27th November 2020
Here’s a quick prompt: think of a dinosaur – any dinosaur. Picture it in your head. What are its defining features? For the vast majority, scales, spikes, claws, and maybe some long, sharp teeth come to mind. As intimidating and, well, cool, as that all sounds, it is not a very representative view of one of the largest, most diverse, and successful clades of animal to ever walk the earth.
Dinosaurs have a bit of a PR problem. With the release of Jurassic Park back in 1993, the once somewhat obscure notion of these extinct species was propelled rather violently into the spotlight. Tyrannosaurus rex became a household name, as did Velociraptor, Triceratops, and Brachiosaurus. Those first films were, at the time, revolutionary – they were some of the earliest depictions of these creatures to present them as more than slow, sluggish, cold-blooded reptiles. They were agile and quick, intelligent and cunning, majestic and intimidating. Above all, they were terrifying, roaring at the screen as they tore through our human heroes.
Unfortunately, and I say this with love, as the first Jurassic Park is my favourite movie; all that public attention did not age particularly well. Palaeontology is a fast-evolving scientific field – and new fossil discoveries regularly change our understanding of these incredible creatures. Within a few years following the film’s 1993 release, our view of these animals had changed drastically. Velociraptor was known to be a dog-sized, heavily feathered, bird-like dinosaur, instead of a scaly, lizard-like, man-sized creature. Tyrannosaurus was known to not base its vision on movement, as it did in the film – it had clear, binocular vision, like modern birds of prey. As the 90s came to a close and the 2000s rolled in, we had evidence of feathering on a huge number of theropod dinosaurs (the bipedal, mostly carnivorous ones). Here’s where things hit a bit of a stagnation point.
With the release of Jurassic Park 3 not being quite as much of a hit as the studio was hoping for, the franchise ground to a halt. This created a bit of a void in media. With the success of the early Jurassic films, few, if any, other studios were willing to put out any sort of dinosaur media as a direct competitor. Which is odd, in a lot of ways. Universal, the studio behind the films, did not own dinosaurs. In a very real way however, they owned the image of dinosaurs most people had grown accustomed to. As their franchise came to a stop, the evolution of the image dinosaurs in the minds of the general public did too.
This meant that dinosaurs were permanently viewed in a specific way – as movie monsters, with scales, spikes, claws, and maybe some long, sharp teeth. Not as an incredibly varied group of animals which at some point were living, breathing creatures with distinct behaviours like any modern species. They ate, and ran, and slept, and fought, and bred, and lived! They filled every niche imaginable, evolving into shapes and sizes to make the most of the environments they found home in. Teeth and claws were barely the tip of the iceberg when it came to unique adaptations – feathers, quills, bony plates and frills, spines, long necks, tail clubs, wings, and more, were the norm.
But with this new knowledge of astounding diversity among the species, why have dinosaurs not attained a new public image and why do we still find ourselves stuck with the stock-standard movie monsters? In a lot of ways, our society’s thirst for nostalgia has set us on a dangerous path to scientific inertia. In 2015, a much anticipated, highly delayed fourth film in the franchise – Jurassic World – was released and skyrocketed to become one of the highest grossing films of all time. Remembering my time on the internet palaeontology community just before its release, many were hoping that the sequel would carry on the spirit of the first film, in that it would present a more modern take on these creatures and introduce a new generation to the wonders of prehistory. Unfortunately, what we got was, well, more of the same. Scratch that, what we got was a watered-down version of the incredible vision of Jurassic Park.
These new dinosaurs existed only to incite violence, roar, and pose for the camera. Gone was any sense of majesty or beauty, or even base scientific interest. I can’t fault the film for a lot of this – there is a clear reason why it made as much money as it did – its ability to harken back to one of the greatest films of all time and milk that nostalgia for all its worth was impressive. But at what cost? A new generation of kids will grow up on the memory of this film – the memory of monsters tearing into each other. For all its faults, I still find it hard to be too cynical. A new audience has perhaps been born of this film, people who will take the time to learn about these wonderous animals and take them for what they were – wonderous animals.
All in all, dinosaurs incite wonder. That much is certain. How we go about presenting that concept might need a little tweaking as we make our way into the future, and perhaps taking off the nostalgia goggles every once in a while will do us a little bit of good not just in regard to palaeontology, but in science as a whole. Evolution has always been a keystone concept in the field, and in a very meta way, applies just as much to our perception of these long-extinct creatures. We have some work to do. This is the first instalment of a short series of articles on the subject. I’ve covered the basics of why we might want to re-examine our view of dinosaurs. In the next few, I’ll be diving into individual species and why we haven’t quite been doing them justice in the media.