Bring 'em back petrified

The trailer for the film The Land That Time Forgot.

My first impression of what a dinosaur was conjured up images of creatures impossibly big and toothy, real-life monsters with names that sounded like they could very well have been out of mythology rather than science. I didn't know that they weren't supposed to drag their tails or that they had been moved out of the swamp by the Dinosaur Renaissance; all I needed to know was that they were creatures that lived and died a long, long time before I was born, even though my imagination didn't let them rest soundly. I know a lot more about dinosaurs now than in the days when I would raid the elementary school and public libraries for dinosaur books, though, and I still occasionally daydream about hadrosaurs munching on leaves beside the parkway or dromeosaurs stalking the streets at night. Perhaps it's because of this affinity for dinosaurs that I cringe when I see a badly-rendered CGI beast amble across the TV screen in a documentary that seems more concerned with presenting eye-candy than scientific content. Indeed, finding a balance between the academic part of my mind that loves to pick out mistakes and the childhood part that is just happy to be looking at a dinosaur can sometimes be a bit vexing.

The infamous "catapult" scene from The Last Dinosaur.

A commercial for Volvic featuring "Tyrannosaurus Alan."

The larger discussion that has taken place over the past week or so about dinosaur reconstructions has its roots back in November when the December issue of National Geographic starting arriving on people's doorsteps. Previously the magazine had done a pretty good job with some computer-generated marine reptiles in their "Sea Monsters" piece (an IMAX film on the same subject now playing at various museums around the country, a companion book and video game also being produced) and I assume they thought that they would take the same approach with dinosaurs. The result was less than impressive. Jason Poole's sketches were good, but the computer-generated dinosaurs looked ungainly and dull, almost like plastic children's toys. While using computers to illustrate dinosaurs (and even reconstruct them for television documentaries) can sometimes be well-done (as in the Jurassic Park films), the consensus seemed to be that many dinosaur aficionades preferred the more "traditional" mediums for paleo illustration, the works of Knight, Burian, Stout, Hallett, Skrepnick, Paul, etc. being preferable to yet another collection of 3-D creatures. (Check out Thomas Holtz's analysis of dinosaur illustrations through time over at NG and Matt's review of "strange" dinosaurs at the HMNH.) My fellow Scibling Darren Naish has even recently taken the book How to Keep Dinosaurs to task for its comically bad computer-generated depictions of dinosaurs (although I must say that the Therizinosaurus running after a sheared sheep was pretty funny). The reception to a smattering of Michael Skrepnick's illustrations featuring children and dinosaurs was much better, and even the fanciful illustrations of James Gurney's Dinotopia books have been well-received. Still, even within more traditional pencil, paint, and brush reconstructions of dinosaurs there can often be controversy (as noted by Zach, see also Dinosaurs: Past and Present Vol. I and II), and the debate over mass-produced dino paraphenalia versus scientifically up-to-date reconstructions is nothing new. In the essay "Dinomania" (collected in the book Dinosaur in a Haystack), Stephen Jay Gould wrote;

As a symbol of our dilemma, consider the plight of natural history museums in the light of commercial dinomania. In the past decade, nearly every major or minor natural history museum has succumbed (not always unwisely) to two great commercial temptations: to sell a plethora of scientifically worthless and often frivolous, or even degrading, dinosaur products by the bushel in their gift shops; and to mount, at high and separate admission charges, special exhibits of colorful robotic dinosaurs that move and growl but (so far as I have ever been able to judge) teach nothing of scientific value about these animals. (Such exhibits could be wonderful educational aids, if properly labeled and integrated with more traditional material; but I have never seen these robots presented for much more than their colors and sound effects [the two aspects of dinosaurs that must, for obvious reasons, remain most in the realm of speculation].)

A milk ad featuring featherless dromeosaurs and cavemen.

Indeed, dinosaurs are blessed and cursed with being popular, the marketability of dinosaurs sometimes standing counter to (if not undermining) more accurate depictions. From selling water and milk to being prime attractions at museums, dinosaurs are essentially dragons for an age where many of the mythical beasts of the past have been put to rest. It would be foolish for us to insist that scientific accuracy must always come first and foremost when it comes to any depiction of dinosaurs, though, especially since what is accurate is liable to change and accuracy isn't always a part of the equation in the mass-media. Sure, the dinosaurs of How to Keep Dinosaurs are ugly and ill-rendered, but the book was still a fun read and was not meant to represent the state of paleontology at the time of printing. Likewise, the blood-and-gore-spattered "Dinosaurs Attack!" card series from my childhood featured plenty of strange monsters, dinosaurs with human-like hands, and other beasts, and while it might be fun for paleontologists to discuss what's wrong with each creature on the cards the set used dinosaurs for shock value, not educational value. Most of the "dinosaurs" of my childhood dragged their tails, were always at each others throats, lived in a land of (to borrow Kirk Johnson's phrase) "monkey puzzles and parking lots," and usually existed outside what would normally be considered their natural time period. The only thing that I could think of that came close to scientifically accurate during my early childhood was the Christopher Reeve-hosted documentary Dinosaur! which featured exquisite stop-motion animation by Phil Tippett, the "wrong" dinosaurs in films like King Kong, One Million Years B.C., Planet of Dinosaurs, The Land That Time Forgot, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, Legend of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Birds (which, truthfully, contains no dinosaurs), The Valley of Gwangi, The Land Before Time, etc. gaining considerably more airtime.

A dinosaur fight scene from One Million Years B.C.

The important thing to ask at this point is what a dinosaur is, not to a scientist but to a child. My more technical understanding of dinosaurs has only recently been acquired; when I was young dinosaurs were big, ferocious, earth-shaking monsters that were so different from anything alive today that it was almost hard to believe they existed at all. It didn't matter if the posture of Tyrannosaurus was wrong or that "Brontosaurus" had the wrong head when I first visited the AMNH; I was but a tiny kid standing before the bones of absolutely immense creatures that ran amok in my imagination. Even today, while I may gripe about the dinosaurs dragging their tails or that the Gorgosaurus is in an unrealistic posture in plaster against the wall of the 4th-floor fossil hall, the skeletons are still amazing to see and whatever inaccuracies there may be do not take away from the essence of what a dinosaur is. This isn't to say that we shouldn't care about how dinosaurs are depicted, especially in museums and other institutions that are supposed to represent good science, but somehow working paleontologists today have been able to still indulge their interest in dinosaurs and come out sane after being subjected to so many strange renditions on the theme of dinosaur. Even among what we might consider the best reconstructions there are still errors, and there's plenty of times when I have watched a new documentary or film and said "That just isn't right." As Matt Wedel recently wrote in a must-read post about this same subject, however;

...I'm pretty sure that the current generation of up-and-coming paleontologists will survive near-sighted tyrannosaurs and Diplodocus ovipositors. In fact, given that many of the current (and, okay, slightly older) generation freely admit that they became paleontologists because of the efforts of Ray Harryhausen, Neave Parker, et al., I'm willing to bet that CGI dinosaurs are one of the best things that ever happened to this science, even (maybe especially) when said dinosaurs stomped in from off-campus.

The epic battle sequence between King Kong and three "Vastatosaurus rex" (speculative modern-day descendants of Tyrannosaurus rex) from Peter Jackson's recent remake.

Even if we were able to get everything right and present the most-scientifically accurate view of dinosaurs to date, much of it would still be outdated eventually (probably within our own lifetime), and it's not likely that the kids who came to see the dinosaurs have even noticed the fact that they're walking along a cladogram or that the Apatosaurus has a "whiplash" tail. For one reason or another many children do lose their fascination with dinosaurs, but for those who end up wanting to be vertebrate paleontologists the root of their passion doesn't appear to stem from dry academic studies but from the love of being on the trail of the remains of some of the strangest and most wonderful creatures ever to live. I'm not a big fan of the narrative style of many recent dinosaur documentaries, often being a bit light on the science behind the reconstructions and long on eye-candy, but such shows aren't necessarily "for" me. I'm going to watch them and complain about what I thought was wrong, but a child watching the dinosaurs run across the screen is perhaps going to gain enough inspiration to beg their parents to go to the library and check out some dinosaur books, hopefully further fueling an interest in nature. When I went to see the Walking With Dinosaurs live show this past fall there were some things that stood out as wrong or that I would have done differently, but it was still amazing to see life-size dinosaurs brought "back to life" and stomping around the stage. In case there was any question as to their celebrity, there were more people there that night for the dinosaurs than were there when I saw Queen (plus Paul Rodgers as the frontman) at the same stadium the year before, hordes of children hoping to gain a glimpse of their favorite dinosaur.

Tyrannosaurus rex breaks out in the first Jurassic Park film.

My "leniency" when it comes to dinosaur reconstruction might seem a little hypocritical given my oft-mentioned frustration at the prevalence of the "March of Progress" imagery. How can I be so relaxed about potential or perceived errors in dinosaur reconstructions but be so vociferous about the "March"? The distinction is simple, but important. The "March of Progress" is an image that has been taken out of context of what was stated in the text of the book Early Man and presents us with an erroneous notion of evolutionary progress from "monkey" ancestors straight to Homo sapiens. We've known for some time that this is not how our own evolution proceeded yet the image remains entrenched as a symbol not only of our own evolution, but evolution in general. The image is an oft-copied abstraction that presents a false image, the visual impact being difficult to overcome despite various pleas to discard the imagery (see the introduction in Gould's Wonderful Life). Dinosaur illustrations, on the other hand, are not abstractions of an idea of how evolution works but instead are reconstructions that hopefully "will both survive scientific scrutiny and satisfy our natural curiosity," as recently stated by Michael Skrepnick. Surely there will be disagreements about muscle placement, color, skin covering/feathers, behavior, etc., but such arguments usually occur among amateur and professional dinosaur aficionados rather than in the general public. We should strive for accuracy as best we can, but as Michael noted part of the pleasure of paleo-art is that is satisfies natural curiosity as well as academic interests. I don't know about anyone else, but sometimes I just like to sit and flip through the various books on my shelf, just looking at the various reconstructions of creatures I'll never get to see in life. Even when I come across an outdated image like a Brachiosaurus using its nostrils as a snorkel as in Edwin Colbert's Dinosaur Book, the picture still tells me something about the history of the discipline I want to be a part of and what the state of the science was at that time. Yes, the reconstruction is now known to be wrong, but it still represents something important in terms of reconstructing life of the past and paleontological thought (see Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle and the introduction to Full House for more on this kind of value in imagery).

Trailer for The Valley of Gwangi.

When considering depictions of dinosaurs in museums, movies, television, advertisements, cartoons, on toy shelves, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum, we need to understand who the intended audience is and what effect that image is going to have on the intended audience. I might be as frustrated as the next guy about there not being feathers on dromeosaurs in cartoons, advertisements, or popular books, but are children going to know that? Are they going to be intellectually stunted because Velociraptor isn't covered in feathers? If anything, many of the enthusiastic children will find out that the dinosaurs should have feathers and will tell their parents all about it when a "nude" dromeosaur turns up. Books are all the better if they contain up-to-date images of feathery theropods, active sauropods, and the like (as in Holtz's new book Dinosaurs, truly a visual feast), but even if a library stocks only outdated books that feature the same animals confined to swamps and denuded of feathers, such might be enough to gain the interest of the next generation of paleontologists. Still, I know there are many people like myself who were little dino-nerds when young but lost the interest somewhere along the way, along to be reinvigorated with an interest in paleontology later. As I noted before, though, the root of such interest usually stems back to the first trip to a museum, an old dinosaur book, the first fossil picked up as a kid, etc., the mysteriousness of the distant past being more important than the scientific accuracy of whatever we saw when we were young.

A blind caveman meets a handicapped dinosaur in the film Caveman.

Sometimes it's all too easy to get wrapped-up in debating the scientific merit of a particular prehistoric reconstruction, forgetting that aside from academic considerations it is enjoyable to imagine what the bones on display at museums would have looked like in motion, clothed by muscles and skin. An active imagination is as essential to paleontology as nearly any other attribute, and even if I might disagree with one reconstruction or another it is still fun to see someone else's attempt at bringing an extinct creature to life. Even if speculations about what a particular dinosaur looked like, how it moved, what it ate, etc. have to remain out of the literature for a lack of direct evidence, all these things (and many more) run through the minds of those who love dinosaurs, enlivening the bits of bone that are recovered and submitted to scientific study. We should work hard at presenting what we know about these animals (and other extinct creatures) as accurately as possible, but there is something to illustration and reconstruction that transcends scientific description, something that grabs a hold of our imagination and doesn't let go, and I think that feeling of awe and excitement makes more paleontologists than any scientific paper, technical book, or college course could alone.

Two Tyrannosaurus share a "snack" in The Lost World.

[Note: The title of this post owes its origins to the title of Lilian MacLaughlin Brown's (the wife of Barnum Brown) Bring 'Em Back Petrified.]

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I generally agree, and you chose excellent clips. "Caveman" is one of my favorite tongue-in-cheek dinosaurs movies. Love that Tyrannofrogus rex.

My biggest beef with toy dinosaurs, dinosaurs on TV, and CGI "illustrations" is that it's just not that hard to get it right. If I see a toy dinosaur at the Museum Store with four fingers instead of three, I think, "well how hard would it have been to give it three fingers?" So often, it's these tiny little details that are easily correctible that frustrate me. If I look at that National Geographic and see Afrovenator, an animal known from virtually zero remains, I think "well how hard would it have been to pick an animal that IS well known?"

And I think the older dinosaur restorations are a little bittersweet. The paleontologists back then didn't have the knowledge we do now, and were working with essentially Morrison animals (and traditionally horrible European material). The scope of the Dinosauria could not possibly be known back then, nor their modern analogues. So when you see a with its head above water, I mean, I can sort of see why they thought that.

But as our knowledge base grows (exponentially!), it becomes easier to get certain things right. If I had a choice between a featherless raptor toy and the excellent Carnegie Microraptor on my desk to give to my cousin, guess which one I'd pick? It just bothers me that some illustrators (like the Nat. Geo. ones or the "How to Keep Dinosaurs" hacks) ignore the news.

When I'm drawing, say, Cetiosauriscus for Julia, I look for all the information on it that I can. And if I don't have time, I rely on the most current information. Then I come up with a restoration based on what we know about Cetiosauriscus right now, and what's unknown, I base on related neosauropods. But I know that when new Cetiosauriscus remains are uncovered, parts of my restoration will likely be wrong. I do the best I can given the resources available. And I still knock out a sketch in like two days.

The process MUST be the same for model making, both physical and digital. The Velociraptors in Jurassic Park were about as good as you're going to get back in 1993. I applaud, even still, those models, because if you poke some feathers into the skin (which weren't known back in '93), that's basically what Deinonychus would look like.

Does any of that rant make any sense?

I think part of the problem with CG dinosaurs is that, contrary to what you might think, doing a decent 3D rendering is actually more time-consuming than traditional drawing and painting. I suspect that producers are thinking "computers = fast" when the opposite is true. Bad dinosaurs, on the other hand, can be rendered fairly quickly.

The other essential ingredients, of course, are talent and expertise. I suspect the number of people who have expertise in both CG rendering and vertebrate physiology is vanishingly small.

Regarding the changing image of dinosaurs: I know that for me, the fact that the dinosaurs of the 60s and 70s I grew up with were different from the dinosaurs my parents grew up with in the 1940s was part of what made them special to me. And then to learn, in each successive decade, that what my teachers told me was wrong kept the appeal fresh for me.

I remember visiting the Indianapolis Children's Museum when I was in my twenties, and seeing the old tail-dragging T. Rex statue by the entrance. And I thought, "You know, if you cut off the head and tail, that thing would look just like a raw chicken." And just a couple of years later, I started hearing about the therapod/avian connection.

Think about it: Kids today are not only still in love with dinosaurs, but they will have a relationship with birds we can only imagine.

I personally feel any Dinosaur representation can't be a bad thing in line with the whole "any publicity is good publicity".

For example one of my favourites as a kid was Godzilla. To be honest there's next to nothing scientifically accurate about him at ALL. Yet as a kid he was equally valid in my mind as a cool dinosaur, but I also knew he wasn't real. He was a "fun" dinosaur. The point is he added to my love of palaeontology, and due that I'd read books and go to museums eventually gaining a more academic appreciation for palaeontology... well okay and I still LOVE godzilla ;p

When you really think about it how many modern animal based toys are completely accurate? The only thing that saves them (most of the time) from bad representations in books and film are the fact we can still capture the living animal. Even than how many horrible and incorrect things have been published or released?

Granted I'd still prefer better representations, and enjoy either pure scientific representations (my favs are the BBC walking withs and chased bys) OR way over the top unbelieveable movie monsters Godzilla and the critters from ITVs Primeval...

But so long as Dinosaurs are in print and in films the public will be exposed. If their exposed some will be interested, and in the end that means Dinosaurs for being a "societally useless" field of science (according to many non science people i've talked to) will get funding that might not otherwise be avaliable.

Oh on second thought silly Dinosaur puppets are the best representations ;p A blatant and shameless endorsement of my website, but I have to try

I don't have a problem with 'bad' dinosaur per se. My issue is with bad ones passed off as good. In the UK a minor dino-land was created (just a bunch of models in a field) attached to an existing fairground etc. The place got a bunch of publicity as the site was so inaccessible the models had to be helicoptered in.

The sataemtn was made that these had been made 'up top date with the latest scientific research'. The T. rex was in a 'kangaroo' posture, with a flat head, bulging eyes, misplaces arms and was bright purple. Yes, really.

Appaling non-science ripped badly from a 60's kiddie book passed off as being based on the kind of work my colleagues do. It was an obvious and bald lie, and that kind of thing is harmful, both to scientists and the public.

By Dave Hone (not verified) on 14 Jan 2008 #permalink

I know what you're saying, Traumador, because I love Godzilla too. But what I'm saying is that it bugs me when inaccurate models flood the store shelves and just five minutes at freaking Google could have cleared up the design process. It doesn't bother me that a Parasaurolophus model might have a skin membrane attached to the crest, because that's something we just don't know. But when the darn thing has four toes, THAT'S my problem. It requires virtually no effort on the part of the researcher to figure out that Parasaurolophus has THREE toes, but not even that amount of work is done.

Oh I agree with you Zach completely as well.

At the same time my having a bad Parasaurolophus toy as a child... okay technically I only had 2 of them, both being high quality ROM models, as they didn't make many ubscure dinos when I was a kid. Modern children have NO idea how lucky they are!!!... I wasn't thrown off by these bad toys... granted i tended to favour my British Museum issue models cause they were high quality and accurate (besides who else made Troodon back than!!!)

I think the complaint should be with toy companys period, and not JUST about dino toys! My friend bought his daughter a little toy albatross when he came down to visit me in New Zealand (we have the only mainland albatross colony in the world 30min from my place). The problem was it was just a giant sea gull with an albatross head. Albatross wings are long and skinny, and very distinct I'd say among birds. This thing had normal sea gull wings...

At the same time his daughter apparently LOVES it, and wanted to see all of daddy's pictures of the real thing!

So it would be nice if toy people would make high quality stuff, but they tend to farm out to cheap people a lot of the time to make their stuff... To stop and check for detail means less figures made, and less money.

Kids though are far less picky than we boring grown ups, and I think power to them! When you can pick up a obvious fantasy dragon toy, and pretend it's a tyrannosaur (as one of my grade 3 students did last year) it means you're not caring what the material world says a dinosaur is. They're taking responsiblity and interest in a mental and knowledge sense. which in the end is all we can do with animals millions of years old.

And yes Zach Godzilla rules!!! Especially in the newest Mecha Godzilla movie!

> Indeed, finding a balance between the academic part
> of my mind that loves to pick out mistakes and the
> childhood part that is just happy to be looking at
> a dinosaur can sometimes be a bit vexing.

I think both are part of the fun: The sheer, naive joy of a child looking at a dinosaur reconstructed in a book, movie or museum; and the intellectual joy of analysing the reconstruction, thinking about what the reconstructor has done right or what can be done better, or about the place of this peculiar reconstruction in the history of science, and discussing those points with other dino-nerds.

> besides who else made Troodon back than!!!

Look here:
for the tragic story of an Invicta/British Museum *Troodon* cruelly
killed by a newly converted paulian.