have to look very far - no further, in fact, than to an old 'friend'.
"Scientists now think Steven Spielberg was right in his 1993 film Jurassic Park - meat-eating dinosaurs did hunt at night."
Yet another first-class Fail, tellingly authored by 'DAILY MAIL REPORTER' (they might as well adopt the Private Eye gag name 'Phil Space'). What on Earth does a paper on the possible nocturnal habits of dinosaurs (based on scleral ring morphology) have to do with Jurassic Park, and how was Steven Spielberg 'right' exactly (didn't the movie creatures hunt at whatever time of day was convenient for the plot)? It's an abysmal, lazy attempt at getting the reader's attention.

More than that, though, I'd argue that constant mentions of monster movies in (tenuous) relation to the latest palaeontological research is reinforcing outdated notions about said animals and damaging the image of palaeontology. Much as dinosaurs are "cultural objects", they were also real animals that should not be viewed as dragon-like monsters irrelevant to the modern day. It's back to that "parody of science" idea again, which seems particularly relevant when one comes across quotes like this:
"In the past, some suspected that beasts like Triceratops used their headgear to fight off predators, as depicted in the prehistoric clash between a fur-bikinied Raquel Welch and a Triceratops in Ray Harryhausen's 1966 movie, One Million Years BC." (Source)

One commenter quipped "I'd be really worried about myself on a number of levels if I were able to confuse a stop motion Ceratosaurus with a fur-bikinied Raquel Welch", but that's by-the-by. It seems obvious that this bizarre digression into the realms of 1960s starlets in unlikely swimsuits has been inserted as a bit of a laugh by author Ian Sample (something a quick e-mail exchange confirmed). Call me po-faced, but it seems to me to be an unnecessary diversion into the realm of parody; treating palaeontology as silliness concerning big, dumb movie monsters rather than science of any interest. I'd also question as to whether scientists are really claiming that ceratopsians behaved in a manner reminiscent of fighting off scantily-clad, spear-wielding women (which obviously weren't around in the Mesozoic), as Ian Sample seems to be implying here. Still, maybe I should just lighten up, eh?

Coverage about plesiosaurs has its own particular problem - not related to movies, but to a fictitious monster associated with a big lake in Scotland. Ever since the 'Surgeon's Photo' - supposedly depicting an animal with a long neck and tiny head taking a peek from Loch Ness - 'Nessie' has been associated with plesiosaurs. Nowadays we know that plesiosaurs couldn't actually adopt the swan-like pose depicted in the Surgeon's Photo. Still, it doesn't stop the comparisons rolling in. One Mail headline from 2009 declared that Nessie had been found - except long-dead and in Dorset, obviously (nice use of the Surgeon's Photo, too). The article goes on to refer to the plesiosaur as a "marine reptile" while still referencing a "'lake monster'". Seriously, guys, there's a point when you've stretched your silly, tenuous analogy too far.

Meanwhile, over at the quality Telegraph, we were told that
"The marine reptile resembled the Loch Ness monster with its long thin neck and tail, four large flippers and razor-sharp teeth." (Source)
Plesiosaur researcher Adam S Smith explained in an e-mail to me that he didn't mind the occasional reference to Nessie, but has issues with the fictitious creature being "mentioned in [a] context that assumes that [it] exists and is a plesiosaur" - just as in the above quotation. Fortunately, Adam's put together an exhaustive page demolishing every possible notion that plesiosaurs might still be alive - check it out.

Still, since these are articles that are obviously based on the same press release - regurgitated in the finest churnalistic tradition - it might be pertinent to include at least one other. So here it is. At least the author has referred to Nessie as being "mythical" in that one - unfortunately, he also refers to a plesiosaur as a "marine dinosaur". Damn.

TBC, dodgy BT contractors and other so-called 'real life' distractions permitting.


  1. Fantastic series! You've voiced my frustrations better than I ever could.

  2. Your dissertation tutor had better be impressed.


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