Monday, 25 November 2019

Whatever happened to kangaroo-kicking dinosaurs?

While I am waiting for a certain piece of literature to arrive in my mail so I can write part 3 of my APW trope series, I decided to bridge the time by writing something completely different and hopefully shorter. A few months ago I read Predatory Dinosaurs of the World for the first time. Apart maybe from The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, this 1988 book is probably the most famous work by paleoartist and freelance researcher Gregory S. Paul. There's a lot that can be said about it, like how the art-style has influenced mainstream paleoart, Paul's controversial theories and how much of an influence he may or may not have had on Jurassic Park-author Michael Crichton. But we will discuss none of that for now and instead focus on an image that has immediately captured my curiosity:
  Fig. 1: A Ceratosaurus attacks a pair of Allosaurus by rearing up on its tail and preparing to kick. The allosaurs with their flimsy tails look mightily impressed. I would be too if I saw a half-ton predator doing this.
This was apparently Paul's first officially published dinosaur illustration, first appearing, if I read the bibliography correctly, in a 1978 article by a certain J. L. Marx in an issue of the journal Science. What it depicts is a hypothesis by Robert T. Bakker, for whom Paul worked as an assistant and illustrator. Bakker's observation was that more primitive theropods, such as Ceratosaurus, had larger foot-claws and stouter tails than later ones such as Allosaurus, so he suggested the idea that they may have occasionally balanced on their tails and kicked with their feet during fights, much like kangaroos do today. What I find so fascinating about this is that this was the first time I ever heard of such an idea as I have never seen it addressed in any other work. I did try to do some research on it, but all I found is that this became a minor paleomeme, as some artists copied (or, if you will, plagiarized) this image in their works. This of course gives no indication about the scientific accuracy of the scene, as even today artists in a hurry do not tend to do their research and just copy whatever fits the page of a children's dino book. This leaves me incredibly curious. Has this ever been debunked or confirmed by a later study? My gut-feeling tells me that no dinosaur-tail should be able to bend this way, but I am of course not an expert on these biomechanics and the tails of ceratosaurs may have significantly differed from other theropods. Ceratosaurus' tail was apparently unusual enough that Bakker also proposed that it may have used it to swim like a crocodile, but unlike the kangaroo-kick, this idea has at least met criticism. If you know anything more about these matters, please tell me. Is this just another piece of 70s/80s Dino-Renaissance weirdness, like viviparous, trunked sauropods and frill-humped ceratopsians, or is there more to it?

Fig. 2: Robert Bakker reconstructed Stegosaurus (both times shown without the iconic back-plates for better clarity) as being capable of occasionally assuming the classic tripodal stance and interpreted it as an active high-browser. As evidence he shows that it had an anatomy better suited to this than, for example, an elephant, which is also capable of rearing up. Brontosaurus gets the same treatment.
What also makes this interesting, from an art-historic viewpoint, is that it seems to be an inversion of a classic trope in dinosaur reconstruction. Kangaroos are the only large animals around today that are bipedal and have long, muscular tails. Before it was realized that non-avian dinosaurs are close relatives of birds, they were therefore often used as reference when reconstructing the posture of bipedal dinosaurs. Until the 1970s it was the norm to reconstruct theropods and other dinosaurs like kangaroos... if they were fat, lazy lizards. The main trait that was often carried over was that kangaroos use their tail as a sort of third leg when standing upright. However, dinosaurs were not envisioned as hoppers and instead portrayed as awkwardly waddling around in this tripodal stance. They were therefore left with all the awkwardness of a kangaroo and with none of the dynamicity or gracility. What Paul and Bakker did here seems to be an inversion of this trend, giving Ceratosaurus one of the most dynamic and characteristic movements of a kangaroo and none of the awkwardness. This type of "rebellion" is sort of typical of the Dinosaur Renaissance, as we often see old, orthodox ideas of dinosaurs being subverted or inverted. In 1986's The Dinosaur Heresies, Robert T. Bakker did perhaps something similar with another dinosaur. Contrary to the view up to that time, which saw Stegosaurus as a lardy, slow and tortoise-like low-browser, Bakker instead chose to reconstruct it as a high-browser that could occasionally rear up onto its hind-legs and use its tail as a third leg to reach higher tree-branches. Here the ability to stand in a kangaroo-like tripodal posture is utilized to paint a dinosaur, otherwise portrayed as lethargic, as an active, dynamic animal. Bakker's reconstruction made sense in the 80s, as Stegosaurus was reconstructed with significantly longer hind-legs than fore-legs. Thanks to new fossil finds we now know that its hind-legs were somewhat shorter than thought, but also that its neck was longer, making it more similar to other stegosaur species. I therefore wonder how much Bakker's reconstruction still holds up, although I suspect it is still largely salvageable. 
Fig. 3: The jerboa-like pterosaur-relative Scleromochlus, as illustrated by Mark Witton.
There is of course more that could be said about the history of dinosaur-kangaroo comparisons. The idea that some dinosaurs may have actually hopped like kangaroos has come up on occasion. Edward Drinker Cope originally thought Trachodon and Laelaps moved in such a way, though this was later abandoned in favour of a more awkward reptilian shuffle. An infamous example comes from 1984, when Bernier et al. identified a trace-fossil, which they named Saurosaltopus (literally "lizard-jump-foot"), as footprints left behind by a small dinosaur that hopped similar to a wallaby. It later turned out that Saurosaltopus was not made by a dinosaur at all, but was actually produced by the flippers of a sea turtle dragging itself along a beach. To my knowledge there is currently no evidence of any member of the clade Dinosauria having moved primarily in a hopping motion. The feet of kangaroos, which enable them to locomote in this fashion, are plantigrade, meaning they primarily stand on the soles (or metatarsals if you want to be technical) of their feet, just like us. The feet of most bipedal non-avian dinosaurs were digitigrade like those of avian dinosaurs (birds), meaning they walked on their elongated toes (I say most, because some noasaurids seem to have walked on just a single toe, somewhat similar to horses). While small birds do hop on occasion, this is of course not comparable to the movement of a kangaroo. Things become more interesting if we move outside Dinosauria and look at other Avemetarsalia (the clade that includes the last common ancestor of pterosaurs and dinosaurs and all its descendants). It has frequently been proposed that some dinosauromorphs and dinosauriforms, like Lagerpeton and Lagosuchus, and other ornithodirans like Scleromochlus, had plantigarde feet and moved similar to small, saltatorial mammals, like jerboas, wallabies or rabbits (Lagosuchus even means rabbit-crocodile). The strongest case for a saltatorial locomotion can be made for Scleromochlus, followed by Lagerpeton. It is interesting to think that dinosaurs may have evolved from a hopping archosaur similar to these, but current cladistic models show them being the closest relatives of silesaurids, which were quadrupeds. Scleromochlus however is often theorized to be a close relative to the ancestor of pterosaurs and its hopping gait may have been a pre-adaptation for their flight-capability. In 2015 Mark Witton illustrated Scleromochlus interestingly as fuzzy and hopping through a desert, very similar to a jerboa or desert-kangaroo. The fuzz is speculative, but reasonable given how we know pterosaurs had such integument, called pycnofibers. More recent studies also suggest that pycnofibers and the proto-feathers of dinosaurs are one and the same and go back to the common ancestor of both groups. Like the works of Paul and Bakker, the illustration uses kangaroo-like characteristics to portray the animal as fast and active, not slow and ungainly like would have been done in older art.
Fig. 4: As a reward for reading to the end: Bennett's wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus rufogriseus) being cute and doing wallaby-things at the Zoo Z├╝rich (image taken by me). Personally I have never seen them in a fighting or aggressive mood. However, the emus that they share their walkthrough-exhibit with do seem to have fun harrassing little children. 
Literary sources:
  • Bakker, Robert Thomas: The Dinosaur Heresies. New Theories Unlocking The Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction, New York 1986.
  • Barrett, Paul/ Naish, Darren: Dinosaurs. How they lived and evolved, London 2016 (Second Edition). 
  • Barret, Paul: Stegosaurus. An extraordinary specimen and the secrets it reveals, London 2017.
  • Desmond, Adrian: The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs. A Revolution in Paleontology, London 1975.
  • Paul, Gregory Scott: Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. A Complete Illustrated Guide, New York 1988.
  • Witton, Mark: Pterosaurs, New Jersey 2013.
  • Witton, Mark: Recreating an Age of Reptiles, Marlborough 2017.
  • Witton, Mark: The Paleoartist's Handbook. Recreating prehistoric animals in art, Marlborough 2018. 
Online sources:
Image sources:
  • Fig. 1: Paul 1988, p. 35.
  • Fig. 2: Bakker 1986, p. 189-191.
  • Fig. 3: Witton 2017, p. 77.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Alien Prehistoric World Trope: Part 2 - Dinosaurs become movie monsters

This is part two of a series. If you have not read part one yet, please do here. Last time we left off at nineteenth century advances in geology and paleontology. Before we continue there we will first take a detour and look at astronomy in the age before spacecrafts and how it may have influenced the idea of the Alien Prehistoric World.

That the planets and moons are other real, physical objects like Earth that a human could theoretically stand on is a realization that is relatively recent. From late-roman through medieval times most of astronomy in Europe followed the Aristotelian model, according to which Earth was the center of the cosmos and it and its atmosphere were encased by several layers of crystal spheres. The stars, planets and even our moon were seen as simple lights that were attached to these rotating spheres. In the late middle ages and early modern period some people, like Giordano Bruno, Copernicus and Galileo Galilei were beginning to doubt this model, stating that the Earth was not the center of the universe and that humans could potentially physically visit other planets, but they ran into often severe problems with the church and theology. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Tycho Brahe could conclusively disprove the existence of the Aristotelian spheres, while his student Johannes Kepler showed that not only do the planets revolve around the sun, but they do so in elliptical orbits. This explained the movements of the planets better than the previous model of Copernicus, who assumed their orbits were circular. Kepler wrote many technical works explaining his worldview, but he also wrote one piece of fiction called Somnium or The Dream. It is a story that was only officially released after his death, but it left a big impact. In it Kepler describes how he one day fell asleep and dreamed that he met a group of demons, who offered to transport him to the Moon. He accepts and from there on describes what it is like to travel through space (he correctly predicts that it would be very cold and hard to breathe) and stand on the surface of the moon, looking down at Earth. He also describes the Moon's seasons, lengths of days, geography and climates. About half of the book is made up of references to his technical work and commentary in which Kepler scientifically explains why he describes the things he sees in the way he does. The purpose of the story is to show the reader of the time how a non-geocentric astronomy could feasibly work. What is the most interesting for us today is that Kepler also describes the inhabitants of the Moon. While speculation about extraterrestrial life can be traced back all the way to antiquity, Kepler was the first one to describe it in detail. He tells about their language ("Earth" in their tongue is called "Volva"), their cities, their survival strategies during the Moon's extremely long days and about the differences between the aliens that live on the Earth-facing side and the dark side. We unfortunately never get a detailed description of a single Lunarian species' appearance (and it seems like nobody ever tried illustrating them during the 385 years since the Somnium came out), but from the hints we are given they seem interestingly non-humanoid, which is atypical when you think of classic science fiction like Star Trek. Some have wings, others have "legs longer than a camel's", others are gigantic. In general they are described as having scales similar to pinecones and are snake-like. There actually seems to be some logical thinking behind this, as Kepler correctly describes that a day on one of the Moon's sides can last 14 to 30 Earth days (with corresponding nights), making it change from an extremely hot and dry climate to an extremely cold and wet one. He therefore likely assumes that only creatures similar to reptiles and other desert-animals could live in these conditions. Due to the combination of scientific observations with fanciful speculation, the Somnium is considered by some, namely Carl Sagan, to be the oldest work of science fiction. This is of course debatable. During the 2nd century A.D., Roman author Lucian of Samosata wrote a novel called Vera Historia or A True Story. In it the crew of a ship gets caught in a storm and catapulted to the Moon, where the protagonists witness a war between the inhabitants of the Moon and the Sun. The big difference to the Somnium is that the True Story is meant to be a parody of works like the Odyssey or the Illiad (the title is meant to be taken sarcastically). One could also argue that science fiction as we know it today was really first codified and popularized with nineteenth century writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Vernes. What I think we can say with some certainty is that the Somnium may be the first major work that describes extraterrestrial lifeforms as reptile-like, a trend that still exists today in movies, stories about UFO-encounters and insane conspiracy theories. The idea that aliens might be reptile-like is probably an underlying foundation for the idea that dinosaurs are alien-like.

Fig. 1: Venus captured in 1979 by the Pioneer-Orbiter. Venus is in my opinion a somewhat underrated planet. While yes, its surface is uninhabitable for human life, its ridiculously dense atmosphere is so dynamic, complex and full of strange chemistry that it deserves further study. Notably, strange, unidentified particles have been observed in the atmosphere that absorb UV-radiation. It has been proposed that this might be a form of photosynthetic life existing in the upper atmosphere.

Kepler's thoughts and those of many others of his time led to a movement called pluralism. Pluralism was the belief that all objects in the solar system, the planets, the moons, comets and even the sun were inhabited by lifeforms and even intelligent life, a movement that was popular all the way until the age of the first spacecrafts. The problem before the invention of spacefaring-technology was that Earth-based telescopes were not advanced enough to really see those planets' surfaces in detail. This lead to a lot of observations influenced by pareidolia, which itself was influenced by pluralist biases. The most famous example of this are the waterways that Percival Lowell claims to have seen on Mars and which he thought were irrigation-canals made by a dying civilization. The idea that Mars is a planet past its prime, littered with ruins and inhabited by aliens with advanced technology, is a common trope throughout classic sci-fi, like War of the Worlds or A Princess of Mars. It actually traces its origin back to a 1796 hypothesis about planet-formation by Pierre-Simon de Laplace. According to him, the planets formed out of a dusty nebula orbiting the sun and crystallized out of it from the outside towards the center. In short: the planets get increasingly older the farther away you go from the sun (today we think the inner rocky planets formed roughly around the same time 4.5 billion years ago). Mars was therefore seen as older than Earth and therefore, it was thought, in a later evolutionary stage than us. Following the same logic, Earth must be older than our neighbour Venus. Venus' surface cannot be viewed with conventional telescopes, the entire planet is covered in a thick atmosphere of opaque clouds. It was thought that these clouds were water-clouds and this coupled with the planet's proximity to the sun lead to imagining Venus being a hot, wet, primitive world of jungles and swamps underneath its cloud-cover. This was not just a fringe idea made up by early sci-fi artists, but an almost universally accepted fact. In 1918 for example, chemist and nobel prize winner Svante Arrhenius officially declared Venus a swamp planet. In many writings Venus was explicitly compared to Earth's Carboniferous period and other prehistoric eras. This is likely the oldest and most concrete example of a prehistoric time period being compared to an alien planet. This continued well into the 1960s and throughout that time the thick cloud-cover of the planet allowed all kinds of speculations on what might be living on this prehistoric world, as seen in books like Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, Ray Bradbury's The Long Rain and Edgar Rice Burrough's Amtor-series, just to name a few. Speculations reached from primitive civilizations, winged humanoids and all the way to, you guessed it, dinosaurs. The oldest example of the latter I could find was Gustavus M. Pope's Journey to Venus from 1895, where the protagonists get attacked by very dinosaur-like aliens. Of course all of this fancy speculation ended with the 1960s soviet Venera program, which revealed that Venus was anything but wet and teeming with life. However, the idea of Venus as an alien dinosaur world likely left a lasting impact on how we imagine prehistory, thanks to circular reasoning. If one thinks that Venus was a tropical planet with a dense, humid atmosphere and a surface covered in swamps and if it is also an example of what a primitive planet looks like, then it is not hard to come to the conclusion that prehistoric Earth must have been like Venus, with the same climate, atmosphere and environment. 

Fig. 2: The first mount of Hadrosaurus, showing the rather awkward way in which this animal was envisioned to stand and walk. Before this there were reconstructions that, despite the long legs, showed it quadrupedally lying on its belly like a large frog.
Back on Earth the understanding of dinosaurs was changing and advancing. Last time we left off with the quadrupedal behemoths of the Crystal Palace Park, which, as Clemens Setz put it, "look more like the bosses in a gameboy game than dinosaurs". These quickly became outdated as in 1858 in Haddonfield and 1878 in Bernissart the first nearly complete skeletons of dinosaurs were found. These showed that at least some dinosaurs were in fact bipedal animals, although instead of reconstructing them in a bird-like posture with the spine held horizontally (like we do today) they were imagined as kangaroo-like tripods (the first skeletal mounts of Iguanodon infamously had their tail-vertebrae broken to achieve this erroneous pose). This was done to reconcile the dynamicity that is associated with a two-legged animal with the then preconceived notion that reptiles should be slow and inactive. The product was an array of odd creatures with crocodile-like bodies, bird-like legs and the upright stance of a macropod, but instead of being allowed to run like a bird or jump like a kangaroo, they were forced to awkwardly waddle around and drag their seemingly useless tails on the ground. There is pretty much no animal living today that moves this way, making this image of dinosaurs quite bizarre and alien. That this also made dinosaurs look a bit like humans in suits (sometimes literally, when we consider famous movie-dinosaurs like Godzilla), additionally gave them a certain level of uncanniness. Soon after, new types of dinosaurs were also discovered, such as sauropods, coelurosaurs and Archaeopteryx (though it was not yet recognized as a dinosaur at the time by most scientists), while the focus of dinosaur-research shifted from Europe to North America. From the 1870s to the 1890s a fierce battle was fought here, which we today call the Bone Wars. This battle was the conflict between two famous paleontologists, Othniel Charles Marsh of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale and Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. While they originally started out as colleagues, through differences in their personalities and scientific opinions they became bitter rivals and dedicated their careers to outcompeting the other by discovering and describing as many spectacular extinct animals as possible. For this purpose they funded and undertook several expeditions into the American west, the regions of what would one day become the states of Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska, and also employed many minor fossil collectors to work for them. Espionage was used to disrupt the expeditions of the other and sometimes fossil formations were allegedly detonated with dynamite so that their rivals could not access them. Regardless, the species discovered during this battle were to become iconic, the first ones you think of when you hear the word "dinosaur". Marsh and Cope first described dinosaurs such as Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Allosaurus, Ichthyornis, Hesperornis, Coelophysis, Diplodocus, Camarasaurus and Triceratops, as well as other famous prehistoric animals like Elasmosaurus, Tylosaurus, Pteranodon and Uintatherium. Only T. rex is missing from this celebrity-list, because it was discovered in 1900 by Barnum Brown. Unfortunately Marsh and Cope's eagerness to describe as many new species as possible has led them to assign almost every new bone as belonging to a separate species, even though they sometimes belonged to an already known taxon. This has led to a lot of confusion that still affects us today, the Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus-controversy being the most famous one (as of a study done in 2015, Brontosaurus is recognized as different enough from Apatosaurus to be considered its own genus and therefore valid, but this may change again in the future). If you are old enough to remember names like Monoclonius or Trachodon from your childhood dinosaur-books, which you cannot find again in modern ones, it is likely their fault. 
Fig. 3: Leaping Laelaps is an exception to the rule of Charles R. Knight's dinosaur-illustrations. It is the only one that shows dinosaurs with athletic behaviour and also the only one in which Knight gives the dinosaurs accurately sized thigh-muscles. Please note again the erupting volcano in the background. Laelaps is today classified as Dryptosaurus, a distant relative of Tyrannosaurus.
Since these two paleontologists made such a huge contribution to our knowledge of dinosaurs, did they also influence our idea of the Alien Prehistoric World? Surprisingly I do not think so. Marsh and Cope's view of dinosaurs was rather progressive and similar to our modern one. They saw them as successful animals that occupied similar niches as modern mammals. Marsh, based on trace-fossils, also correctly deduced that they did not drag their tails on the ground and even supported Thomas Henry Huxley's theory that birds descend from dinosaurs (although he thought that they descended from ornithopod dinosaurs similar to Dryosaurus). Cope also recognized a significant similarity between birds and dinosaurs and was of the opinion that they, despite their size, were active and fast-paced animals. He let this idea of his be illustrated by Charles R. Knight in his description of Laelaps (today known as Dryptosaurus). The painting, called Leaping Laelaps is one of the most well-known pieces of paleoart today as it is one of the oldest known depictions of dynamic dinosaurs. Charles R. Knight, being perhaps the best-known paleoartist of all time, gets a lot of credit for being this foresighted, but, as mentioned, Leaping Laelaps was a comission done according to Cope's view. Knight's actual view of dinosaurs was very different and shines throughout almost all his other artwork. He viewed them as dumb, primitive and ugly brutes, monsters that deserved to go extinct. His 1946 book Life through the Ages is testament to that. In it we find descriptions of dinosaurs and their world like:

"All species were by now too big and too ungainly for their own good and though they didn't realize it, were doomed to pass away completely, for Nature had apparently grown weary of the great scaly cold-blooded monsters. They had been in existence too long, for they were stupid, unadaptable and unprogressive. And so the world was to grow away from these slow-moving dunces, and little warm-blooded beings, furry, alert and aggressive, were to supersede them... []. It must have been a most depressing world as we think about it now, with huge, bizarre and ungainly shapes rising and subsiding in the landscape, the earth covered in harsh and brittle scrub under tall palmettos, while both on the ground and in the trees, small, sinister bright-eyed mammals awaited the slow, but inevitable finale of the great Reptilian Era." (Knight 1946, p. 20).

"Meanwhile, in an attempt to circumvent just such killers as Tyrannosaurus, the vegetable-feeding species had branched out into all manner of grotesque and awe-inspiring shapes. In any case, the whole scaly, spiny lot have long since vanished, which perhaps is just as well, because no more sinister beings ever walked the surface of this earth." (Knight 1946, p. 22).

Knight had a view of evolution that is today better known as Orthogenesis, which was pretty much the norm of the time. He saw evolution as a march of progress, with humans as the end-goal, in which more "primitive" creatures are destined to be replaced by more "advanced", "perfected" animals. "Ancient" therefore automatically means "primitive". We will see in a future post why this came out of fashion. Knight expresses this view of prehistory again in the chapter about prehistoric birds, saying: "So far as we know there were no beautiful feathery beings in our early world", basically calling all prehistoric birds, like Archaeopteryx, Hesperornis or the Dodo, butt-ugly. The quality that Knight drew dinosaurs in was also noticeably lower than how he drew modern animals. While his drawings of modern animals are very beautiful and close to life, his dinosaurs give off an almost cartoonish vibe, making them seem unreal. Frankly I would not count them among his best work. Most notable is that despite having a very good grasp of anatomy and muscle-mass when drawing living animals, Knight seemingly failed to notice that dinosaurs had very muscular legs and instead chose to give them spindly, lizard-like limbs. Knight had been illustrating prehistoric animals since the late nineteenth century until his death in 1953, with his many paintings and murals being exhibited in museums and reprinted in books. As such they had a tremendous influence on the general public's view of prehistoric life. While the dinosaurs found in the Bone Wars became famous through Knight's artwork, Marsh and Cope's ideas about them, being written down in highly technical accounts, did not and they remained in the minority with their view of dynamic dinos. Knight is likely one of the largest causes for two of the sub-tropes that we discussed last time: That the prehistoric world was more primitive, brutish and violent than today and that things such as beauty did not exist yet. The forward thinking on dinosaurs by people like Huxley, Marsh, Cope and Henry Fairfield Osborn was being ignored or forgotten and views of past life similar to Knight's became prevalent in paleontology. Dinosaur-science entered a deep depression from roughly the 1920s onward, with very little research on them being done. The view of dinosaurs during this time, which is called the Dinosaur Doldrums by Robert T. Bakker, can be characterised by these ideas:

  • Dinosaurs were not a natural group (as was originally thought by Richard Owen) that descend from a single ancestor, but an assemblage of unrelated groups of large archosaurs.
  • Dinosaurs were all cold-blooded like modern lizards, at best being mass-homeotherms. 
  • Most dinosaurs were swamp-dwellers, similar to turtles and crocodiles, with many being semi- or even fully aquatic. Sauropod dinosaurs were especially often depicted as amphibious as it was thought that they were too large to support their weight on land. Hadrosaurs were also often thought of as water-dwellers due to a superficial resemblance of their beaks to the bills of ducks and fossilized skin around their hands that was mistaken for webbing.
  • Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures were inferior to modern animals in almost every way. Dinosaurs were slower and dumber than mammals. They had no social behaviour, did not move in herds or packs nor cared for their young. Pterosaurs could not actively fly like birds or bats and marine reptiles could not give life birth like whales so they had to awkwardly crawl on land like sea turtles to lay their eggs. The only reason why these creatures were able to dominate prehistoric Earth was their brute force and size.
  • Quadrupedal ornithischian dinosaurs, like Stegosaurus or Triceratops had erect hind-legs, but sprawling front-limbs, forcing them to do a very awkward reptilian crawl. 
  • Like mentioned above, bipedal dinosaurs walked upright similar to a man in a lizard-suit, with their tail uselessly dragging on the ground. 
  • Theropod dinosaurs, the bipedal carnivores, were simply split up into two groups: Carnosaurs, which encompassed all the large theropods, and Coelurosaurs, which encompassed all the small theropods. Carnosaurs were seen as little more than mindless killing-machines, virtually brainless and doing nothing but sleep, eat and mate. Coelurosaurs were simply like lizards on two legs.
  • Many of the bizarre ornamental features of dinosaurs, the characteristic head-shields, horns, crests and plates, were explained through a concept called racial senescence. According to which, as evolutionary lineages grow older, they actually age and degenerate like an individual old person would. The horns and spikes were therefore seen as useless features that grew out of control due to the advanced age of the dinosaur-lineage. 
  • Dinosaurs died out without leaving descendants due to being incapable of adapting to environmental changes. Either the swamps they lived in dried out, an ice age did the cold-bloods in or they were simply usurped by the mammals. Their extinction was slow, gradual and uncatastrophic, in accord with the view of uniformitarianism. They were destined to go extinct and be replaced by mammals. The bigger mystery was not how they went extinct, but rather how they managed to dominate the Earth so long.
The exact reasons for the Dinosaur Doldrums and their character-assassination of our favorite prehistoric animals are hard to pinpoint. At least one large influence was the 1926 book The Origin of Birds by Danish amateur-ornithologist Gerhard Heilmann. In it the author concludes that birds could not have descended from dinosaurs based on the mistaken assumption that the latter did not have collarbones like birds (we now know they did). Instead he thought that they must have descended from earlier reptiles called thecodonts, while any similarity to dinosaurs was superficial. Despite lacking a formal training in paleontology or ornithology, Heilmann's book was widely successful among academic circles, perhaps thanks to its impressive artwork, and seen as the definitive work on the origin of birds. It led to the consensus that dinosaurs died out without leaving living members, making them evolutionary failures and dead-ends in the progressivist minds of the time, despite having ruled the planet for 150 million years. As such, dinosaurs moved out of the focus of evolutionary biology and paleontology, which was now more focused on prehistoric mammals and human ancestors. It should also not be understated that the world was going through major financial crises and wars during these times, with many European museums that held important fossils being destroyed in World War II. That is how we lost the original type specimen of Spinosaurus for example. The Dinosaur Doldrums would hold on almost unchanged until the 1970s.
Fig. 4: A more typical dinosaur illustration by Charles Knight. The limbs are spindly and undermuscled, the tails long and dragging on the ground, while in the brontosaur the legs are even splaying to the sides. The reconstruction is very obviously inspired by lizards. The action is also a lot more static than in Leaping Laelaps, despite being 49 years younger.
As scientists largely abandoned the study of dinosaurs, the public image that had been (literally) painted of the prehistoric world by people like Charles Knight became lucrative to another guild of people: Storytellers, especially filmmakers. While this alien world of bizarre and brutish evolutionary misfits never had humans in it, it made for good scenarios of heroes fighting monsters. So what if some of these beasts from a bygone era and parts of their world somehow managed to survive to modern day in some uncharted corner of the earth? Ideas of extinct animals surviving into modernity go as far back as the 1700s. When Georges Cuvier first proposed that animals could go extinct over geologic time, he was first met with scepticism, as it was thought unlikely that God would let his own creations go extinct. Living mammoths or dinosaurs must surely still exist in some undiscovered corners of the Earth, it was thought. While this idea gradually lost its religious connotations (at least outside young earth creationist-circles), it was ever prevalent throughout literature during colonial and imperial times as more and more of the world was being discovered. Rumors abounded about dinosaur-like animals still living in Africa, South America or even the Wild West. Most of these, like the Mokele Mbembe of the Congo Basin, were purely made up by colonials for publicity and have pretty much no tangible origin in the local folklore like is often claimed. They still left a large impression on people back in Europe and inspired literature. The codifier of what is generally known as the Lost World Genre was, of course, The Lost World, a 1912 adventure novel by Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle (although he certainly was not the first one that wrote scenarios about humans meeting extinct animals, as that credit goes to Jules Vernes and his Journey to the Center of the Earth). In it a British crew of explorers finds an isolated plateau in the midst of the South American rainforest that is home to dinosaurs, ape-men and human natives. The dinosaurs are described as brutish and exceptionally dumb, deserving extinction. The general tone of the novel is that the plateau is a horrific place that needs to be subjugated by Western civilization, an overtly imperialist message that is often missing from future adaptations (the 2001 BBC mini-series actually completely inverts this by having the protagonists decide to lie about the plateau's existence in order to preserve its life from the industrialized world). The novel was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1925. While still being made in the silent era, it is was revolutionary in a lot of ways. It was the first feature length movie to use stop motion as its main special effect. The effects were made by the legend that is Willis O'Brien and were so good for the time that, contrary to the novel, the dinosaurs nearly become the main stars, with many scenes simply consisting of the explorers observing the saurians almost like in a nature documentary. Despite their design being heavily based on Charles Knight paintings, they are shown as surprisingly active. They move in herds, the brontosaurs are outside of the swamps and a Triceratops is shown caring for its child. Some like the Allosaurus also look a lot more lithe and skinnier than it would be depicted later in the 50s and 60s. On the other hand, they are often shown in mortal combat, constantly fighting and hunting each other. Notable is a scene where an Allosaurus slays an Agathaumas and while feeding on its carcass snaps a Pteranodon out of the air to also feed on it. The movie also gave birth to an entire different genre of movies: Prehistoric monsters in the big city. In a scene not present in the original novel, the explorers bring a living Brontosaurus with them to London. Of course, to the delight of the audience, the animal escapes and wreaks havoc in the city. This scene would inspire countless of other movies with similar ideas, such as The Beast from 20'000 Fathoms, Godzilla and King Kong. The ending of the second Jurassic Park movie, named The Lost World: Jurassic Park, where a T. rex attacks San Diego, is likely also somewhat of an hommage to the 1925 movie. If you are interested in watching The Lost World, the movie is in the public domain and can be watched in full on Youtube here.
Fig. 5: A Brontosaurus partially destroys London in 1925's The Lost World. While I am not from the UK myself, I can imagine this being a preferable scenario to Brexit.
King Kong, specifically the original movie from 1933, could be seen as a soft remake of Lost World. Willis O'Brien was back to do the effects and re-used many clay-models from previous movies. The big difference, apart from many technical advancements, is that the dinosaurs took a back-seat to the main star, a giant gorilla. As a primate, Kong was able to express emotions and gestures that a human viewer could relate to. Given his tragic role, somewhat of a retelling of The Beauty and the Beast, this was necessary and could not be done with just dinosaurs, as they were viewed as unsympathetic monsters by the audience. The reptiles were thus degraded to antagonists. They either chased and killed the explorers or served as adversaries for Kong. While the Brontosaurus at the end of The Lost World was a scared and confused animal in an unfamiliar environment, in this movie it becomes a Nessie-like swamp monster that, despite being a herbivore, actually grabs and eats a man. Kong heroically wrestling and killing a T. rex and a giant, bat-winged Pteranodon to save the woman Ann evokes iconic imagery of knights and heroes slaying dragons and monsters to save their princesses. It also reinforces the idea that mammals are superior to dinosaurs, the latter being abominations deserving death. King Kong is one of the most influential movies of all time and it cemented the public idea of dinosaurs as movie-monsters rather than animals. What the actual themes and symbolism of the movie mean has been hotly debated over the years. It is accused by some of holding a racist message, with Kong's tragic infatuation with Ann being allegorical for interracial marriage and the giant ape that got abducted from his home being a symbol for black people in America. The directors and writers of the movie, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, have frequently denied such accusations. According to them the movie is about the dichotomy between the civilized and the primitive world and how the former will inevitably destroy the latter. While this may also be interpreted as vaguely racist, the creators have emphasized how their sympathy actually lied with the primitive world, which is shown by the tragic portrayal of Kong's death. The movie's story is loosely based on a real incident, believe it or not. In a 1926 expedition, William Douglas Burden captured an individual of the newly discovered komodo dragon and brought it from its home island to the Bronx Zoo, where it died shortly after. In Cooper's eyes it was civilization that killed the dragon. 
Fig. 6: Gregory S. Paul is a big fan of this scene, citing it as the only good dinosaur-fight in cinema as of 1988: "There is one very good motion picture dinosaurian wrestling match, the classic match in the original King Kong between the main character and T. rex - not only because of the power and thrilling atmosphere of this cinematic tour de force, but because of its sense of humor. At one point Kong puts the tyrannosaur in a text book half-nelson." (Paul 1988, p. 411). I do not think Paul knew this, but Cooper and Schoedsack were wrestlers before they became filmmakers and actually gave visual reference when O'Brien animated the fight.
The Lost World genre, as codified by the Conan Doyle Novel, its movie adaptation and King Kong, had in my opinion a big influence on the Alien Prehistoric World trope. The dichotomy that was created in them painted prehistory as directly opposed to modern times, a separate world from our own full of danger, monsters and strangeness. It also popularized the trend of lumping together animals from all sorts of different time periods and regions all into the same place. This makes prehistoric times seem far more packed and bizarre than ours and makes it seem like there was only a single prehistoric period where everything lived together. Of course given how these stories are about presumably extinct animals surviving into modern times, these anachronisms could be explained simply through more hypothetical survivals, but at some point this just gets silly. As geologist Dougal Dixon puts it:

"These lost worlds all seem to suffer from two rather obvious faults. The first is that the isolation of the lost world is never absolute. Not only can the modern day explorers penetrate their mysteries, but other creatures appear to have broken in at various times. Thus, as well as dinosaurs, pterosaurs and plesiosaurs from the Mesozoic era, there are also mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. The originators of the genre are responsible for this fault. In Journey to the Center of the Earth there are mastodons as well as plesiosaurs, and amidst the flora of the subterranean world and the famous forest of giant mushrooms, are coal forest trees from the Carboniferous period. In The Lost World there are giant Irish elk and armadillo-like glyptodonts as well as stegosaurs. The newcomers have been slipped in quite comfortably and exist in ecological balance with the animals and plants already there. In the real world such an invasion would almost inevitably have lead to the extinction of the original fauna and its subsequent replacement by the newcomers." (Dixon 1988, p. 109)

The second fault Dixon talks about is the fact that all of these lost worlds (apart perhaps from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar) are far too small to support such a wide array of large sized (or rather oversized given the genre) animals. Such environments would instead lead to dwarfism, like we see with actual island-dinosaurs like Europasaurus. That, with an additional 66 million years of time, surviving dinosaurs would surely evolve further and change their form instead of staying the same as they were in the Mesozoic is something many writers seem to ignore when writing these stories. It could however be argued that this might be deliberate to show how unadaptable dinosaurs are. To at least give some credit where credit is due, the 2005 Peter Jackson remake of King Kong does attempt to address these problems by both evolving its cast of animals into new speculative species and by explaining that Skull Island used to be a lot larger before gradually sinking into the sea for the last couple of thousand years. By accident they thus made Skull Island's geologic history resemble that of New Zealand, which once used to be part of the real life lost continent Zealandia that also gradually sank beneath the ocean since the Cretaceous. Jackson is a very patriotic kiwi, even when he does not realize it.

What the Lost World genre further did is instill a fear in the public of the "primitive" world and that creatures like dinosaurs could still exist somewhere and manage to come to civilization, where they would surely create chaos. About two months after King Kong's release a man of the name George Spicer, who later admitted to have watched the film, reported seeing a large, long-necked, prehistoric animal, very similar to the movie's Brontosaurus, emerging out of the Loch Ness, giving birth to the famous myth of the Loch Ness Monster. In reality he likely just saw a deer swimming through the water and his fantasy, influenced by the movie, ran wild. The aforementioned Mokele Mbembe and many other similar cryptids likely originated from similar fears. The idea of prehistoric monsters attacking civilization may also be relevant for our topic, as not only does it monsterize extinct animals, but it seems somewhat related to the genre of alien invasions. The latter is basically the same scenario, just with an enemy that is technologically more advanced rather than more brutish than us.  A bizarre outgrowth of this are conspiracy theories that claim that cryptids such as the thunder bird (a North American cryptid often claimed to either be a living pterosaur or Argentavis) or even Nessie are actually extraterrestrial creatures or even spacecrafts, linking them to UFO-sightings. Later works of fiction like Star Trek and Doctor Who would go as far as presenting us with humanoid alien species that turn out to have actually evolved from spacefaring dinosaurs, but more on that in a future post. As another example of this interconnectedness I would like to point out the 1957 movie 20 Million Miles to Earth. In it the crew of a spaceship sent to Venus crashes back down on Earth and accidentally brings with it a Venusian alien egg. Out of it hatches a stop-motion dinosaurian beast (animated by the great Ray Harryhausen) and wreaks havoc. We have come full circle.

I promised last time that we would also get to discuss Disney's Fantasia and its dinosaur-segment, but this post is already too long and I found the topic so interesting that it deserves its own post. I hope you enjoyed this entry and that we'll see each other next time. 

Literary sources:
  • Bakker, Robert Thomas: The Dinosaur Heresies. New Theories Unlocking The Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction, New York 1986.
  • Barrett, Paul/ Naish, Darren: Dinosaurs. How they lived and evolved, London 2016 (Second Edition).
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  • Witton, Mark: Recreating an Age of Reptiles, Marlborough 2017.
  • Witton, Mark: The Paleoartist's Handbook. Recreating prehistoric animals in art, Marlborough 2018. 
Online sources.
Image sources: