Thursday, 24 February 2011

Genesis of a Dinosaur Revolutionary

This is Deinonychus antirrhopus and is one of the most iconic and enduring dinosaur images of all time. It was the work of Robert T Bakker in 1969 for John Ostroms’ ground breaking monograph of the same animal. Incredibly, that’s forty two years ago now, but for me, this is one of the most powerful and inspiring images in the history of dinosaur palaeontology.

I was recently looking through the literature that was amassed on my bookshelves for some information on the cranial morphology of hadrosaurs – specifically Edmontosaurus. I was trying to identify a recently arrived bone labeled as “unknown dinosaurian element” which, although was clearly of an unusual form, stood out to me almost immediately as being a cranial element, specifically part of a braincase but I was unsure what species.

Since the bone came from the Hell Creek Formation in Carter County, Montana I felt sure that the element was probably from Edmontosaurus since, at this particular site, this hadrosaurs’ remains are dominant. Sure enough, the first cranial diagram I arrived at confirmed my initial thoughts and it appeared to be the basisphenoid situated ventrally on the braincase, although this would need to be confirmed once the bone had been properly prepared.

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I placed the volume back on the shelf and took a step back and let my eyes peruse over the displayed books and papers. At this point I began to reminisce about how I got into palaeontology and dinosaurs in the first place. What were my influences? What books really made the difference? And what else was it that contributed to my creation as a dino-geek?

Like so many of you, it all began with childhood. As a child of the sixties, I grew up with TV science fiction and those wonderful B-movies from the fifties. I loved all of it and dinosaurs, pterosaurs and marine reptiles, in particular, were a large part of it but with one exception – they were real. These huge, stomping spectacular creatures had once existed and it fascinated me.

I started to write my own books and keep my own records. In reality, these were exercise books that I filled up with details from books borrowed from the library and I also copied diagrams from these books to produce pictures of the animals. I remember that my favourite diagrams were geological time scales – I was always doing them. I amassed over thirteen volumes doing this over the years. It was never enough though.

The books that I could get hold of at this time offered very general information but that was fine and they worked for me by providing me with a fundamental knowledge of the basics. For example, I certainly knew and understood what was saurischian and what was ornithischian and got to grips with some very basic skeletal anatomy. And then in the early seventies I got hold of Edwin H.Colbert’s Men and Dinosaurs and Dinosaurs: Their Discovery and Their World. These two volumes were a revelation and hugely influential. I loved them and because of them I got hold of a copy of A.S. Romers Vertebrate Paleontology -my new bible. I was well and truly on my way.

In these days there was very little television produced with palaeontology in mind and you have to remember there were only three television channels in the UK at this time. This was about to change in the seventies. At this point I decided it was to time to write a “best of” volume of all the material I had amassed over the years and started to create my tome. I would work on this to the extent of all other things – school work came second every time. In retrospect, this was obviously a silly thing to do but such was my passion for the subject that, at that time, everything else came second.

1975 was THE watershed year. So much happened all at once that even by todays standards of instant communications and news, it was indeed a revolutionary year. Firstly, the BBC broadcast a series based solely on paleontology, the first of its kind. Before the Ark was presented by Alan Charig and brought the scientists I’d only read about until then onto the screen so that I could see them and hear them for the first time. This was the only series that treated the viewer as someone who did indeed understand some science and let the scientists explain their theories without somebody either narrating or patronizing the viewer. Even today, Before the Ark is the only serious television series about palaeontology, in my opinion, to do this.

One episode stood out – Rise of the Dinosaurs – for this was the first time I had heard of the concept of hot blooded dinosaurs and the name Robert Bakker. I was hooked and made sure that I got hold of the book that accompanied the series. Then, in the same year, another programme, Horizon, also broadcast a one hour special on the warm bloods. The opening shots set in Dinosaur Provincial Park set the tone for the programme and this was the first time I’d seen and heard Bakker. I had a new Messiah. He explained everything so simply, so clearly that I was convinced he was right. I saw dinosaurs in a complete new light and became a full dinosaur revolutionary.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Adrian J. Desmond published The Hot Blooded Dinosaurs, also in 1975. Although I initially borrowed it from the library, I realized that I had it on permanent loan and decided to buy a copy. I have no idea how many times I read this book but my head was spinning and my path had been set. For the foreseeable future, dinosaurs, palaeontology and I would be sharing the same path.

Bakkers’ The Dinosaur Heresies was published in 1986 followed by his disciple and champion, Greg Paul and his Predatory Dinosaurs of the World in 1988. Endothermic dinosaurs were here to stay. Although we are all aware that things are not as straightforward as they once seemed, I was lucky to be part of the dinosaur revolution and it was a great time to be there seeing it all take shape. Youngsters brought up on Jurassic Park don’t have any idea just how important a time this was and how much is owed to Ostrom, Bakker, Galton and others to make the study of dinosaurs the wonderful vibrant science that it is today.

I guess that I will always have the same fascination with dinosaurs and prehistoric life as I have always had. Even writing this blog is being part of it and electronic networking has made instant communication, for me, one of the most wonderful things in modern paleontology. You can be in the middle of the nowhere, photograph a specimen in situ and that image could be seen worldwide on the same day by all of us – truly amazing.

And yet I wouldn’t swap my experiences for anything. Learning by reading those early books and being part of the new order was truly a once in a lifetime experience in our continually evolving science.


Anonymous said...

Ah Mark, such memories you have stirred. Alan Charig was the husband of one of my primary school teachers, and it was only whilst reading about him today that I found out he presented "Before the Ark". I adored it, though the only thing I properly recall is the theme music, "Romeo and Juliet".

Mark Wildman said...

I'm glad to have rekindled such memories for you! But the theme music actually came from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and this composition was sampled extensively throughout the series.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting me right about the music, Mark. I've just acquired a copy of the book - with bonus clippings from 1973's Radio Times. (It was on at 11:35, followed by the weather and close).

Mark Wildman said...

That's right - it was on so late that I wasn't allowed to watch it. Then the BBC repeated the series a couple of times - once on a Sunday lunchtime and, another time, in the school holidays.

I recorded the entire series on my little casette player (the days efore VHS!) and played it time and time again until I could recite virtually every word. It was a magic time for me and I learnt so much.

Jonathan said...

Mark, I know it's a year later but I was wondering if you knew if "Before the Ark" is available some how for viewing. I seem to be having a hard time finding any real information on it.

Mark Wildman said...

Hi Jonathon - sorry about the late response. I have tried every avenue and do not believe it be available in any format that I know of.

I hope there are copies somewhere - I guess it may be worth contacting the BBC archive at some point but will anyone think there is a market for it? Probably not.

But there were giants of palaeontology interviewed throughout the series - Bakker, Ostrom, Farish Jenkins, Nicholas Hotton, Neil Alexander and, of course, Alfred Romer talking pelycosaurs. Great series.

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