Saturday, 2 May 2015

I Wish That I Was A Dinosaur!

It is a fact that when someone refers to another person as a ‘dinosaur’ then what they are alluding to are qualities synonymous with being slow, obsolete, and even close to extinction. It is rarely meant as a compliment except when used by people who are actually interested in dinosaurs.

Guess what? I am interested in dinosaurs!

I have been fascinated by these animals ever since I received a book on them for my birthday when I was a child. This one in fact:

Reading this book for the first time proved a watershed moment. I wanted to be a Palaeontologist from that moment on. Unfortunately my academic abilities never allowed me to achieve that particular dream as a profession; my mathematics is very weak despite several attempts to improve it. I did, however, become something of an amateur Palaeontologist and I remain so to this day.

When the above book was published dinosaurs were seen as nothing more than big lizards that spent all morning sat in the sun until they got warm enough to move. Once they reached an optimal temperature then they would set off and do dinosaur things, like eating each other, before night came and they had to sit down again as the lack of sunlight placed them back in a kind of torpor.
Then this book came along in 1986:

Dr Robert T. Bakker was and still is the enfant terrible, of Palaeontology. He looked at dinosaurs with young eyes and was certain that we had gotten them wrong. ‘The Dinosaur Heresies’ is so named because it attacks the extant theories of dinosaurs modelled as giant reptiles that had persisted unchallenged for decades. Inspired by his mentor John Ostrom Bakker used his considerable talents as an artist to redraw dinosaurs as active animals more alike to mammals in terms of physiology and appearance than they were to lizards. He supported his dynamic representations with a considerable amount of science presented to less well educated readers like myself in a very accessible fashion, or ‘popularist’ as some of his critics would term it.

This new representation of dinosaurs was one of very active animals that lived more like the warm-bloodied (endothermic) mammals that the cold-bloodied (ectothermic) reptiles. They did not lumber anymore but ran with agility and speed.

Instead of the sprawled reptilian pose favoured for the reconstruction of skeletons Bakker suggested something much more revolutionary. The drooping tail was lifted from the floor and the animal became something far more effective in the process.

Deinonychus was discovered by John Ostrom and its reconstruction as an active predator was contentious at the time but it was the only one that explained the animal’s sickle shaped claws that armed its feet.

This was not a slow moving, obsolete, dullard of a creature. Clearly Deinonychus possessed traits that were more commonly seen in mammals. It was swift, powerful, agile and intelligent. This was an animal that evolved to meet changing demands of both its environment and its ecological niche. It was superbly adapted to carry out its role as a small to middle sized predator.

Of course, as someone with a passionate interest in Palaeontology and dinosaurs in particular I appreciate all of the facts above. Dinosaurs were the supreme forms of life for over 231 million years whereas mammals only really came to prominence less than 65 million years ago. It was only the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs that actually allowed mammals and birds, the only dinosaurs to survive, to rise to their position of supremacy.

So for me being termed a ‘dinosaur’ is actually a compliment not a criticism. I would dearly love to be as successful as these fabulous creatures were. I’d like to be around for as long as them as well but that is another matter!

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