Friday, September 2, 2011

How should dinosaurs revolt?

Zallinger Tyrannosaurs Rex
Rudolf Zallinger's famous T. rex. Photo by DJNick66, shared via flickr.

The lead up to Dinosaur Revolution has brought to the fore a certain message we've all heard before:

"Sunday Sunday Sunday! Prepare to have your vision of dinosaurs as sluggish, stupid reptiles destroyed!"

In Tom Conroy's review of Dinosaur Revolution at Media Life Magazine, he writes "Even if viewers haven’t read in scientific journals that dinosaurs weren’t stupid, sluggish creatures, they’ve probably gleaned that information from 'Jurassic Park.'" It's something that's bugged me as I've written here over the last two years. After all, in the Vintage Dinosaur Art series, Marc and I frequently discuss the transition from the sluggish reptiles of yesteryear to dynamic, diverse dinosaurs we know today. Don't people get it by now?

If asked to picture the world of the Mesozoic, does the average person on the street see the vision of Zallinger or Spielberg? We're now almost twenty years into the Jurassic Park era, and the idea of the "raptor" has ascended to a level of popularity arguably equal to Tyrannosaurus rex. As Matt Martyniuk points out in a recent post, Dinosaur Train is creating a new generation of dinosaur lovers who don't have that old baggage to deal with.

Are we beating a dead horse when we boldly claim to be killing obsolete ideas about dinosaur life? If so, what does this demand of future dinosaur edutainment? I'd argue that we need to focus less on dinosaur-specific lessons and more on broad concepts about evolution. Use the proven appeal of dinosaurs to teach about niche partitioning, convergent evolution, and other mechanisms of evolution. Be openly speculative and hypothetical. Work dinosaurs into the great tapestry of life on earth - all four billion or so years of it. These documentaries can be more than travelogues through time and showcases for weird, dead monsters. How to get there? I'm not sure. That's why I'm opening it up to you. What would you like to see future dinosaur projects do?


  1. Now, I was a small child at the very height of the Jurassic Park craze, so I'll try to dig up the thought process behind my initial childhood dinophilia, so please bare in mind.

    Now, at the time, my favorite dinosaurs were deinonychus, coelophysis, troodon and so forth. All were fast moving, relatively large-brained theropods. And this was exactly what I liked so much about them. The idea of swift, intelligent predators was fascinating to me as a young boy (as it is now) and as such, the idea of fast, potentially warm-blooded dinosaurs was not alien to me at all.

    So as for my personal impression, the public idea of dinosaurs as sluggish, evolutionary dead ends most certainly has changed. A layman thinks of dinosaurs, and he sees the great magnificent beasts he has seen in films.

    As to my answer of where to go next to change the public perception of dinosaurs, my answer would lie with feathers. Now, the average person has probably heard the term archeopteryx at some time or another, and they are probably at least vaguely familiar of the idea of modern birds having descended from dinosaurs. However, public knowledge of this pretty much ends at that.

    The popular idea of the velociraptor is largely still the naked, Spielbergian version (see here: and the idea of modern birds actually being dinosaurs is virtually anathema. So I think the next step to take would be to show just exactly how dinosaurs could be avian in form and function, how those with plumage looked, how the feathers would form around the dinosaur and give it an overall silhouette much different then the one we would initial glean from early fossils. So on and so forth.

  2. I'm with Adam. Dinosaurs being successful animals is widely accepted now - even the most half-arsed of kids' books don't have swamp-bound sauropods or tail-dragging tyrannosaurs any more. The next breakthrough will be with getting people to accept the reality of feathered dinosaurs and that birds themselves are just another feathered dinosaur group. I think (or hope) the next wave of CG docus will help in this.

  3. "Even if viewers haven’t read in scientific journals that dinosaurs weren’t stupid, sluggish creatures, they’ve probably gleaned that information from 'Jurassic Park.'"

    It's undoubtedly Jurassic Park did a 180ยบ curve into people's idea of what a dinosaur was but that was almost 20 years ago. We now know much, much more to the point of what was accurate at the time of Jurassic is now arguably as inaccurate as Pot-Bellied T. rex was at that time.

    It's close to ridiculous claim Dinosaurs Revolution isn't showing anything different than Jurassic Park did last century. It's definitely a problem that these TV shows are being entirely bashing with most times without reason.

    I don't think TV audience ever saw a depiction of a dinosaur acting like a true bird like Gigantoraptor on DR. Most certainly not in Jurassic Park.

  4. I didn't even really address the feathered dinos/ bird evolution thing, which is certainly the single most important idea to stress to the public. It would be part of by "big picture" concept, undoubtedly. And the Gigantoraptor bit is the one I most look forward to seeing in DR.

    Last year, I took my 8 year old niece to the Indianapolis Children's Museum, parked us under Stan the T. rex, and pointed out all of the bird-like features. She had been told this so many times, she was just like, "yeah yeah, birds are dinosaurs, I know. Can we go to the gift shop?" I'm not sure where she picked this up, but it seems that even in an educationally wanting state like Indiana, the bird-dino link is well-known to a kid who's more interested in Barbie dolls than dinosaurs. A single case study, granted. But it surprised me.

  5. David, that is a pleasant surprise to me too. Many things I hear from visitors to museums still astonish me. And though the idea that dinosaurs were successful animals is now widely accepted, I'm not so sure this most basic of knowledge is quite universal to 'Everyman'. If you asked some members of even my own family, for instance, what their idea of dinosaurs was, you'd be aghast at the response. Then you and Marc would probably shun me forever by sheer virtue of being their relation. ¬_¬ I agree about the direction future documentaries ought to take, however. The flip side is that some people see vicious killing machines instead, and not animals. As a tangential though not inappropriate example, I notice the distinction some people make in the attention they give to my own saurian artwork. Some people still very much see them as something 'other'. Some ardent lovers of birds still couldn't care two straws for the dinos. I even received an invitation to join a dA group dedicated to monsters, when I do not recall having drawn a single one.

  6. @Niroot I have a postcard featuring an illustration of a dragon by you, you know...

  7. Heh, I recollected dragons soon after posting that (doh). But I suppose it depends on one's definition of 'monster'. A dragon is still less a monster than an animal to me, albeit mythical (and I'm not always so sure about mythical either ;)).


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