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Apr. 18, 2013

Go West, Young Man, and Grow Up With the Dinosaurs

by Brian Switek

Click to enlarge images
To hear an audio version of the following book excerpt, click here
 
I was once a dinosaur. A Stegosaurus, to be exact. My uncomfortably snug green jumpsuit, with floppy fabric plates sewn along the back, was far from scientifically accurate, but that wasn’t important. I had the dinosaur spirit. That’s what counted.
 
I had been tapped as one of the main players in an Allosaurus-versus-Stegosaurus battle set for my preschool’s Dinosaur Night. It was yet another chance to coerce my parents to let me frolic among dinosaurs. My teachers had hidden little plastic dinosaurs in a shallow sandbox dig site, and everyone got a box of bland dinosaur cereal at the end of the night, but if there was any educational subtext, I can’t remember it. That didn’t matter to me at the time. Who needs a reason to play with dinosaurs when you’re a five-year-old prehistory fanatic?
 
I was ready to roar, stomp, and swing my spiky tail at the Allosaurus kid in a Jurassic death match when I noticed that he was dressed in an identical costume. My opponent looked nothing like the nimble hypercarnivore with steel-trap jaws he was supposed to be. My teachers hadn’t done their homework. And I didn’t agree with my scripted defeat at the claws of Allosaurus, either. At the moment of my mock death, when the script called for me to fall and bare my reptilian throat to my attacker, I decided to break character and try to convince my audience that Stegosaurus was really the superior dinosaur. Allosaurus was fierce and fast, I explained, but those attributes would have been of little use against the prominent plates and bone-piercing tail spikes of Stegosaurus.
 
Alas, the assembled adults didn’t appreciate my impromptu dinosaurology lesson. I was hoping the grown-ups would sagely nod their heads in agreement and recommend me for a post at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. But they just laughed.
 
I didn’t shake my fist and scream “Fools! I’ll show you all!” as I felt in my heart a true scientist should do, but I didn’t give up on dinosaurs, either. I nurtured my dinomania with documentaries, delighted in the dino-themed B movies I brought home from the video store, and tore up my grandparents’ backyard in my search of a perfect Triceratops nest. Never mind that the classic three-horned dinosaur never roamed central New Jersey, or that the few dinosaur fossils found in the state were mostly scraps of skeletons that had been washed out into the Cretaceous Atlantic. My fossil hunter’s intuition told me there just had to be a dinosaur underneath the topsoil, and I kept on excavating my pit. That is, until I got the hatchet out of my grandfather’s toolshed and tried to cut down a sapling that was in my way. My parents bolted out of the house and put a stop to my excavation. Apparently I hadn’t filled out the proper permits before I started my dig.
 
That’s not to say that my parents didn’t otherwise support my fossil infatuation. They encouraged my paleontological dreams, and I will always cherish the memory of them defending my book choices when my elementary school’s librarian complained that I was checking out too many dinosaur titles that were supposedly above my reading level. My brain ached with the need to know everything there was to know about dinosaurs. Every new dinosaur name I learned became a scientific incarnation, a magic word that immediately conjured up terrible, marvelous, scaly monsters in my imagination.
 
Two and a half decades later, my wife now copes with the dinosauriana that is rapidly radiating out from my desk and creeping into every room of our Salt Lake City apartment. My dinosaur dreams factored into our decision to move here, too. When people ask me why in the world I would want to move to Utah, a place whose Mormon legacy includes maddeningly conservative politics and “near beer,” my answer is very simple: “For the dinosaurs.” With apologies to Horace Greeley, my rationale for coming to Utah was “Go West, young man, and grow up with the dinosaurs.” The Beehive State is home to some of the richest dinosaur-bearing formations anywhere, all laid out in arid, colorful badlands. And while other couples might go back and forth about whether they can afford a new couch or television, I tend to spend hours trying to wear down my wife’s financial resolve to let me bring home essential items like a full-size cast of an Apatosaurus skull from an estate sale. (The plaster sauropod head now sits triumphantly atop one of my paleontology-dedicated bookshelves.)
 
I only get to join the search for more dinosaurs when the weather allows, though. After October, the weather is too cold to go prospecting and the ground is too hard to safely extricate fossils. To pass the time I spend my winters writing about the rushing flow of new paleo papers, anxiously awaiting spring. Every new field season brings new possibilities. Despite what you might expect from more than a century of fossil hunting in the American West, there are still many dinosaurs left to discover. I haven’t found that Triceratops nest just yet, but now I live in a place one step closer to my dreams, where Earth’s history is thrust up and exposed in beautiful, fossil-rich swaths.
 
Only, dinosaurs aren’t supposed to be part of adulthood. Paleontologists and volunteer dinosaur diggers are often seen as overgrown children who somehow found a way to make a profession out of playing in the dirt and dreaming of snaggletoothed horrors treading through primordial ooze. American kids are expected to go through a “dinosaur phase,” but we’re due to give that up once we discover team sports and kissing under the high school bleachers. (My natural awkwardness prevented me from doing either of those things.) An awakening to cathartic music, the sheer terror of dating, and a concentrated push to narrow down dreams into viable career options are scheduled to take over and sweep out all the childhood clutter. Let’s face it: dinosaurs have been culturally demarcated as kitschy kid stuff—triggers for nostalgia and ironic whimsy, but not a subject to take seriously.
 
At least not until the former dinosaur fans have kids of their own and take their broods to see the real-life monsters that stalk museum halls. The dinosaurs they grew up with are gone, replaced by creatures that look entirely different and sometimes don’t even carry the same names. The dinosaurs we meet as children don’t stay around long—science is always tweaking and refining them, giving us a jolt when we’re expecting comforting memories.
 
I experienced a similar shock when my once-girlfriend Ellen took me to see the American Museum of Natural History’s dinosaurs on New Year’s Day 2003. I hadn’t visited the halls since I was a kid, and in the intervening years the museum had renovated its fossil exhibits. The skeletons that had so inspired me as a youngster had received a fantastic make over.
 
Tyrannosaurus rex, as I first met her, reared back in a Godzilla pose, fang-lined jaws held high and tail dragging on the ground. The Stegosaurus I encountered on the same visit looked like a mound of plates and spikes, while the low-slung “Brontosaurus” stood there stupidly, looking out of place on dry land rather than in a fetid, weed-choked pool. The dinosaurs I grew up with lived in a humid, slow-motion nightmare of teeth, claws, and horns. All had been replaced by unfamiliar visions of Mesozoic life—dinosaurs that stood tall and frozen in midstride as if their flesh had suddenly fallen off as they sauntered through their world. The new dinosaurs, poised in active skeletal snapshots, were strangers to me.
 
The fossilized vestiges of dinosaurs—their actual bones—remain unchanged. Individually, they appear to be static monuments of an era far beyond the reach of history. But since the time I first set eyes on the dinosaurs, paleontologists have been developing ever-more-refined techniques for gleaning information about prehistoric lives from those remains. A sauropod femur or a hadrosaur skull is not just a petrified lump meant only to be mounted and then left to collect dust. Every dinosaur fossil contains clues about that animal’s life, evolution, and sometimes even death. Understanding a dinosaur doesn’t stop with reassembling the puzzle of their bones—that’s just the start of paleobiological reinvention.
 
What earlier generations could only speculate about, we can now begin to investigate. Everything from dinosaur sex lives to that most persistent of mysteries—what colors they were—is coming to the forefront. And the more we learn, the more peculiar and spectacular dinosaurs become. The Tyrannosaurus that I first met has been ripped to shreds by a much more active and fascinating carnivore—a muscular apex predator with a spine held parallel to the ground, a hot-running metabolism, and a fine coat of dinofuzz, betraying the tyrant’s distant relationship to modern birds. Stegosaurus and all the other classics have been rearticulated and revitalized, too—moved out of the prehistoric bayous and cast in colors as vibrant as their natural history.
 
But it takes time for discoveries to reach the public, and even then, the science of how we know so much about dinosaur biology is often obscured. Museum halls and documentaries may present the products of paleontology—fleeting glimpses of dinosaurs inside and out—but rarely do they explain why dinosaurs have changed so much. Those secrets are revealed only in symposia and technical papers beyond the reach of casual dinosaur fans. It’s impossible for even the acutely dinosaur-attuned to keep up with the pace of discovery. Change overtakes our understanding so rapidly that even sparkling museum displays are at least partly out of date by the time they open to the public. From estimates of dinosaurs’ total length to the positions of their nostrils, paleontologists are constantly revising and arguing over what the beasts were really like. In all of this, skeletal reconstructions and life restorations are often taken as the last word when they are really working hypotheses, open to change and revision at the drop of a journal article. And, oddly enough, paleontology is one of the few areas of science where it’s fashionable to distrust changes in our understanding, a love of tradition leading prehistory fans to mock feathery tyrannosaurs as giant chickens and weep over the loss of a favorite dinosaur species thanks to taxonomic arcana.
 
Of all the creatures to be caught between science and public affection, it is “Brontosaurus”—the iconic dinosaur that suffered a second extinction at the hands of research—that stays with me. It is “betwixt and between,” a dinosaur properly called Apatosaurus and yet known and cherished by its old name. “Brontosaurus” is an unofficial nickname we’re not supposed to use anymore, but we can’t let go of it.
 
A bulky hill of animate flesh, “Brontosaurus” was the epitome of what it was to be a dinosaur. I remember her fondly. The long-necked giant was my introduction to how magnificent dinosaurs were, but she evaporated into the scientific ether just as soon as I met her. Today, “Brontosaurus” lives on only as a memory. But I cherish that memory, and I’m not alone. “Brontosaurus” is an icon that embodied the lifestyles of the big and scaly. To hear that the dinosaur didn’t exist felt less like a technical mistake than a betrayal.
 
Brontosaurus” is this book’s mascot. There is no better symbol of the tension between the actual animals paleontologists investigate and the pop-culture images of these behemoths—visions of prehistoric life that take on a life of their own and can dig their claws into our imagination as tenaciously as any Velociraptor. That’s the danger, and fun, inherent in the process of discovery. In order to understand dinosaurs, we need to resurrect them in fiberglass, steel, paint, and computer-generated models. Inevitably, these older visions battle with updated versions of themselves. Scientific discovery catalyzes violent competition between what we thought we knew and what we currently understand. “Brontosaurus” is the most famous casualty of these perpetual skirmishes, but she is not only that. She is a familiar milestone that we can use to measure just how much science has changed dinosaurs. We may have lost a dear dinosaur, but the same process that destroyed the titan has revealed clues about prehistoric lives that we never expected to find. With “Brontosaurus” as our traveling companion, let’s catch up with some old friends and see what secrets they’ve begun to teach us about evolution, extinction, and survival.
 
To hear an audio version of this book excerpt, click here
 

Excerpted from My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road With Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, by Brian Switek, published in April 2013 by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2013 by Brian Switek. All rights reserved.

 
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About Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer and author of My Beloved Brontosaurus and Written in Stone.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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