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Holding Hands with Dinosaurs

They pull huge film and television audiences, but just why are we so fascinated by dinosaurs? We investigate why these creatures from the distant geologic past are so intriguing.

by Stuart Carter

It’s official: humans like dinosaurs more than money. In recent months two television series have swept the television ratings world by storm. The cliff hanging format of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" makes for compulsive viewing and topped the ratings in both the USA and the UK. The producers must have thought their formula of watching complete strangers win hundreds of thousands of dollars and pounds would be the television hit of the decade. But lumbering in the wings was perhaps the most unexpected hit of recent times, an animated science series about long dead creatures.

The BBC’s science documentary series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ has broken all television records around the globe. In Britain alone it peaked at around 19 million viewers, almost one in three of the total population. The stupendous scale of this success must have come as a great delight to the producers but for years television executives have known that dinosaurs are good box-office. It seems that all of us, children and adults alike, are obsessed with dinosaurs. Just how and why did this group of extinct reptiles get to be so popular?

Dinosaurs are members of a group of around 1300 reptiles that first appeared on our planet 210 million years ago. Mysteriously they became extinct about 65 million years ago, and just one descendant, the birds, has survived to the present. The first dinosaur remains were uncovered in England in the 1820’s. It was soon realised that some of these creatures were huge, they lived on the land and many of them could walk upright on two legs.

Paul Sereno

Eoraptor - the most primitive dinosaur lived 228 million years ago and was a small fierce predator.

It was this last discovery that set the scene for the human imagination to run wild. It has led to all kinds of speculation about their locomotion, behaviour and physiology. Imagine if we had to share our planet with creatures that could run up to 26 miles an hour, weighed up to 100 tonnes and had a taste for human flesh. In reality many of them were probably vegetarian, but it’s the flesh eaters that have fuelled our fears. By the 1840s they were officially named the ‘Dinosauria’: meaning Greek for ‘terrible lizard’.

Dinosaur footprints reveal that many of them walked erect in a fashion similar to modern birds, putting one foot in front of the other. The earliest dinosaurs were small, light carnivores and omnivores, probably extremely quick and agile to avoid any large predators. During the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods they evolved into many different types, some of them reaching colossal size. The largest dinosaur we have ever found is Seismosaurus in New Mexico. Its fossil bones reveal an animal that may have weighed in at 30 tonnes and was up to an incredible 170 feet long; 2 times longer than today’s largest animal, the blue whale.

Alt text
Joe Tucciarone

At nearly 170ft long the Seismosaurus was the largest animal to ever walk the earth.

Sauropods like Argentinosaurus had long necks and reached giant proportions, weighing up to 100 tonnes. Their immense size kept them firmly on all four feet lumbering along like giant elephants. Wild elephant can be killers but frequent childhood visits to zoos have left us all with the belief that elephants are gentle, kind creatures capable of weeping. This anthropomorphic approach may not only be misleading about elephants it may be even more misleading about long extinct creatures like Diplocodus. They may have lived in harmonious groups and they may have been gentle giants, protected by their size rather than by their aggression. If they had met humans they may, like elephants, have become our best friends offering small children rides at the local zoo. But the truth is we simply don’t know. They may have been highly aggressive, intent on decimating anything in their path: monster gardeners with small brains.

Tyrannosaurus Rex
Joe Tucciarone

The Tyrannosaurus Rex -the film maker's dream

Where our imagination really runs wild is with the king of the dinosaurs, the Tyrannosaurus. Just their appearance - large heads, sharp claws, backward curving, doubly serrated teeth all fill us with fear. From just a few early bones Victorian palaeontologists soon built up a picture of a powerful creature with small front limbs, massive powerful rear legs, capable of grasping its prey in its jaws and casually ripping meat off in much the same way we might tackle a chicken leg. This fearsome creature has been a story teller’s dream, a monster from our worst nightmares, a beast that already lurked in the deep primeval forest of our darkest dreams. This fear is part of our genetic makeup, part of our primal instinct. Film makers and television producers have long understood the fatal attraction we have for these creatures from hell. It’s hard to imagine but perhaps Tyrannosaurus was timid and docile and that all along we have been completely wrong. We will never know, but like the lion tamer it would be a brave person that volunteered to be in the same cage as a 6 tonne reptile most scientists agree was a ferocious carnivore.

Maiasaurus the 'mother dinosaur'
Miami museum

Maiasaurus - the 'mother' dinosaur, an image we find comforting.

The fact that dinosaurs are long extinct adds to their intrigue. Like a murder hunt it needs careful forensic work to unlock the secrets of how they walked, ate and bred. Fossil evidence tells us that like most other reptiles and birds the dinosaurs built nests and laid eggs. The remains of nests and newly hatched plant eating dinosaurs have been found in Montana in the USA. Layer upon layer of fossilised nests in the Gobi Desert suggest that the dinosaurs returned to the same nesting sites year after year. Nests, young helpless chicks and caring parents all are images that we find familiar and comforting. It reassures us that even a creature as strange and alien as a dinosaur was capable of the nurturing, social behaviour that we find so reassuring and essential in our own lives.

There is also the vexed question of whether dinosaurs were cold or warm blooded. Reptiles are cold but birds are warm blooded. But again, short of cloning a modern dinosaur from ancient original DNA molecules (as portrayed in Michael Crichton brilliant book "Jurassic Park" later turned into a Hollywood block buster by Steven Spielberg) we can never know the absolute truth. But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is how they became extinct. What force of nature was so powerful that it managed to kill off the most successful group of animals of all time? Theories about their demise range from asteroid impact, rising sea levels to today’s main contender: massive volcanic eruptions. Read our previous article "Extinction!" which points to an intriguing balance of all three factors. Whatever killed them must have been catastrophic. A highly successful group of animals that roamed the Earth for over 150 million years, more than seventy times longer than humans, were wiped off the surface of the planet forever.

Dinosaur dentist
Paul Sereno

It may have been small but the Eoraptor had razor sharp teeth.

A whole branch of scientific study has grown up around the study of dinosaur fossils. An even bigger entertainment industry has jumped on to a bandwagon quite literally 'full of old bones'. Palaeontologists may have been highly imaginative in the way they have built exotic creatures from fossil fragments but the producers of the highly acclaimed television series ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’ have taken it much further by personalising and humanising these ancient leviathans wherever possible.

By brilliantly recreating the past with computer animated dinosaurs superimposed onto real life backdrops (for intimate close-ups they brought on up market hand puppets) they have made perfect natural history documentaries, telling stories of individuals and of families. They told of the perils faced by baby dinosaurs, the love of a mother for her child, the unselfish act of heroism for the needs of the herd. They painted a picture of the life and death struggle that all living creatures face - of animals capable of much more than just reaction and instinct. The reality is we can never know how this fascinating and successful group of extinct animals really behaved. The scientists have to make sure that the distinction between reality and what we would like to imagine happened remains clear and truthful.

Our fascination with dinosaurs will never diminish. Reflected in the lives of the dinosaurs we can see the same struggles that we face in our own lives. As an added bonus we can also confront the monsters hidden in our deep subconscious. New waves of technologies will improve the way we can recreate the past and breathe fresh life into our dino-mania. Soon we will be able to interact with them on the web or merge with them on giant screens in our living rooms; the land of the dinosaurs will become the ultimate virtual holiday destination. Imagine a world where we can smell, touch and be chased by monsters from our distant past...


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First Science 2014