One of my favourite painters is Michael Sowa, who does incredibly detailed and surreal pictures, mostly of animals. They are intriguing and I really love the one titled ‘Why the Dinosaurs really died out’. It shows Noah’s Ark being tossed on stormy seas, with many animals – including a meercat on watch – on deck. At the back is an elephant, his trunk hanging over the side holds a string attached to an inflatable full of dinosaurs. I love it.
Jack Horner is a Canadian dinosaur expert. His TED talk on Shape Shifting Dinosaurs had me giggling most of the way through, but of course there was much serious information as well.
He provided a list of the 12 recognized types of dinosaurs from North America: Tyrannosaurus, Nanotyrannus, Ornithomimus, Thescelosaurus, Triceratops, Torosaurus, Edmontosaurus, Antotitan, Pachycephalosaurus, Stygimoloch, Dracorex and Ankylosaurus. He talked about how museums had been collecting the biggest specimens they could find, but it was not until the 1970s when someone noticed there were no juvenile or baby specimens.
This seems a very long time from the late 1840s when bones attributed to dinosaurs were first established in England. From the 1830s dinosaur tracks were found in the Conneticut Valley, but they were attributed to fiant ravens from Noah’s Ark, so it was not until the late 19th century that collecting really began. But such things happen. I think it took till the late 1960s before it ws established that animals such as chimps and dolphins play. There is a real sense that some of these scientists need to spend some more time with humans, but that’s by the by. Maybe we all need to.
It was recognised that some of these giant critters showed similarities, but only as distant relatives. Horner thought that they might be more closely related, even different stages of the same beast, but the only way to really clarify this is to cut the bones open, which no museum would permit. Fortunately he had his owm museum with lots of bones, so he managed to show that Pachycephalosaurus, Stygimoloch and Dracorex were the same species, so he had to announce that the latter two are now extinct. Triceratops is the adult form of Torosaurus, making the latter extinct, and Tyrannosaurus is the adult Nanotyrannus, so Jack Horner has now reduced the list of 12 to a mere 7.
What intrigues me with this story is how museums treat the bones with such care. It is of course right to take care of such specimens, but there are a lot of them, of all sizes, though he notes that most of them are large. And there are still more out there. Horner only needed to take a microscopically thin slice from the skull of each one to establish his breakthrough. The skulls could probably have been glued back together, but as he said, he had lots of them, so what was the problem here?
This raises a question that has been in the air since public museums were set up in the 19th century.
What are they for?
Are they primarily for the presentation of displays for entertainment and for the promoting public education? Or is their main reason to advance the frontiers of knowledge? After all, most of the collections were made by explorers keen to show what they had seen, in order to understand the world better. In Bristol, the first mpublic museum provided information on what and how to collect to many ship’s captains who were asked to bring back samples from their voyages. It is in this spirit of exploration that Horner embarked on his investigations, or what would by some be seen as vandalism.
He joked that children love dinosaurs, and that 4th graders will never forgive him for making so many dinosaurs extinct. But maybe they’ll be grateful to have fewer long names to have to learn and remember. To most kids, a dinosaur is just a dinosaur; they can range from grey plastic to fluffy and pink. They can be very big and scary. And they no longer exist. Just don’t tell them about Sowa’s elephant.