Thursday 7 May 2020

The Alien Prehistoric World Trope: Part 5 - Renaissance Madness

This is part 5 of an ongoing series (for the previous one go here), but I think it can be read perfectly fine on its own.
Fig. 1: The first reconstruction of Deinonychus with commentary by Adrian J. Desmond. It is the prototype for how the public imagines dromaeosaurs: An ugly, leathery skin, an unfeeling, lizardine face, zombie-arms and fast as hell. While today this seems very outdated, it was revolutionary at the time.

Beginning in the late 60s it was finally realized that dinosaurs had been misinterpreted by paleontologists for many decades. It arguably began in 1964 when John Ostrom reanalysed the dentition, anatomy and gut-contents of hadrosaurs and came to the conclusion that the dogma of them being aquatic duck-mimics was entirely mistaken. He was able to show that they were fully terrestrial animals capable of chewing on a wide variety of plants and that they likely occupied the same ecological niches as large ungulate mammals do today. The ultimate paradigm shift came however when Ostrom described Deinonychus in 1969. This dinosaur’s anatomy was entirely unlike anything expected from a dinosaur at the time, as it was clearly an animal made for running fast, jumping and slicing. This could not have been a cold-blooded reptile. Moreover, its anatomy was remarkably bird-like, to the point where Deinonychus is best described as an overgrown version of Archaeopteryx. This led Ostrom to revive the idea that birds directly descend from dinosaurs, first proposed by Thomas Henry Huxley but refuted by Gerhard Heilmann since the 1920s. Ostrom’s student, Robert Thomas Bakker, reanalysed various other dinosaur groups and came to the realisation that there was something seriously wrong with our image of every single dinosaur group. Sauropods could not have been swamp-dwellers, as their lungs would have collapsed if they were fully submerged in water, stegosaurs and ceratopsians did not have sprawling forelimbs, as trace-fossils could attest, and theropods were not mindless eating-machines but had fairly sophisticated bird-like brains, just to name a few examples. Most importantly, if dinosaurs were inferior to mammals, as was often thought, why were they capable of competing them out of every single large animal niche for nearly 160 million years? Dinosaurs were not cold-blooded reptilian creatures like lizards and turtles, but warm-blooded, bird-like creatures. Ostrom and Bakker started what we today call the Dinosaur Renaissance. It is called a renaissance as they revived many ideas which had already been proposed in the late nineteenth century but were subsequently forgotten due to a lack of interest in the field or serious malpractice (See part 2).
Fig. 2: A very bizarre Allosaurus, as drawn by John C. McLoughlin in 1979. Take notice of the subtle, mammal-like facial features.
This paleontological revolution was new, exciting, important, brought us closer to how these animals really were like and it did away with the old idea that everything in the past must have been primitive. But here I argue that the period from the 70s to the early 2000s also brought with it a serious image problem for the dinosaurs, perhaps being one of the largest contributors to the Alien Prehistoric World Trope. While dinosaurs were not seen as weird mega-lizards anymore, like in the preceding decades, they were now seen as almost entirely alien animals. First and foremost, this began with the new classification schemes laid down by Bakker, Desmond and others. Throughout the Dinosaur Doldrums, the different dinosaur lineages were seen as unrelated groups of large archosaurs that independently arose from a stock of primitive “thecodonts”, meaning that dinosaurs were an unnatural grouping. Bakker saw however that all these groups share many anatomical characteristics and must have all descended from a single ancestor, making Dinosauria a natural group again. This was a time before cladistics and phylogenetic classification became popular, so most paleontologists were still working with ranked taxonomy, which largely does not classify animals by their relatedness, but by their physical characteristics. Seeing how dinosaurs lacked many of the characteristics by which reptiles were usually defined, he and Peter Galton therefore chose to lift them out of this group and make Dinosauria its own vertebrate class, on the same level as Mammalia, Reptilia or Amphibia (Birds/Aves were demoted from being their own class to being a subclass of Dinosauria). What actually constituted Dinosauria was a matter of some debate. Bakker included pterosaurs inside Dinosauria, while Adrian J. Desmond argued that they also should be their own vertebrate class. Others like Gregory S. Paul and John C. McLoughlin instead argued that Archosauria as a whole (the group that includes crocodilians, dinosaurs/birds and pterosaurs) should be promoted to its own class instead, with Dinosauria and Aves just being subclasses of Archosauria.
Fig. 3: With the Dinosaur Renaissance we also enter the age of shrinkwrapping and Gregory S. Paul-style reconstruction. Our old friend, the fog of time, is also gone.
As we will see in a future part, this whole discussion has become obsolete nowadays thanks to phylogenetics (dinosaurs still are reptiles, despite being warm-blooded, and birds are both dinosaurs and reptiles), but it left a clear impact on our perception of dinosaurs. In this view, dinosaurs were, of course, not mammals, but neither were they reptiles and most were not birds either. They went from being large, but comprehensible reptiles to being chimaeric creatures that occupied the same ecological niches as mammals do today while looking very different. Dinosaurs became their own weird thing. They were essentially aliens. From this time we have quotes such as this one by Walter Coombs:

"Sauropods are basically alien animals . . . What can be said of the habits of an animal with the nose of a Macrauchenia, the neck of a giraffe, the limbs of an elephant, the feet of a chalicothere, the lungs of a bird, and the tail of a lizard?" (Coombs 1975).

A bizarre trend in paleoart from this time is also the attempt to deny dinosaurs any reptilian characteristic, instead giving them a somewhat more mammalian appearance. This was mostly because modern reptiles were seen as “lower vertebrates” and had a lot of negativity associated with them, mainly due to cultural reasons. Dinosaurs, being warm-blooded instead had to be “higher vertebrates” like mammals and therefore must have looked and acted accordingly. John C. McLoughlin’s art is a great example of this, as he tended to give theropods quasi-mammalian facial tissues, gave his ornithopods goat-like slit pupils and infamously depicted ceratopsians with a fatty hump akin to a bison’s. Around the same time Robert Bakker, Walter Coombs and others proposed the possibility that sauropod dinosaurs may have given live birth and maybe even had elephantine trunks on their face. Many books from this time also liken ornithopods to gazelles. A lot of dinosaurs were depicted with leathery skin similar to that of elephants or rhinos, instead of scales, and only few artists dared to give them bird-like plumage as such a thing was still very speculative. The dinosaurs were mostly denied the association with both their ancestry and their progeny in order to drive the point home that they were just as capable as mammals, regardless of how weird the reconstructions ended up looking. In addition to this, a new paleoart trend began to appear which we today call shrink-wrapping. To accentuate their dynamicity, but to also brag about one’s anatomical knowledge, paleoartists seriously slimmed down their dinosaurs to the point where the skin was just tightly wrapped around the bones and muscle with little else and the contour of much of the skeleton became visible. This produced images of very skeletal, almost undead-looking dinosaurs and it seemingly took decades until some people pointed out that barely any animal alive today looks like this unless it is starving. The end-result of all of this was an image of dinosaurs that roughly goes like this: Dinosaurs were a unique group of animals on the same level as mammals but essentially alien to us that had uncomfortable, leathery skin and a zombie-like appearance while still being powerful and fast. That sounds intimidating, does it not? More importantly it sounds unreal and very otherworldly.
Fig. 4: The Dinosaur Renaissance was also a time of very bizarre theories. On the left we see John C. McLoughlin’s (vehemently held) vision that the neck-frill of ceratopsians was actually the base of a muscular hump. On the right we see Robert Bakker speculating about a prehensile trunk in the sauropod Diplodocus. To his credit, while he considered the possibility, he did not take it as seriously as others. He did however come up with the idea that sauropods gave live birth like elephants.
With the Dinosaur Renaissance we also saw the resurgence of (perhaps subconscious) beliefs about antediluvian times, namely the return of catastrophism. Prior to the Renaissance it had been believed that dinosaurs gradually went extinct due to outcompetition from mammals, the evolution of new plant-types or gradual climate change. However, the Renaissance showed that the dinosaurs could not have simply been wiped out by slow, gradual change and instead evidence was amounting that a catastrophic event happened that no large animal, no matter how advanced, could have survived. Massive volcanism or even the explosion of a nearby star were theorized as causes for some time. Then in 1980 the smoking gun was found by Luis Alvarez and his son Walter in Gubbio, Italy. Here they analysed the geologic boundary between the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Paleogene and found unnaturally high amounts of iridium. Similar findings were subsequently reported from all around the world at the same boundary. Iridium is rare on Earth, but common in asteroids. The most likely explanation for this high amount of iridium in such a short time must have been one or more major impact events. That this coincided exactly with the extinction of the dinosaurs could not have been a coincidence. The Alvarez Hypothesis was however not taken seriously at first, even by proponents of the Dinosaur Renaissance (if you recall that one scene from Jurassic Park where Tim nerds out to Dr. Grant you might remember that Bakker was in favour of diseases being the cause for the extinction, though that’s a high simplification of his argument). The reason was that the prevailing view of geology at the time was still gradualism. Catastrophic events of biblical proportions, such as asteroid impacts, simply did not happen in Earth’s history according to this view. This changed in 1991 when underneath the Caribbean Sea and the Yucatan peninsula the Chicxulub Crater was found, which fit the size and age of the sought impactor perfectly. Further evidence came in 1994, when the 1.8-kilometer-wide comet Shoemaker-Levy-9 was observed breaking up into multiple pieces and crashing down into Jupiter’s atmosphere, leaving the cloud-layer with a visible “scar” for many months. This was the ultimate proof that catastrophic impacts do and did happen on a cosmic scale and that they had an impact on life on Earth. As astrophysicist and planetologist David H. Grinspoon recounts, there was a brief period of time afterwards where nearly every astronomer tried explaining almost every feature of our neighbouring planets through massive impacts. This “neo-catastrophism” brought with it also the rebirth of public imaginations about how the past is structured (see part 1). Similarly to Victorian times, where it was believed the world of the dinosaurs, ancient mammals and primitive humans was separated from today by the deluge of the Bible, we now had a massive catastrophe again that separated us from prehistory not only temporally but also physically. Dinosaurs were not only an alien group of animals but they lived in their own alien world that was destroyed to create ours. A rarely mentioned factor that likely also added to the Alien Prehistoric World Trope is the fact that the idea of plate tectonics had only just been accepted a couple of years prior. While Alfred Wegener had proposed the idea of continental drift back in 1912, he was not taken seriously until scientific revolutions in the late 50s and 60s (the actual age of the Earth and the dinosaurs also was not known until the late 50s if you recall part 3). If you read older dinosaur books like All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews from 1953, you will see that it was still thought back then that the dinosaurs lived on continents with largely the same shape and position as today (Andrews 1953, p. 10). The somewhat disturbing realization that the very continents we stand on were in different places in deep time and looked different was made only shortly before the Dinosaur Renaissance kicked off and helped shape an image of the past as an even more foreign land.
Fig. 5: Around the same time the Dinosaur Renaissance was going on, the bizarre animals of the Cambrian were being re-evaluated and entered the public consciousness thanks to the debates started by Stephen Jay Gould.
Not only did dinosaurs become alien in the wake of the Dinosaur Renaissance, they also became scary. Of course, dinosaurs have always been used as scary movie monsters since the time the general public got to know about them (see part 2), but that was because they were simply strong, mindless brutes. Thanks to the Renaissance, dinosaurs became scary on a deeper, psychological level. Around the same time as the advances in dinosaur science were being made, a major revision of the Burgess Shale and other Cambrian fossils occured. When the animals of the Cambrian, themselves over twice as old as the oldest dinosaurs, were first discovered in 1909, they were originally shoehorned into known animal phyla and seen as primitive ancestors of those groups. A revision done in the 70s had however shown that while some genuine ancestral forms did exist in the Cambrian Burgess Shale, the great majority of the animals were wrongly classified and in fact looked so weird and bizarre that they were unable to be classified into any known animal groups. Creatures like Opabinia, a multi-finned segmented animal with five eyes and a clawed trunk, or Hallucigenia, a worm-like creature with stegosaurusesque spikes on its back and tentaculate legs, were probably also contributors to the Alien Prehistoric World Trope as they looked like they came straight out of Star Wars. More significant however was their importance for evolutionary history. As Stephen Jay Gould observed in his book Wonderful Life many of these bizarre forms were not primitive, but already highly sophisticated and specialized forms that lived alongside the ancestors of modern animal groups without being inferior to them. The reason why the oddballs went extinct and the ancestors of our known animal groups survived seems to have been purely up to good or bad luck. With this, Gould demonstrated the importance of coincidence in evolutionary history and argued against orthogenesis, the idea that evolution is goal-oriented and inevitably would have produced humans (a view still prevalent into the late 20th century). If things during the Cambrian went just a little bit different, the descendants of the bizarre Cambrian forms might now rule the Earth instead of chordates and arthropods. Similarly, he argued, the Dinosaur Renaissance and the Alvarez Hypothesis have shown that the dinosaurs were such a successful and adaptable group that it took a random catastrophic event to wipe (most of) them out, not some supposedly superior mammals. The scary thing for many people about this is the thought that if the asteroid by coincidence had missed the Earth, the dinosaurs would in all likelihood still rule the Earth and would have bullied our mammalian ancestors further into submission or even extinction.
Fig. 6: Dale Russell’s Dinosauroid as drawn by John Sibbick.
Humans, at least as we know them, would have never evolved. This existential dread is further cemented by the idea that dinosaurs might have even been able to replace our “role” in the world. A big idea of the Dinosaur Renaissance was that not all dinosaurs were simple, mindless dullards. Many new coelurosaurs, such as ornithomimids and dromaeosaurs, were discovered and their braincases showed that their brain-sizes were comparable to those of modern birds rather than reptiles. In hindsight the brain-sizes of these dinosaurs were greatly exaggerated, their intelligence was probably more comparable to that of ratites (ostriches and emus) rather than those of crows or parrots and the mental feats we see in movies like Jurassic Park are unlikely. However, these comparatively still brainy dinosaurs allowed the imagination to go wander. This famously led to a thought experiment by Dale Russell in which he imagined what Troodon (today generally classified as Stenonychosaurus), the most brainy dinosaur known at the time, would look like today if the extinction at the end of the Cretaceous never happened. The end-result was the now infamous Dinosauroid which you have probably seen if you ever owned a dinosaur-book between the 80s and the 2000s. The most striking thing about it is that it looks uncannily human, as it stands on plantigrade feet with an upright spine and lacks a tail. Probably by coincidence Russell also made it look how we generally imagine a generic alien to look like. I believe we can all agree that with its naked, green skin, large eyes and bulbous head, the Dinosauroid could just as well stand on the surface of Mars or sit in the background of the Mos Eisley Cantina without looking out of place. Science fiction writers and conspiracy hacks were quick to notice and soon after the reveal of the Dinosauroid, sci-fi stories began to appear where putative alien species turn out to actually be evolved dinosaurs that invented space travel before the asteroid hit. The most prominent examples are probably Star Trek Voyager and Doctor Who. At around the same time there were conspiracy theories that real-life sightings of aliens and reptilian humanoids might be descendants of this Dinosauroid. The idea of dinosauroids became a popular trope in science-fiction and paleoart and likely had a great influence on people’s mental connection between dinosaurs and extraterrestrial life. As we have seen in Part 2 of this series, the idea of extraterrestrial or spacefaring dinosaurs also already had precedent in older movies and novels.

Fig. 7: The original Dinosauroid model by Dale Russell and Ron Seguin. 
Nowadays it probably goes without saying that the idea of the Dinosauroid is highly improbable. This very humanoid look was argued for by Russell mainly through circular reasoning as he had a very anthropocentric and orthogenic bias, probably due to his religious beliefs. For example, he argued for an upright stance so that the large head would be balanced out better, but this ignores the fact that even in very big-headed dinosaurs like T. rex this job was already perfectly done by the large tail. The only reason why we humans stand and walk with a vertical spine is because our ape-ancestors had lost their tails due to arboreal specializations. Troodon and its descendants would not have had that problem and a big-brained dinosaur would in all likelihood still walk with a horizontally held spine like all dinosaurs before it. The most important factor ignored by Russell is that Troodon, his basis for the speculation, was in nearly all anatomical characteristics basically just a big flightless bird. As Gregory S. Paul recounts:

The concept garnered much publicity and for Russell much friendly abuse from other dinosaurologists. That tabloids cited Russell’s work as confirmation that, among other things, dino-humans are reemerging from the ground in certain midwestern states has not helped! There are serious problems with the idea. Troodont brains were only about the size of ostrich brains, or a little bigger. They were not anywhere comparable to the much larger and more sophisticated brains of primates. Nor were theropod fingers the fine-tuned grasping organs of primates. Whether troodonts would ever become intellectual tool users is dubious, though not totally impossible. As for the postulated troodont “hominoid” itself, the model Russell and Sequin [sic] made looks suspiciously human with its lost tail and vertical body. One might expect a more theropod-like or birdlike horizontal posture, with a tail sticking out behind. What bothers me is that the dino-homonoid speculation diverted public attention from what is really important about troodonts. These dinosaurs were more bird-like than Archaeopteryx, and were part of the initial bird radiation. They were not pseudo-human.” (Paul 1988, p. 397).

That last part Paul addresses is in my opinion one of the most important factors of dinosaur-imagery from this period as a whole. While many paleontologists like Ostrom, Bakker and Paul went to great lengths to point out the remarkable similarity and continuity between non-avian dinosaurs and birds, this was rarely the focus of popular paleoart and media at the time. The news instead always read something like “Dinosaurs were warm-blooded!”, “Dinosaurs were superior to mammals!”, “Dinosaurs could do this and that!” and so on. The 70s and 80s were the Wild West of bizarre dinosaur speculations, with some people seemingly throwing as much weird stuff on the wall as possible to see what sticks. The focus was put on how new and exciting, weird and bizarre dinosaurs now were and how they compared to mammals, but not on how similar many of them were to the avian dinosaurs still around today or that these were real animals that once existed. This was because dinosaurs still had to fulfil a certain role in the public imagination, which was that of the movie monster that could chase the protagonist around. When people think of Jurassic Park they remember the scenes where the T. rex runs after a jeep, where the Velociraptors can open doors or where the Dilophosaurus spits venom. Rarely do they remember the actual end of the movie and its deeper meaning: Alan Grant, with Hammond’s grandchildren in his arms, escapes with the others by helicopter from the island. As they fly over the ocean, Grant looks out the window and sees a flock of pelicans majestically flying over the water. He looks on wistfully. The things that chased him around in the park were just theme-park monsters made for entertainment. He realises that the real, living dinosaurs are those outside the window.
Fig. 8: One of the perhaps most compelling dinosauroids and it is not even a dinosaur. This illustration was produced by Wayne Barlowe for a story that tied into West of Eden, a sci-fi series by Harry Harrison in which a species of intelligent mosasaurs, the Yilane, take over Earth after the End-Cretaceous asteroid misses. 

For the next part in this series we will focus on just a single artist that embodied the Alien Prehistoric World trope like no one else: Wayne Douglas Barlowe. See you until then.

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Related Posts:
Literary Sources:
  • Andrews, Roy Chapman: All About Dinosaurs, New York 1953.
  • Bakker, Robert Thomas: The Dinosaur Heresies. New Theories Unlocking The Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction, New York 1986.
  • Barlowe, Wayne: The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe, Beverly Hills 1995.
  • Barrett, Paul/ Naish, Darren: Dinosaurs. How they lived and evolved, London 2016 (Second Edition).
  • Brusatte, Steve: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. A New History of a Lost World, New York 2018.
  • Conway, John/Kosemen, C.M./Naish, Darren: All Yesterdays. Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, UK 2012.
  • Coombs, W. P. 1975. Sauropod habits and habitats. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 17, 1-33.
  • Desmond, Adrian: The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs. A revolution in Paleontology, London 1975.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay: Wonderful Life. The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, New York 1989.
  • Grinspoon, David Harry: Venus Revealed. A New Look below the Clouds of our Mysterious Twin Planet, Cambridge 1997.
  • Mcloughlin, John: Archosauria. A New Look at the Old Dinosaur, New York 1979.
  • Norman, David: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, New York 1985.
  • Paul, Gregory Scott: Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. A Complete Illustrated Guide, New York 1988.
  • Witton, Mark: Recreating an Age of Reptiles, Marlborough 2017.
  • Witton, Mark: The Paleoartist's Handbook. Recreating prehistoric animals in art, Marlborough 2018.

Online Sources/Further Reading:
Image Sources:
  • Fig. 1: Desmond 1975, p. 76.
  • Fig. 2: McLoughlin 1979, p. 51.
  • Fig. 3: Paul 1988, p. 56.
  • Fig. 4 left: McLoughlin 1979, p. 87.
  • Fig. 4 right: Bakker 1986, p. 141.
  • Fig. 5: Gould 1989, p. 126.
  • Fig. 6: Norman 1985, p. 55.
  • Fig. 7: Russell 1982.
  • Fig. 8: Barlowe 1995, p. 24.


  1. "Creatures like Opabinia, a multi-finned segmented animal with five eyes and a clawed trunk, or Hallucigenia, a worm-like creature with stegosaurusesque spikes on its back and tentaculate legs, were probably also contributors to the Alien Prehistoric World Trope as they looked like they came straight out of Star Wars."

    Especially as authors at the time such as Gould kind of over-egged the pudding in emphasising how these animals differed from modern forms. A lot of emphasis was put on them as unclassifiable weirdos, 'extinct phyla', etc. without necessarily considering the ways in which they could be distantly related to known lineages.

    1. I think Gould's view was understandable when you consider that he did not work with cladistic methods but was still using taxonomic definitions that were only in retrospective quite inadequate for the task. I believe concepts such as stem-groups did not even exist yet.

      I like to point out that onychophorans are still classified as their own phylum, but if they were completely extinct we would almost certainly call them stem-arthropods. It's not too hard to imagine that if anomalocarids survived to modern day the old taxonomists would have given them their own phylum (either that or Arthropoda would have a broader definition).

    2. I think that the stem-group concept had been codified by the time Wonderful Life came out (IIRC, credit for the concept is given to Jefferies' work on 'calcichordates' in the '70s and '80s) but it was certainly not widely applied yet.

    3. Acc'd the slightly confused discussion at Wikipedia, the concept of the stem group has often been credited to Jefferies, but was actually first used by Othniel Abel back in 1914, and first in English by Romer in 1933.

    4. This article also understates how allien Hallucigenia seemed. For a long time it was reconstructed upside down, with rigid peg-legs and dorsal tentacles of no clear function. It was also depicted backwards with the head at the tail end and a giant featureless blob for a head instead.

    5. I didn’t elaborate on that because I already told that story in another post (Solved and Unsolved Fossil Enigmas Part 1)

  2. David Marjanović24 November 2020 at 15:13

    I'll just point out that GSP misspelled Séguin rather drastically.

    1. Huh, you're right. Reading your comment I first thought I made a typo while transcribing, but I opened the book up again and he genuinely misspelled the name as Sequin.

  3. Have to say, McLouglin's Ornitholestes has aged surprisingly well.