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Digging Up the Dinosaurs (September 2020): New Perspectives on the Dinosaurs

by Larry T. Spencer

New Perspectives on the Dinosaurs

Beginning in the 1970s dinosaur studies experienced a resurgence of interest in the US and elsewhere, during a decade sometimes known as the “Dinosaur Renaissance.”  The change in perception is described by Adrian Desmond in The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs. But the new view of dinosaur biology was fueled by the work of Robert Bakker, who had studied under John Ostrom at Yale before earning a PhD at Harvard. Bakker believed that dinosaurs were homeothermic and active, rather than ectothermic and inactive, and presented his theories in The Dinosaur Heresies. Another revisionist work to appear around the same time was The New Dinosaurs: An Alternative Evolution, by Dougal Dixon. How the new thinking would change paleontology was later addressed by Don Lessem in Dinosaurs Rediscovered: New Findings Which Are Revolutionizing Dinosaur Science. Lessem, founder of the Dinosaur Society, personally assisted in excavation of new dinosaurs in Argentina. A more recent book with nearly the same title is Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology, written by Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol who was a consultant to the BBC documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs. Another British author, Phillip Manning of the University of Manchester, describes his work on a mummified dinosaur from the Hell Creek Formation in Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs: Soft Tissues and Hard Science. Jack Horner, a paleontologist at Montana State University and discoverer of the fact that the dinosaur Maiasaura cared for her young, and Hrner and James Gorman promoted the interesting thesis of cloning a dinosaur in How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever. Another recent commentator is Brian Switek, a freelance writer from southern Utah and devotee of dinosaurs, who shares his field experiences in My Beloved Brontosaurus. Philosopher Keith Parsons’s book Drawing Out Leviathan: Dinosaurs and the Science Wars tackles head-on the new controversies concerning the biology of the dinosaurs. Well qualified for this task, Parsons earned a second PhD in the history of science before writing the book.

A parallel realization is that while some dinosaurs have disappeared, the loss is not complete if modern birds are indeed descendants of one branch of their lineage. The big question for paleontologists now is what event caused the extinction of the non-bird group? There are perhaps as many hypotheses as there are days in a month, many of which were explored in a scholarly volume edited by William Glen entitled The Mass-Extinction Debates: How Science Works in a Crisis. One that stands out is the theory of Walter Alvarez, son of Luis Alvarez (Nobel laureate and a founder of modern high energy physics). In his book T. Rex and the Crater of Doom, Alvarez proposes that the event was a bolide that hit the Yucatán Peninsula roughly 65 million years ago, sending a firestorm and tsunami throughout North and South America with airborne debris that prevented sunshine from reaching the Earth’s surface for many decades. This hypothesis is supported by a narrow band of iridium, a substance not normally found in geologic strata, appearing at roughly the same time-depth proposed for the bolide. James Powell’s Night Comes to the Cretaceous: Dinosaur Extinction and the Transformation of Modern Geology details the initial turmoil caused by this hypothesis, describing how it came to be adopted by most geologists, and its impact on modern geology. A more philosophical work is Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. Although Randall’s intent is to shed light on dark matter rather than on dinosaurs, she references the presumed extinction via the bolide as a hypothetical example of the possible effects of dark matter if we were to encounter it. A comprehensive yet highly accessible work exploiting the prevailing taxonomic treatment of “bird versus non-bird” lineages, with a final chapter devoted to theories about the extinction event, is the recent Smithsonian volume authored by Darren Naish and Paul Barrett, Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved.

Earlier in this essay works documenting the race to harbor dinosaur mounts in the major museums of the eastern US were discussed, a race still being run (in Europe as well). But curiously, a new form of ostentatious behavior has emerged. While the rich have long tended to display their wealth by purchasing paintings of European masters, today it is the skulls or even whole bodies of ancient creatures that have become the rage. Two books about different tyrannosaurs provide contrasting illustrations of this new development. Paige Williams’s The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy recounts the acquisition of a Mongolian specimen, Tarbosaurus bataar, by Eric Prokopi, a private Floridian collector and dealer in antiquities. Prokopi imported the dinosaur bone by bone from Mongolia, then offered the pieces, assembled into a 3-D mount, for auction in New York. Fortunately for Mongolia, there are laws against exporting antiquities: the tyrannosaur was liberated and returned to Mongolia, while Prokopi served time in prison for his efforts. In a note, Williams reveals that the auction had been won by a private individual who planned to exhibit the dinosaur in one of his own properties. Another book deals with the recent excavation by private parties, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen ever found. As told by Stephen Fiffer in Tyrannosaurus Sue, soon after excavation questions arose over which of the excavating parties owned it. The specimen was named Sue after its discoverer (Sue Hendrickson), a colleague of the team who recovered the bones. But the dinosaur ended up in Chicago’s Field Museum after a consortium of Disney and McDonald’s corporate philanthropists had bid over $8 million to rescue the specimen from private ownership and donate it to the museum.