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Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The popularity of dinosaurs - for better, for worse

This article is being cross-posted at the website of the London-based 2016 Popularizing Palaeontology workshop as part of a series of blog posts focusing on the discussions and themes of that event. Over the course of this two day workshop curators, artists, historians and palaeontologists presented talks and led round-table discussions about the history and current state of palaeontological outreach. I presented a talk at this workshop - entitled 'The importance and impact of palaeoart in palaeontological outreach', which you can see here. The following is not based on this talk, but rather a theme that seemed - to me - to be consistent across many presentations and discussions, including my own.

Whether it's a giant armoured thyreophoran like Panoplosaurus mirus (thanks to the Empress of Ankylosauria, Victoria Arbour, for advice on this restoration) or a svelte theropod like Chirostenotes pergracilis, everyone likes dinosaurs and we - palaeontologists - like using them in our outreach. But are dinosaurs really universally popular and appropriate for the wide range of outreach we use them in?
The Popularizing Palaeontology workshops held in August 2016 presented fascinating insights into the history and current state of palaeontological outreach. Our many talks and roundtable discussions touched varied topics but several central themes emerged, of which one was the prevalence of dinosaurs in virtually all palaeontological PR exercises. Whatever we discussed - the history of museums, the palaeoart industry, public interest in research or palaeontological influences on cinema - dinosaurs were almost always involved. Even if they weren’t a main focus, their influence there - catalysing certain events, influencing decisions, eclipsing other outreach topics. It would be wrong to say popularising palaeontology is totally synonymous with popularising dinosaurs, but for better and worse, these animals have a major role and influence over public outreach of palaeontological science.

The success of dinosaurs in outreach

Exactly why dinosaurs occupy such an important and influential space in popular culture remains largely mysterious. On paper, dinosaurs are a group of extinct reptiles which are not - superficially at least - so different from other long-dead sauropsids, and yet they have somehow gained global fame and many dedicated followers. My suspicion is that dinosaurs uniquely combine obviously amazing, ‘high impact’ anatomy - large size, fantastic skeletal structures such as horns, huge teeth and so on - with bauplans that are easily understood by the general public, without being so familiar that they’re pedestrian. For instance, everyone can appreciate Allosaurus as an active, large bodied predator even if just looking at its skeleton in a museum, but - as bird-like as it is in detail - the overall form is somewhat alien and intriguing. Other fossil groups, such as ancient carnivorans or whales, are impressive enough but perhaps also too familiar to inspire our imaginations in the same way. At the other end of the spectrum are extinct creatures which are just too unusual for widespread appreciation. Perhaps their anatomy is too strange or their life histories are too obscure and difficult to relate to familiar biology. This applies to many extinct invertebrates, as well as several types of weirder vertebrates. Dinosaur biology is thus near perfect for outreach material: they’re visually impressive, anatomically and biologically accessible, but different enough to warrant interest. Whether this is the actual basis for dinosaurian appeal or not, museum staff, educators and merchandisers have realised for over 150 years that dinosaurs are an excellent way to interest the public and make money, and given them prominent roles in outreach. Aiding any intuitive draw we have to dinosaurs is a lot of social inertia, and part of the enduring appeal of dinosaurs is a long history of ingraining them into popular culture.

The success of dinosaurs in the public eye almost certainly reflects many varied influences, but their unique anatomical qualities may play an important role. Does any other fossil group combine interesting, ‘high impact’ biology, in a format that the public can easily grasp, in the way that dinosaurs do?

For those of us interested in science education, dinosaurs are one of the most important and potent tools at our disposal. We see them as not only fascinating subjects in their own right but as a way to introduce ‘bigger picture’, perhaps fundamentally more important, scientific concepts to lay audiences. Dinosaurs are gateways to discussions of evolution, adaptation, anatomy, biological diversity, extinction, geological time and the changing nature of the planet. They provide, as charismatic and fantastic creatures, perfect characters to maintain interest in discussions of these sometimes complex concepts, and well-known Mesozoic dramas - the breakup of Pangea, formation of the Deccan Trapps, the Chicxulub Impact - offer rich backgrounds to stage our conversations. Dinosaurs are more than just awesome animals: they’re public ambassadors for science, facts and intelligent thinking.

We cannot ignore the economic value of dinosaurs, too - and not just to Hollywood movie makers and toy manufacturers. Dinosaurs provide academia and its satellite industries with vital income because of their easy marketability and merchandising potential. Public interest in dinosaur news, books and artwork keeps authors and palaeoartists in work, while the pull of dinosaur exhibitions in natural history museums not only keeps turnstiles spinning but brings essential revenue - in the form of gift shop purchases, entry fees and cafe visits - to these underfunded venues. I don’t know that anyone has ever attempted to work out the net worth of dinosaurs to education, but, globally, their appeal must bring millions of pounds into venues that perform outreach every year.

Too much of a good thing?

So hurrah for dinosaurs, then, and their role as not only fascinating subjects for research and art, but as bankable, relatable and demanded elements of modern culture. But the popularity of dinosaurs does have an impact on other aspects of palaeontological PR, and in some conversations at our workshop ‘dinosaur’ almost became a bit of dirty word. No-one will deny the positive aspects of dinosaur popularity, but their dominance in popularised palaeontology influences outreach strategies, merchandising and public expectation, and not always in a positive way.

Some of the problems caused by dinosaurs were outlined in detail during talks at our workshop. We heard that a large portion of natural history museum visitors are exclusively concerned with seeing dinosaur exhibits, challenging natural history museums to use the rest of their collections in a meaningful, impactful manner. This is despite many museum goers being unable to distinguish dinosaur remains from those of other animals without the aid of helpful signage. It seems that, for some museum visitors, dinosaurs act like a brand label, or justification for interest, rather than an excuse to visit a museum for a rounded educational experience.

We also heard that bringing attention to non-dinosaur groups can be extremely difficult, and the less dinosaur-like they are, the harder it is. Groups like pre-Cenozoic synapsids, extinct invertebrates, fossil fish and so on struggle for attention and require highly creative outreach tactics to receive any interest. One of the commonest strategies - used frequently for semi-technical books on fossil animals (below) - is to make sure dinosaurs remain prominently mentioned even in those events or products which are focused on completely unrelated groups of animals. We just don’t trust most non-dinosaur clades to draw crowds or revenue on their own and have to spin them as being relevant to dinosaurs in some way. Tellingly, the only groups to escape frequent dinosaur namechecking are those which are already somewhat ‘dinosaur-like’. Giant fossil mammals, pterosaurs and Mesozoic marine reptiles share aspects of size and gross appearance with Mesozoic dinosaurs and might be seen as ‘honorary dinosaurs’ by the public, and perhaps mistakenly interpreted as the genuine article by many. Both dinosaur-targeted museum visits and our resistance to promote palaeontological topics without a dinosaurian safety net questions whether dinosaurs are a genuine ‘gateway’ to wider scientific education, and perhaps suggests a rather narrower interest in prehistoric life among the public.

Just some of the non-dinosaurian textbooks coming your way in 2017. Probably.
Our group also raised the association between dinosaur outreach and very young demographics, and the challenge this presented to educators. The problem isn’t that many children are naturally interested in dinosaurs - if anything, this is something to celebrate and encourage - but the impact this association has on older audiences. Many adults assume that anything to do with dinosaurs, and by extension any prehistoric animal, is automatically related to children, and often very young children. This becomes an issue for to those attempting to perform outreach or market palaeontologically-informed products to older audiences, and particularly outside of online venues. Experience shows that ‘real world’ dinosaur events - regardless of venue, event type or advertising theme - will be primarily stocked by children and parents expecting child-friendly media. I’ve experienced this many times in my outreach career, such as bowing to pressure for colouring-in stations at a palaeoart gallery, being asked whether a public lecture (entitled Palaeoart: the Never Ending Quest for Accuracy) was suitable for toddlers, and being invited to run art stalls and events for older audiences at dinosaur-themed events to find few interested people over 10 years of age.

The general expectation that dinosaur-related events or products skew towards children presents a complex set of challenges. Firstly, it can lead to older audiences deciding a priori that they cannot take anything away from dinosaur outreach because the event - whatever it is - is ‘just for kids’. I’m sure many of us have seen how ‘switched off’ parents of young dinosaur fanatics are when visiting outreach events, even though the people their children are speaking to may be expert scientists, experienced fossil hunters or world-renowned palaeoartists. Secondly, mismatched expectations of outreach events can be frustrating for both outreachers and audiences: attendees may wonder why a dinosaur event is pitched above the level of their children, while outreachers may feel over-prepared or over-invested in their activity programme when confronted with only young audiences. Perhaps the most concerning issue is that many outreachers and merchandisers use young demographics as an excuse for low scientific standards and sensationalism, promoting outdated, erroneous and sometimes idiosyncratic views of palaeontology because their audience is too young and insufficiently educated to know otherwise, or ignoring scientific data where it might curb child appeal. I am sure most readers can think of numerous examples of products - many labelled as ‘educational’ - which show evidence of this, and it’s easy to see how this attitude may play a major role in perpetuating outdated and erroneous ideas about the past.

One of our final discussion touched on perhaps another issue faced by dinosaur outreach: the schism between public and palaeontological appreciation of what dinosaurs are. For palaeontologists, dinosaurs are a constantly - and sometimes rapidly - evolving set of hypotheses and ideas, and this is what we generally try to present to the world in our outreach. But certain dinosaur concepts outgrew palaeontologist-steered media long ago and now occupy their own place in popular culture, one almost entirely divorced from developments of dinosaur science and instead orbiting their portrayals in film, TV and popular literature. Most of these products - even those produced in the last few years - stick to now long-outdated 20th century interpretations of dinosaur biology and, divorced from guiding hands of scientists, solely emphasise marketable aspects such as their size, perceived ferociousness, and unusual anatomy. The result is a public largely familiar with dinosaurs in a scientifically-distanced, simplified and monstrous form rather than the animals reconstructed through biological and geological sciences, and with little appreciation for their evolutionary context, the scientific techniques used to understand them, or their relationship to wider, ‘core themes’ of scientific outreach. Recent studies partly vindicate this view in showing that the public are generally unaware of even the most basic aspects of dinosaur science, such as the near 50-year old revision from the classic ‘tail-dragging’ posture to an elevated tail and horizontal body attitude (Ross et al. 2013). This is despite museums, artwork, documentaries and some of the most successful blockbuster movies of all time showing the latter since at least the 1990s. This being the case (and with an added caveat that the study in question was relatively small), perhaps our issue with dinosaur education is more severe than we thought: are people really engaging with dinosaur media at all, or are our subjects of research, artwork, and hallowed gateways to other sciences little more than time-fillers and distractions?

Despite the best efforts of many scientists, the public at large seem to associate dinosaurs with considerably outdated interpretations and monstrous creatures. Reviewing recent successful entries into one of the most widely-accessed sources of popular dinosaur culture - Hollywood movies - is this surprising? Perhaps the most visually progressive rendering in this set are the sparsely feathered dromaeosaurs from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (bottom right). However, the state of their integument still recalls dinosaur palaeoart from the mid-1990s, and not the extensive feather body covering shown by fossil evidence and now commonly restored over certain dinosaur species. Image sources, from top row down; King Kong (2005); Godzilla (2014); Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014); Toy Story (1996 - onwards); Jurassic World (2015); The Good Dinosaur (2015).

So, are dinosaurs as useful as we think for outreach purposes?

The points raise a simple but significant question: how effective is dinosaur-based outreach, really? As noted above, many decisions about outreach are shaped around dinosaur science and resources are poured into promoting dinosaur science itself. But are we right to regard dinosaur outreach as highly as we do?

Trying to balance the positive and negative points raised above, my take is yes, dinosaurs are an effective means to bringing science to people… but probably only certain people. Specifically, they seem to work very well among those who are already tuned into palaeontology, natural history and general science, an audience composed mostly of adult enthusiasts and children. Beyond this, their effect seems to tail off quickly and they may actually be a barrier to effective outreach. Audiences with preconceived expectations of dinosaur-themed content may ignore anything dinosaur related, which is a concern with us giving dinosaurs such privileged consideration in educational material. Are we limiting our promotion of other topics that could engage these uninterested people? And is one of our challenges of popularising palaeontology making dinosaurs and related topics universally attractive, and not just subjects with appeal to specialist audiences or younger people?

Of course, your opinion on this matter may differ. But even so, I think most of us would agree that our wider education about dinosaurs and related matters could be more effective, or at least more nuanced and reflective of more topics, than it currently is. I am optimistic that a groundswell of suitable movements towards this goal may already be underway. Many modern curators, scientists and artists are attuned to matters of science communication and interested in identifying outreach issues, sharing best practise, evolving public engagement methods and reaching new audiences with new topics. The fact that this article is being written as output from a workshop dedicated to popularised palaeontology is evidence of these practises actually occurring, and it feels like the right questions are being discussed. How can we, and when should we, shift focus from dinosaurs? How do we make other forms of life/parts of museum collections of wider interest? How do we more effectively impart new science to publishers, movie makers and other non-educational bodies making palaeontologically-themed media? It’s also pleasing to see more discussions about the once largely backgrounded industry practises of palaeoartistry in both scientific and popular media. Realising the important role that palaeoart has for communicating science, many involved in its production are vocally distancing themselves from the ‘popularised’ image of dinosaurs to more nuanced, scientifically-validated and interesting portrayals of dinosaurs, as well as other forms of prehistoric life. We are still on the uphill part of this journey to revising our outreach approach, but it’s reassuring to know that a body of professionals are looking critically at dinosaur outreach and its wider impact.

Minor victories in recent palaeontological outreach involve effectively communicating to certain, interested audiences that Deep Time was not a dinosaur theme park, and that fossil creatures did not spend all their time battling and roaring at one another. Evidence that this message has hit home with at least some audiences is reflected in the broadening depth and nuance of palaeoart being posted across the internet. Shown here: my take on Jurassic stem-mammals, a gorgonopsian, gliding drepanosaurs, a goniopholidid crocodyliform, Cretaceous albanerpetontid, erythrosuchids, and... Longisquama, whatever the heck that is. Not shown here: dinosaurs in premier view, or roaring. The challenge is getting scenes like this, and subjects like this, to wider audiences.
Most of the discussions and innovation in dinosaur/palaeontolgical outreach are taking place online, and transferring these to ‘real-world’ outreach, where the necessity of resource investment makes change risky, may be our greatest upcoming challenge. Again, however, there are signs of this sort of thing happening, such as the famous (or infamous?) decision to replace the Natural History Museum’s famous Diplodocus cast with a blue whale skeleton. This logic of moving this famous attraction has been questioned by some, but I admire the museum for putting a very relevant and symbolically significant specimen in their most prominent location. In doing so, they’re making a clear statement about what they consider to be important, and what they want the public to engage with. Whether you agree with the controversial reorganisation of the natural history museum or not, the idea of outreachers taking initiative with their educational agenda is something I feel we should echo when popularising prehistoric animals. If our outreach is primarily reaching pre-interested audiences anyway, then why not have faith in their interest and tell them what we - as researchers, artists and curators - think is fascinating and exciting about our field, whether it’s related to dinosaurs or not? It would seem a diverse array of outreach topics is more likely to spread out from palaeo-primed audiences and into broader public interest than one largely revolving around a single, perhaps somewhat over-familiar topic. Perhaps cutting palaeontological outreach’s umbilical chord with dinosaurs would benefit us outreachers too, allowing us to freshen and rethink our approach to popularising neglected groups and focus on their own selling points, instead of using them to greater contextualise dinosaurs.

The risk of failure is what prevents many of us, and our employers, from straying too far from tried and tested means of outreach. And yes, if we’re talking paleontology with the public, dinosaurs are an obvious safety net. But we should take advantage of the fact that we’re more enabled than any previous generation of educators to cooperate, create and promote the subjects we feel are important with only a little inventive thinking and technological knowhow. Individuals can now develop significant outreach resources without the need for expensive designers and developers; online promotion can be essentially free; and the increasing accessibility of printing - both 2D and 3D materials - is lowering the financial risks tied into ‘real world’ outreach events. Any public enterprise involves a level of investment and risk, but resourceful thinking and shouldering the brunt of development ourselves can minimise these.

In closing, I want to stress that I’m not wailing on dinosaurs. As may be evident from my own output, I think they’re fantastically interesting animals with an important role to play in outreach. But for dinosaur outreach to be successful and support, not restrict, other outreach efforts we have to realise their limitations, as well as their strengths, as public ambassadors.

This piece of outreach was supported by Patreon

The paintings and words featured here are sponsored by folks who are certainly very popular in my house, my Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. For this post we'll be looking at my new angry nodosaur painting, discussing ankylosaurs in palaeoart and why they're so darned challenging to render well. Sign up to Patreon to be part of the discussion!

Reference


  • Ross, R., Duggan-Haas, D. and Allmon, W. (2013). The posture of Tyrannosaurus rex: Why do student views lag behind the science? Journal of Geoscience Education, 61, 145-160


20 comments:

  1. I think what bothered me most about The Good Dinosaur (besides the obvious story problems) is the fact that it came from PIXAR. A studio known for doing tons of research on films like Finding Nemo and Inside Out. If they had done half the amount of research on this film as they did with those films, we probably would've at least had better dinosaur designs. (It wouldn't have saved the story, but I digress.)

    Like you pointed out, it also bothers me how people seem to only be interested in Mesozoic megafauna. There were so many amazing mammals, birds, and reptiles during the Cenozoic, and yet people seem to only care about the mammoths and sabertooths (and occasionally ground sloths, woolly rhinos, and cave bears).

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    1. Absolutely nothing happened between the K/T Boundary and the Pleistocene, as evidenced in this educational program:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQRWfxkCdU4

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    2. Mammal guy here, can really say the only prehistoric mammal groups that get any interest from the layperson are mammoths/mastodons, sabertooths, and fossil hominins, with extinct xenarthrans (glyptodonts/ground sloths) coming in a distant fourth. No one ever seems to care about things like brontotheres, hyaenodonts or amphicyonids, despite some of them getting downright huge compared to living mammals.

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    3. Speaking of unpopular mammals:

      kenbrasai.tumblr.com/post/154816003028/visual-references-for-dryolestoidea

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    4. That's exactly the same problem I have with "The Good Dinosaur".
      I give 'em points for some creative ideas (like the pterosaur antagonists being motivated by a strange pseudo-religion), but accuracy wise, they messed up real bad.

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  2. What I don't like about dinosaurs is that too many people who are enamored with them think that makes them "scientists".

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  3. Welcome back, Mark!

    Off the top of my head, I'd say two of your points might lead into eachother. The (somewhat manufactured) popularity of dinosaurs as unusual monsters - real-life 'dragons' - means that of course children are crazy about them; but that view might pigeonhole them with fictional dragons, bogeymen and Hallowe'en witches: silly obsessions to be set aside when sex and beer are discovered. Some might stay on, or come back - I've seen it in one or two other 'childish' interests I have - but considering the whole fallout over feathered dinosaurs, Jurassic World, and other palaeoart tropes you've discussed, in a lot of cases it might be more a case of nostalgia for the monsters of their youth than an interest in the workings of real animals.

    On that note, you could see it as part of a general disinterest in the natural world, or in the uncharismatic details of it. While people can love animals and be glued to the latest lavishly-produced, Attenborough-narrated docu-series (as well they should), it's still not too rare to hear whales described as fish, chimps defined as monkeys, and Africa confidently claimed as the homeland of tigers.

    I wish that had an explanation as easy to dream up as the 'discarded childhood monsters' one.

    Anyways, agreed with your conclusions: fewer slasher poses, more natural palaeoart, and more non-dinosaurs in it.

    Although... ankylosaur art discussion? I'd patr(e)onise that for a dollar.

    Pelagornis: reminds me of the time on a concept art/illustration forum when someone asked for feedback on a piece featuring a 'mastodon' with a familiar, high forehead. They were surprised (but seemed genuinely interested) that mastodons and mammoths weren't the same species, let alone genus.

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    1. @Warren JB

      Technically, apes (including chimps) are a sub-group of monkeys: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/if-apes-evolved-from-monkeys-why-are-there-still-monkeys/#

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    2. Y'know, I knew that, but for some reason I decided to go ahead anyway. (Thanks a *bunch*, Terry Pratchett) What could I replace it with? People thought Brontosaurus was a valid genus pre-Tschopp? (Awkward, and a can of worms anyway) People still think snakes are slimy? People still think all bats drink blood? People still think pugs are cute...?

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    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Mark, this post on Extinct Monsters feels like it ties in very nicely with your discussion. A general lack of biological and zoological education seems to be at least one factor in many of the problems you cite.
    https://extinctmonsters.net/2016/12/21/phylogenetics-is-moon-man-talk/

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  5. I think that some of the problem, at least from the engaging with museums side of things, has to do with I have termed “tyrannosaur fatigue”. The problem starts when you realize that museums really only have a few ways to coherently organize a large collection of fossils (as others on the Internet have pointed out). You can do things phylogenetically, geographically, or temporally. The AMNH has gone the phylogenetic route, and while this method has had some success it often causes a lot of headaches for visitors. Additionally, what happens if the classification of your organisms change? The AMNH has this problem with its pre-genetics mammal hall, which was created before it was recognized that things like mammoths and mastodons aren’t closely related to laurasiatherian ungulates. At least we know Tyrannosaurus rex isn’t going to shift to the Paleocene anytime soon. Geographic organization works well for smaller museums that are often more provincial in scope, but it falls apart if you attempt this with a larger collection. So, for the vast majority of museums, organizing your displays by time is really the only way to go.

    Many museum exhibits on the history of life seem to work like one of those big symphonies that gradually build their way up to a great climax. The exhibit starts out with the basic things. The formation of the Earth. The beginnings of life. Life’s first experiments with multicellular body plans. The first fish. The first tentative steps on land. The end-Devonian (and later P-T) extinctions and their importance to the history of life are often skipped or glossed over. Then you get the first amniotes, and the Permian beginnings of what we would consider typical terrestrial ecosystems. The first dinosaurs show up, but because they are relatively small and not that eye-catching (typically Eoraptor or one of the theropods is shoved in this position) all they function as is a prelude as to what is to come. And then comes the big climax. The grand display of the giants of the late Mesozoic, decked out in all their regalia. Many museums are often unable to separate the two most common “high points” of the late Mesozoic (i.e., late Jurassic Morrison and the Campanian-Maastrictian) due to space constraints, so you oftentimes get Stegosaurus displayed alongside Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus displayed alongside Triceratops. The entire exhibit has all built up to this moment. And then it all comes crashing down in a moment of cataclysm that Hollywood could dream of.

    Wait, what’s all this extra “mammals” stuff? Heck with this, we’re going to the next exhibit.

    So there you have it. People are often so worn out by the build-up from the beginning of life to the age of big, stompy dinosaurs and the crescendo thereafter they often just skip the mammal exhibits entirely, and move on to the next section. I don’t know if it’s a kind of chicken and egg thing, but museums almost seem resigned to the fact that this is going to happen, and design their exhibits accordingly. I’ve seen this in a lot of museums. Probably the best examples of this in the major museums I’ve been to are the Field and Sam Noble Museums. The pre-dinosaurian are masterful introspections as to how life got to this point, whereas the mammal displays are essentially just an afterthought. Now, this may seem like a lot of complaining for just one chunk of the geologic timescale, but consider the following. This arrangement essentially sorts all non-dinosaurian (by which I mean non-avian, pterosaurs and marine reptiles also get a pass) prehistoric life into one of two categories: prelude to the dinosaurs (including Triassic weirdness), or afterthought. Even the small, fascinating lifeforms of the Mesozoic, such as notosuchians, early avian dinosaurs, or Mesozoic mammals, typically get overlooked.

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    1. (continuation of above, because of character limit)

      Let me clarify that I am in the same boat as Mark on this one. I am not wailing on dinosaurs, and I still think they are incredibly fascinating creatures. But they are just one interesting group of animals in the vast cornucopia of organisms that once lived on the planet. Treating dinosaurs like they are the only important part of prehistoric life is not healthy for the perception of anyone, it’s not healthy for other groups of extinct animals, and it’s not healthy for the dinosaurs, who get put on an unrealistic pedestal. The problem is we don’t want to go full speed in the opposite direction and end up like things were in Colbert’s days, but between the Dinosaur Renaissance and the discovery that birds are derived dinosaurs I don’t think the pendulum is ever going to swing too far back in that direction.

      tl;dr:Museum exhibits seem to work such that they start with a slow build up and end in a Maastrictian climax, which often isn't that helpful in the long run. It may not be a overreaching solution, but it may be one way to help make things better in a way that is in paleontology's ballpark.

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    2. To their credit, I think many large museums do in fact give Cenozoic mammals their fair shake. AMNH, FMNH, and the now retired NMNH exhibits all gave virtually equal floor space to Cenozoic and Mesozoic displays, and NMNH had more than twice as many fossil mammals on display as dinosaurs. And remember, for a couple generations in the mid-20th century the dinosaurs were downplayed by researchers because they were thought to be evolutionary dead-ends that hardly anyone was studying.

      Mark - this is a fantastic post that has given me tons to think about. Thanks!

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    3. "I think many large museums do in fact give Cenozoic mammals their fair shake. AMNH, FMNH, and the now retired NMNH exhibits all gave virtually equal floor space to Cenozoic and Mesozoic displays"

      AMNH does, but I would argue the FMNH does not. The FMNH Cenozoic displays are 1/3 Fossil Butte, 1/3 Ice Age megafauna, and 1/6 hominins. Everything else Cenozoic (which is most of the era) is crammed into one little area, and in such a way that it is hard to see some of the specimens. There generally isn't as much context or information for many of the Cenozoic displays as there is for the dinosaur and Paleozoic displays, and many of the really spectacular things that used to be on display in the old hall aren't anymore. This doesn't necessarily seem to be due to unequal floor space between Mesozoic and Cenozoic life, it just seems to be wonky floor planning and organization.

      I definitely agree that the current Dinosaur hall is a massive improvement over the old one both in terms of space and display quality.

      "And remember, for a couple generations in the mid-20th century the dinosaurs were downplayed by researchers because they were thought to be evolutionary dead-ends that hardly anyone was studying."

      I mentioned this in the bit of my comment that got clipped off and had to be put in the reply above. Dinosaurs for many years were regarded by researchers as sluggish evolutionary dead-ends, but I don't think things are ever going to really swing back that way, given that the concepts that non-avian dinosaurs were active animals and gave rise to birds are pretty well established both in the scientific and public consciousness. Jurassic Park essentially made the Paulian view of dinosaurs as the standard one in the public consciousness (with a few exceptions), and while the dinosaur-bird connection isn't as widely known, it's surprising how many laypeople are aware of it. Dinosaurs are now seen as active animals that have a role in the evolution of a very important modern group, which makes it unlikely that public opinion will ever swing back to the way it was during the mid-20th century (if for nothing else because of the bird connection).

      Of course, like Mark said, I am not complaining about people being interested in dinosaurs. I love that people are interested in dinosaurs. It's when people are only interested in dinosaurs to the exclusion of all other prehistoric life that is concerning.

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  6. The answer is obvious: it's a meme. Same reason why mammoths and Smilodon are popular: they got the right amount of publicity at the right amount of time.

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  7. An excellent blog post.

    For my part, I have been purposefully trying to feature obscure but fascinating groups on my own blog in an effort to get across to my readers that the Mesozoic was about more than just dinosaurs, but based on the number of comments I get (very few), I wonder if anyone cares.

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  8. Man, I feel for ya. I only discovered a couple of years ago the fascinating richness of prehistoric crocodylians - sea-going species like Geosaurus, land predators like Kaprosuchus, and even herbivores like Siamosuchus - and yet all anybody seems to know about 'em, if they know anything about 'em at all, is that "the biggest one ever is Sarcosuchus/Deinosuchus", which were just "big crocs". It almost makes me weep.

    I think the semi-commercialized, all-lazy stereotypes of popular opinion are an indictment of people's understanding of science as a whole, as some kind of "egghead" or "whizz-bang" enterprise that's tolerable because it gives us smartphones and delights imaginative kids. Forget that; it's a philosophy that opens the mind to dimensions of experience hitherto unappreciated. It should be a huge deal that millions of self-sufficient yet idiosyncratic ecosystems stretch across time and space, rendering our familiar world but one small frame in a cosmic film.

    It makes me so frustrated that people don't seem to care about this sort of thing even when it's pointed out to them. This is the sort of thing you could live by, and yet it's pigeonholed as some sort of esoteric or dull hobby. The public understanding could be so much smarter, so much richer, so much more ambitious and exciting than it currently is now.

    Apologies if this comes across as excessive, but comparing the wonder of palaeontology with the poverty of public imagination is like comparing the richness of the Amazonian rainforest with an industrial tip. It's truly disappointing. :(

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  9. nice this blog.
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