LIFE AFTER DEATH
DINOSAUR SHOWS HAVE BECOME BLOCKBUSTER HITS AS SCIENTISTS HEATEDLY DEBATE NEW THEORIES
Eight-year-old John Klappstein considered the lifelike model of Tyrannosaurus rex that towered over him. “Actually,” he said, as the pneumatic jaws opened to display rows of razor-sharp teeth, “Tyrannosaurus was much larger than this. And so was that triceratops over there. Some dinosaurs—I learned this in kindergarten—were so large, I think, that they needed two brains.” The youngster made his comments during a tour of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, which is currently featuring the highly popular Dinosaurs exhibition of motorized, mechanical dinosaurs and paintings and sculptures of the ancient beasts. The subject abounds in mystery. Scientists wonder why the creatures that dominated the planet Earth for 140 million years suddenly died out, and scholars heatedly debate whether or not dinosaurs were cold-blooded lizards or warm-blooded animals that had more in common with modern birds. Now, those obscure issues have suddenly begun to filter into the public domain. Dinosaur exhibits like the one at the ROM — along with the motorized models—have become blockbuster hits with young and old. The giants of the Mesozoic era, extinct for 65 million years, are drawing record crowds and drawing informed comment from a new generation of pint-sized paleontologists who have taken to dinosaurs with astonishing enthusiasm. “I guess what’s neat about dinosaurs,” said Klappstein, “is the mystery.” Dinosaur toys, games, clothes and other paraphernalia, along with dinosaur movies and Saturday morning television cartoon shows, are selling as never before. Last summer, when New York City exhibited dinosaur bones and sculptures in Central Park, about 5,000 spectators were expected. In fact, 10,000 showed up. Last month, a nine-foot model of Tyrannosaurus rex stamped up and down Rodeo Drive in
Los Angeles’s upper-crust Beverly Hills district to promote a chain of stores that sells dinosaur products—including individually packaged fossils and glow-in-the-dark triceratops skeleton T-shirts—to a growing market throughout the United States. “The dinosaur rage,” said a spokesman for Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., the New York City brokerage house,
“must be likened to the process of spontaneous combustion.”
Since it opened in October, the ROM’s dinosaur show has drawn an average of 3,400 people a day—the highest attendance in a decade. At the same time, Alberta’s Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, which opened in the fossil-rich badlands near Drumheller, Alta., in
1985, is also doing a roaring business. The Tyrrell, which is considered to have the world’s finest dinosaur exhibit, is expected to draw 600,000 visitors by year’s end—a 20per-cent increase over last year and one that will bring an estimated $8 million worth of tourism to the town of 7,000. Philip Currie, head curator at the Tyrrell museum and one of the world’s leading vertebrate paleontologists, attributes much of the new interest in dinosaurs to media attention.
Last spring, after Currie and his crew discovered 35 fossilized eggs containing the embryos of a dinosaur called hypacrosaurus at Devil’s Coulee in southern Alberta, he received a telephone call from a New York Times reporter at 6 a.m. one day. Subsequent calls from other journalists averaged one every three minutes till dark, said Currie. He added, “It was chaos and pandemonium.”
As dinosaurs become increasingly popular— and profitable—the scientific view of the creatures is undergoing a radical change. The once widely held picture of the animals as sluggish and peabrained Godzillas has, in the past dozen years, become almost extinct itself, Led by a new generation of paleontologists who have unearthed significant fossils in regions as diverse as Alberta,
Mongolia and Argentina, the science has spilled out of dusty artifact rooms and into public consciousness, bringing with it a view of the dinosaur as a biologically successful animal that became extinct by accident—although scientists still do not agree on what that accident was (page 59).
Paintings of dinosaurs by Victorian artists such as Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins portray them as iguana-like creatures that basked indolently in swamps. But art, along with paleontology, has evolved. Most of the 151 paintings and sculptures in the ROM’s show were rendered since 1980 and reflect both the popularization and the new knowledge of the creatures. In contrast to the old view, the new images show creatures that appear intelligent, alert and well-equipped for survival. “Never again,” said Robert Bakker, a controversial University of Colorado paleontologist, “will we think of dinosaurs as cold-blooded, stupid and slow.”
One painting at the Toronto show portrays huge creatures called chasmosaurs that resemble otherworldly rhinoceroses. They are depicted gaily dancing through swamps and flaunting brightly colored frills in sexual display. In another painting, a pair of Velociraptor antirropuses scratch their feathered heads,
looking like hallucinatory Labrador retrievers. In a sculpture that is part of the exhibit, a baby protoceratops, as determined as a little-leaguer, lifts its embryonic body from an egg and into a bright new day.
Sylvia Czerkas, a sculptor and dinosaur curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, which assembled the show currently at the ROM, says that the popularity of dinosaurs is a global phenomenon. “All over the world right now we’re seeing a resurgence in dinosaur exhibits,” said Czerkas. “The public has a great appetite for the new information.”
Since the mid-1970s, paleontologists have been unearthing and researching dinosaur remains—and providing vast amounts of new information about the ancient animals. At universities and museums, the skeletons of the newly discovered beasts are being assembled at an energetic pace. From the three periods of the Mesozoic era—the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous, which jointly lasted from approximately 230 million to 65 million years ago— roughly 300 species of dinosaur have now been identified, twice the number catalogued 10 years ago.
Children have provided the impetus for the mass appeal. Since the 1970s, a growing number of schools across North America have been adding dinosaur studies to the curricula as a way of winning the attention of students in early grades. “The kids are so motivated toward dinosaurs,” said George Kashuba, an elementary-school principal in Drumheller whose students sometimes find dinosaur fossils in their backyards. “This motivates them toward writing and language. A lot of the Grade 2s or 3s can name off all the main types of
dinosaurs that I can’t even pronounce.”
Toy manufacturers, moviemakers and television producers have been swift to capitalize on the creatures’ new popularity. In the U.S.produced TV series Dino Riders, good timetravellers battle bad time-travellers on the backs of weapon-equipped tyrannosaurs, triceraptopses and other prehistoric creatures. This year, the Tyco Toy Co. of New Jersey has introduced a line of Dino Rider toys that range in price from $5 to $70. Scott Irwin, advertising vice-president for Tyco’s Canadian distributor, Irwin Toy Ltd., predicted that North
American Dino Rider sales this year will top $100 million. “They’re bigger than Care Bears,” he said.
Other toy-makers are enjoying a similar upturn. Edward Jones-Fenleigh, managing director of England’s Invicta Plastics Ltd., said that worldwide sales of the company’s accurate dinosaur models have doubled to a projected six million this year since 1983. He added, “The dinosaur craze began about five years ago, and it still hasn’t topped out yet.”
Last month, more dinosaurs arrived in movie houses with the release of The Land Before Time, an animated movie directed by Don Bluth, whose 1986 film An American Tail was a huge box-office hit. The new movie is a coming-of-age tale about a young brontosaurus named Littlefoot. His mother tells him, “Some things you see with your eyes; others you see with your heart.” Then she is killed by a tyrannosaur, leaving Littlefoot and a coterie of Mesozoic mates to make their way to the green valley, where food abounds, without adult supervision.
The popularity of dinosaur toys and models
is not restricted to children. Constance Murphy, sales director with Illuminations Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., reports that her company’s line of inflatable dinosaur toys spans the generations. “First yuppie parents bought them,” she said, “then dentists and doctors bought them for their office and blew them up in their living rooms. And then it became a trendy thing with teenagers, who put them in the back of
their cars with their heads out of the window.”
Explanations for the current dinosaur craze range from the psychological to the mythical. According to Lucy Long, an instructor in the popular culture department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio: “Whenever there is a trend like this, it speaks to broader issues. It may be pure speculation, but with all the potential for destruction in the world, adults may be responding the same way as children: by taking something scary and trying to control it.”
Paleontologist Edwin Colbert, 83, has a different theory. Colbert, author of the 1983 book Dinosaurs-. An Illustrated History, attributes the trend to the animals’ physical stature. “They somehow fulfil the role of medieval dragons in our mind,” said Colbert, who is honorary curator at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. “They’re something big and impressive that isn’t here anymore. If elephants didn’t exist anymore, we would think them very strange and fascinating too.”
Most paleontologists, however, say that it is recent discoveries that have brought dinosaurs into the limelight. The animals have fascinated scientists, and the world at large, ever since the first dinosaur bones to be scientifically identified were found by Mary Ann Manteli, wife of the English surgeon and fossil hunter
Dr. Gideon Manteli, south of London in 1822 (the term dinosaur was subsequently coined by British anatomist Richard Owen from the Greek words for “terrible lizard”). Since then, the search for the ancient beasts’ fossils has tended to come in bursts. After the excitement that surrounded the first 19th-century discoveries, interest died down, only to flare up again during the 1920s when the search spread from Europe and North America to Africa and China.
But the Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War drained funding and manpower away from paleontology. Indeed, by the early 1950s, Colbert, then a pioneering paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, was one of only a
handful of practising hunters of dinosaur bones.
Then, during the later 1950s and 1960s, North American prosperity trickled down into the paleontology departments of museums and universities. Younger scientists, whose interest in dinosaurs arose from magazines, and the models they sent away for, started increasing the ranks of vertebrate paleontology departments with keen young practitioners. Dinosaurs “were just fabulous monsters,” recalled the University of Colorado’s Robert Bakker, the leading exponent of the theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded animals and that they were probably killed off by diseases spread through migration. Dinosaurs, added Bakker, are “really neat. Nature’s special it effects.”
Bakker and other members of the new generation of paleontologists say that they were partly attracted to the field by tales of the celebrated dinosaur hunters of the American and Canadian West. They included Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, warring hunters whose competing digging crews reportedly came to blows in the 1870s in the bone quarries of Wyoming and Colorado.
That was a period of major discoveries, including one triggered by an Alberta rancher who visited New York City’s American Museurn of Natural History in 1909 and mentioned to paleontologist Barnum Brown that he had a yard full of dinosaur bones on his land. That set off a dinosaur rush in the sage-scented Canadian badlands. As well, American adventurer-zoologist Roy Chapman Andrews, with a Colt revolver on his hip, ran the gauntlet of snipers and bandits in the Gobi desert of northwestern China and Mongolia in the 1920s and early 1930s in his search for bones. “It was great stuff,” said the Tyrrell museum’s Currie. “The life of a paleontologist appealed to me immensely.”
Although no one has ever shot at Currie, his career has been eventful. Since he joined the Provincial Museum of Alberta in Edmonton as dinosaur curator in 1976, the lanky, Oakville, Ont.-raised scientist has reintroduced largescale dinosaur digging to the weather-eroded rock towers and stream beds of southern Alberta—an area that had been almost ignored by paleontologists since the 1930s. Currie was also largely responsible for convincing the Alberta government of then-Premier Peter Lougheed in the early 1980s to dig into its oilenriched general revenues to build the $30million Tyrrell museum. Named after Joseph Tyrrell, a Geological Survey of Canada geologist who discovered the area’s first dinosaur remains during a trip along the Red Deer River in 1884, the 120,000-square-foot building is
considered by paleontologists to be the most modern and dynamic dinosaur museum in the world.
The Tyrrell, which operates on an annual budget of $2.4 million, has become a mecca for paleontologists from around the world. The guest book that Currie keeps on an end table in his living room is an impressive directory of the world’s leading dinosaurologists. The book has been signed by Arizona’s Edwin Colbert, Colorado’s Robert Bakker and the leading paleontologist from the People’s Republic of China, Dong Zhiming.
Parts of northern China and Western Canada are currently yielding important dinosaur finds. Under a joint program, Canadian and Chinese scientific teams have been digging since 1986 in Alberta, the Canadian Arctic and in the Gobi desert—an area that is considered special because it contains dinosaur remains from all three Mesozoic periods. Said Colbert: “The most important work being done today is being done at Tyrrell and by Canadians working in Mongolia and China.”
An expedition to China in 1987, led by Dong Zhiming, with the assistance of Currie and Ottawa’s Dale Russell, involved a 6,000-km trek in Jeep Cherokees from northwestern China and across the Gobi to Beijing. During the search, the 42 paleontologists and support staff uncovered some new types of dinosaurs. An estimated 90-foot-long mamenchisaur, which lived 160 million years ago, was found buried in sandstone. Last summer, the SinoCanadian expedition also unearthed the remains of pig-sized dinosaurs with beaks like those of parrots.
As scientists at the Tyrrell museum and at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing piece together the finds from the past three summers, preparations are being made for next summer’s digs in Arctic Canada and northern China—and for an exhibition of dinosaur remains unearthed in China and Canada by the binational group. A world tour is scheduled to begin in 1991.
Currie and other paleontologists say that they are just beginning to unravel the mystery of the dinosaurs. And it could be years before clear answers emerge to the baffling questions of the creatures’ apparently sudden extinction. Despite the resurgence of interest in them, only about 30 paleontologists in the world work full time on dinosaur research, hunting for solutions to a puzzle that spans millions of years. Meanwhile, the popularity of the extinct animals continues to grow outside of the specimen rooms and the bone beds. And at Toronto’s ROM, as John Klappstein takes his parents to the museum’s Dino Store to join the lineup for Mesozoic merchandise, the polyurethaneskinned Tyrannosaurus rex lifts his huge head and roars again.
BARBARA WADE ROSE