Planet Earth

The beloved brontosaurus and other tales

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJun 24, 2013 1:31 AM


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Classic 1897 painting of Diplodocus

Contemporary depiction of DiplodocusCredit: Nobu Tamura A few weeks ago I happened to listen to a fascinating interview on NPR with Brian Switek, the blogger behind Laelaps, and author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. Switek was discussing his newest book, My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs. To be frank I was captivated by the discussion, and immediately purchased a copy of the book. The reason is simple:

despite our current divergent interests Brian Switek began at the same place I did, with dinosaurs.

Though after reading My Beloved Brontosaurus I can't assert that my dinomania matched Switek's, it was of the same quality. The difference is that while Switek remained true to dinosaurs, my own interests wandered into other domains. Today I am focused more upon evolutionary forces operating on the scale of thousands of years within a species, rather than geological scale transmogrifications. But every now and then I wonder about dinosaurs, and whatever happened to them over the past 20 years after my "dinosaurs years" faded into the distance.

And that exactly where Switek takes me with My Beloved Brontosaurus. I read The Dinosaur Heresies in the early 1990s, but that book is now 25 years old. Yes, like everyone else I've seen glimmers of the controversies of the debates about dinosaur metabolism and plumage over the years, but to truly get to the guts of the matter of what people think one needs to comprehend the scientific literature, not just watch NOVA specials. And that is what Switek does, as he tours us through abstruse and esoteric journals in paleobiology to get the heart of the matter in terms of what scientists believe and know. For me the narrative was especially fascinating because I am approximately the same age as the author, and experienced many of the same cultural changes in our perceptions of dinosaurs. From lethargic large lizards to bright feathered monstrosities. There are three primary threads in My Beloved Brontosaurus. First, a cultural history of our society's perception of what dinosaurs looked like, how they lived, what they were in some fundamental fashion. Second, there is the cutting edge science as to what we now know of dinosaur anatomy, behavior, and systematics. Third, there is Switek's personal biography as it relates to dinosaurs, and his reminiscences of the experience of being at various field sites.

Credit: LadyOfHats Our perception of dinosaurs and what we know about them today in a scientific manner are obviously related. Switek's distillation of the latest peer reviewed literature would make far less sense if we didn't have an understanding from where we came in terms of our perceptions and preconceptions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries dinosaurs were "terrible lizards" literally in their depction. They were green or gray sprawling reptiles, torpid and cold-blood creatures which were destined for the dust-bin of history (ergo, "he is such a dinosaur!"). Today the view is totally different. Dinosaurs are not extinct, because birds seem to be a derived lineage of theropod dinosaurs (and the extinction of the non-avian lineage is but for the grace of meteor!)It is now the majority view that many, if not most, dinosaurs were both warm blooded, and, had feathers. Not only did they have feathers, but paleontologists have been able to reconstruct the pigmentation of some dinosaurs. Would you believe they had the plumage of magpies! If you want to know if dinosaurs were social, what they sounded like, and why they may have risen to prominence in the late Triassic, My Beloved Brontosaurus has you covered. Switek's scope of knowledge is awesome. In Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True he is referred to as a graduate student in paleontology at Rutgers. The reality is that when those words were written Switek was an undergraduate. But it's easy to see how one could just assume he had to be a graduate student. His peregrinations across the country in search of museums and dig sites reflects a personality which one ideally would find in a graduate student, but alas far too often one does not. One point in this book that I do want to explore is the controversy over the extinction of the dinosaurs. The public perception is that the K-T boundary exists because of a massive meteor impact. But a few years ago I saw an interview with the paleontologist Peter Ward where he denied that this was established and accepted science, which took me aback. I was interested to see that in Switek's telling this seems a minority position, and that most scholars still accept the K-T event's paramount importance. This is reassuring, because too often historical scientists fixate on uniformitarianism to an almost irrational extent. The wiping away of massively charismatic genera after genera all across the world over the space of a < 1 million years suggests something genuinely catastrophic. Denying the likelihood of a major exogenous shock, as opposed to a more prosaic confluence of events, bespeak a paradigmatic narrowness. If there is anything My Beloved Brontosaurus did it was to prevent me from wasting my time reading the literature in this area. I'm hoping Switek keeps following up with these sorts of books. This is in the classic "news you can use" for nerds genre.

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