Saturday, September 10, 2011

Dinosaurs: Dino-fantasy Fallacies

Fallacy: Erupting volcanoes and living dinos
Stories about dinosaurs are entertaining but they usually contain one or more scientific errors.  Since these stories need to engage people, they tend to be mammal-centric.  One error that is often committed is having dinosaurs interact with cave people.  The comic strip “Ally Oop” (V.T. Hamlin, 1935 – present) has the title character, a cave man, riding a dinosaur.  The TV cartoon, “The Flintstones” (Hanna-Barbera, 1960 -1966) feature cave people, dinosaurs, and Ice Age mammals together.  As entertaining as these stories are, they are incorrect.  Dinosaurs went extinct before the Ice Age.  Meanwhile, mammals of the Ice Age such as mammoths did not exist during the time of dinosaurs.  Of course, people and dinosaurs did not exist at the same time.

The stories that have modern day humans and dinosaurs together usually have the dinosaurs chasing the people.  The predatory dinosaurs (usually the T. rex) always regard people as food.  The dinosaurs seem to have a hyper-focus on eating humans.  They will stop at nothing to eat people, and endlessly chase them through the countryside.  Two things are wrong with this idea.  One is that predators generally do not expend extra energy for unprofitable prey.  Most predators will give up when the prey becomes too hard to get.  Furthermore, many are opportunistic hunters, and will seek easier prey.

The second problem is the assumption that predator dinosaurs hunt everything at all times.  This comes from the human-centric idea that every predator every time will automatically seek out humans to eat.  This is not usual predator behavior.  Some species ignore humans except during breeding season or when guarding their young.  Other species only hunt when hungry.  Still others have to be trained to eat people.  Some tolerate humans provided that humans do not interfere with their activities.  For example, many shark attacks occur when people punch these fish in the nose.  The corollary to predator dinosaurs is herbivores mindlessly charging people.

Another fallacy is to have dinosaurs of different periods together as well as the Dimetrodon (a sail-backed mammal-reptile of the Permian Period).  The favorite dinosaurs of people that are usually featured are the Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, T. rex, and Triceratops.  The first two are of the Jurassic Period, while the second two are of the Cretaceous Period.  (In addition, the T. rex is often hunting the others.)  The rarely included Allosaurus of the Jurassic would be the predator of the first two dinosaurs.  Also, the Dimetrodon, a therapsid, is often mistaken for a dinosaur, and often included in dino-fantasies. 

A corollary of this is showing the dinosaurs of different continents and habitats living together.  Pangaea was separating into the continents we are familiar with today.  South America was isolated at this time.  Travel from Eurasia to North America was spotty at best.  In Disney’s “Dinosaur” (Zondag, 2000), the main predator was the Carnosaurus of South America who interacted with North American dinosaurs.
A favorite plot device is to have a T. rex attack an Apatosaurus.  Since this is not possible, the authors could replace the two with Giganotosaurus and Argentinosaurus.  However, these dinosaurs from South America would not be as well-known as the T. rex.  Meanwhile, the Allosaurus, a smaller raptor, does not pack the same punch in action as the massive T. rex.

Another favorite trope is the ubiquitous volcanoes, which usually are in the background smoking or erupting.  Dinosaurs are usually grazing peacefully, whilst the volcanoes spew out ash.  Depending on the volcano, the dinosaurs would have died from the deadly gases.  The late Cretaceous period was subject to extensive volcanism however the Jurassic was not.  W.T.J. Mitchell in “The Last Dinosaur” (1999) pondered if this harked back to Biblical notions of Hell on Earth, where volcanoes spewed hellfire on earth.  The corollary to that is that in their earliest depictions many dinosaurs spewed fire.  Mitchell also noted the tripod stance of many dinosaurs in many early pictures to be reminiscent of the serpents of hell.  People’s unconscious beliefs had leaked through in their depictions of dinosaurs.

Like landscape painters of an earlier era, the depicters of dinosaurs took short cuts.  Those painters rarely left their studios, and used broccoli as a substitute for trees.  Meanwhile, movie producers used iguanas as stand-ins for dinosaurs.  Since broccoli looked like leafy trees, why could not scaly reptiles with things glued on their backs look like dinosaurs.  Of course, dinosaurs looked and acted much differently than lizards.  And few people would mistake a stalk of broccoli for a tree.

Depiction of specific species has been problematic.  First, the tripod stance of many dinosaurs did not occur.  Few used their tails for balance in this way. Sauropods did not the physical ability to stand on two legs.  Meanwhile T. rex is often shown as a fast runner.  However, this animal did not have the muscle mass for long distant running.  Also, if this dinosaur fell down, it could not rise since its arms would be broken in the fall.  Of course, a lot of these ideas conformed to popular notions at the time.

Some of the fallacies found in dino-fantasy stem from the prevailing ideas of the day.  Other fallacies reflect beliefs such as angry reptiles and erupting volcanoes.  Still other fallacies are based on keeping the audience interested. For this reason, humans or mammals are usually the focus of the story.  Even “Raptor Red” (1995) written by Robert Bakker, a noted paleontologist, veers off from telling his story of an Utahraptor to spend two chapters on an unrelated mammal.  Part of keeping the audience’s interest includes having favorite dinosaurs together or being scarier than the actual dinosaurs.

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