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Diggin’ Dinos: Jurassic World

26 Nov

First things first I’m a realist – archaeologists (and bioarchaeologists) do not dig dinosaur bones, that job alone is for palaeontologists.  Palaeontology is the study of life largely prior to the Holocene period, and largely the study of fossils within a geologic context, which mixes the boundaries of geology and biology to inform on the evolution and variety of life.  The study of dinosauria, or dinosaurs as they are largely commonly known as, who became the dominant land clade throughout most of the Triassic to Cretaceous periods (within the Mesozoic geologic era), is but one part of this.

But I would be lying if I did not state that my interest in bones started early and, specifically, that it started with the dinosaurs.  More specifically still it started with Jurassic Park, a film released in 1993 by one Steven Spielberg that saw my 5-year-old self keenly watching in the local cinema.  I was fascinated by the creatures on the screen, these primordial beasts tearing to shreds the Homo sapiens who thought they could control what they had resurrected.  I was intrigued by their form, the variations in the anatomy and the differences in the (admittedly on-screen) behaviour.  Here was a film that didn’t just make the audience scared and excited, it also gave the creatures a semblance of intelligence.  Who were these long extinct creatures?  What was Dr Grant doing in the desert scaring kids with a raptor claw, whilst also overseeing someone shooting shotgun shells into the earth?  Wait, is that is a job? I thought to myself.

I was hooked.  I want to dig in the desert!  That looks great I thought.  Those creatures looks awesome!  Clearly I had to learn more.  Safe to say that the following Christmas was taken up with Jurassic Park toys – the triceratops that had a gouged bit of flesh that could come off, and the helicopter that, if I remember correctly, barely appeared in the film.  But I wanted to learn more than just play with the toys and watch the film again and again (could those raptors really open doors!).  I wanted to learn about the creatures that the film was based on, I wanted to know more about their life contexts, their habitats and their geographic span.  Just when did they live and how did they come to die out?  In a word I was curious, and I remain curious to this day about the natural world around me.

It started out with the toys, dinosaur Top Trump cards and other bits and bobs.  I collected the glow in the dark model skeletons that always seemed to flash up on the television, bit by bit I pieced together a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that looked somewhat badly proportioned.  My father subscribed me to a dedicated dinosaur magazine that explored the fossil remains a bit more in-depth, and I collected a few cast fossils of various parts of various creatures from the past.  At the major museums I would clamour around the cases that showed the fossils of dinosaurs and more recent mammals, always thinking about what these creatures must have seen during their own lifetimes, how very different our two worlds were.  In time Jurassic Park: The Lost World was released and I became enraptured all over again.  An early precursor to this blog was created during my primary school days where I put together a mini-book of drawings of Protoceratops, Triceratops, Brachiosaurus, Iguanodon, Ankylosaurus and co. with information boxes supplying the basic data of when and where they lived and what they ate.  I was thrilled when Baryonyx was found and described, a highly specialised fish eater in southern England of all places (though of course plate tectonics have substantially moved the earth’s surface around since the Late Cretaceous days).

I hate to say but this lust for dinosaur knowledge faded somewhat during my late primary school years where I was given to drawing what I thought the inside of my leg may have looked like with the-then new temporary titanium plate that was holding my left femur together (that very plate now rests in one of my draws!).  It was a natural progression from the distant past into an immediate and visceral present, one that gripped me as I learnt that bone is living, changing and dynamic material that responds to the pressures that we place it through.  But still the love for dinosauria flares up from time to time, perhaps no more so than when the BBC released the Walking with Dinosaurs television show in 1999, a real marker in the sand for the intelligent presentation and discussion of the biology and life experience of dinosaurs.  After each episode aired I would spend the next day at school talking with my friends about the episode, excitedly huddled around before the drudgery of school started.  But I did not go on to study palaeontology at any point, although I still maintain a relative interest in the latest discoveries and theories on the biology of dinosaurs and ancient life.

For me there is a certain inherent sadness when looking at the remains of species that have fossilised and have been described and documented.  The question of what lifeforms are we missing from deep geological time periods that did not survive the taphonomic processes, and luck of the draw that has preserved so many skeletons as fossils, often abounds in my head when I view specimens and casts displayed in natural history museums or spread across the pages of books.  In a way, by studying the skeletons of the more recent human past, it perhaps negates in some small way the limited archaeological remains that may, in time, become fossils themselves.  Arguably, of course, we may be destroying that record ourselves.

So no I am not a palaeontologist and I do not dig or study dinosaurs, I am a human osteologist who studies the skeletal remains of humans from archaeological contexts.  It was a close contest, but in the end I adapted to a subject that was close to my heart, that gave me a tangible connection to the past human population instead of the past animal population.  It is a distinction, but it is worth bearing in mind that the Homo sapiens species are just natural animals as well, even though life itself is a wonder.

But let me post what the blog title promises.  My interest has been piqued and, finally, the 3rd much talked about sequel is happening.  (I almost conveniently forgot about the 3rd film whilst writing this, although Spinosaurus still rocks).  Here is the just released trailer for the new 2015 movie Jurassic World*:

* I’m crossing my fingers that this is a beast of a film…

Further Information

  • Check out the palaeontologist Jon Tennant’s fantastic and informative blog Green Tea and Velociraptors for some of the latest updates in palaeontology.
  • Take a read of Neil Shubin’s fascinating book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into a 3.5 Billion year History of the Human Body.  I managed to get a copy a few years ago and it is an invigorating read on the hardships of palaeontological fieldwork that also gives an interesting account of the lab work that goes hand in hand with field explorations.  More importantly this book highlights the evolution of the human body via various parts of both extinct and extant life forms.
  • With fantastic timing a new paper by Hone et al. (2014) discusses a case study of a mass mortality event of juvenile Proterceratops discovered in Mongolia and size-segregated aggregated behaviour in this specimen of dinosaur.  There is the suggestion of sociality but the authors are rightly conservative in their observations.  There is an intriguing remark on the estimation on the age of ceratopisan dinosaurs – “Furthermore, at least some non-avian dinosaurs apparently reached sexual maturity long before reaching terminal body size or somatic maturity [36][38]. The result is a quagmire of varying definitions for ontogenetic stages and ontogenetic assignments across different publications even for single specimens” (Hone et al. 2014).  The taphonomic interpretations of this mass mortality sample is also particularly interesting and I’d recommend reading the accessible paper.

Bibliography

Hone, D. W. E., Farke, A. A., Watabe, M., Shigeru, S. & Tsogtbaatar. 2014. A New Mass Mortality of Juvenile Protoceratops and Size-Segregated Aggregation Behaviour in Juvenile Non-Avian Dinosaurs. PLoS. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113306. (Open Access).

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