Sunday, February 16, 2014

The grass-eating, 200-foot-long brontosaur of the late Cretaceous, or common mistakes in paleofiction

Most authors try to get their facts right when writing stories about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. They know that in science fiction, a well-researched narrative adds a stamp of authority to the plot. But writers are only human. They make mistakes: They put dinosaurs from different eras in the same setting, or they have them eating things they couldn’t have possibly ate, or they make the animals too big.

The following is a list of five common scientific mistakes I’ve encountered in paleofiction. Now by “common” I don’t mean mistakes that pop up in every work, but they’ve shown up enough times they’ve caught my attention. Again, I’m not a paleontologist or any kind of expert in the subject, but I like to think I know more about the topic than most people.

1. Mix and match
At first, he thought it was a grounded blimp – then his eyes adjusted to the scale of the thing and he realized it was only a brontosaur. Not dangerous at all – well, not deliberately dangerous. There was the case of that hunter who was eaten inadvertently because the brontosaur’s eyesight is so poor it hadn’t see him in the tree – but that one really didn’t count. 
- Deathbeast, David Gerrold
There are many things wrong with the above excerpt. First, as any dinosaur-loving child will tell you, the proper name for Brontosaurus is Apatosaurus. Then there is the idea that the plant-munching Apatosaurus would eat a human, even accidently. (The concept is, to say the least, hard to swallow.) But worst of all is the setting: This particular dinosaur is spotted in the late Cretaceous, millions of years after its species went extinct!

The “brontosaur” isn’t the only out-of-place dinosaur spotted in Deathbeast. Later, our protagonists spot an Allosaurus, a dinosaur that lived during the Jurassic period, and it is promptly eaten by a T. rex, which lived millions of years later.

Authors of paleofiction have been mixing and matching prehistoric animals from different periods since the beginning of the genre. Jules Verne placed Mesozoic marine reptiles alongside Ice Age mastodons in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle populated The Lost World with dinosaurs, extinct mammals, and “ape men.” Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this prehistoric potpourri comes not from literature but from Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, which included a scene with a Stegosaurus battling a T. rex – never mind there is more time separating the two species than there is time separating humans from tyrannosaurs.

This mistake arises from the popular perception of the prehistoric past as a single period of time rather than a collection of different eras, each with its own unique flora and fauna. The creatures of a thousand separate ages live side by side in the pages of literature, with authors usually picking their monsters based on an animal’s ability to capture readers’ imaginations, not whether it make sense in terms of the setting.

2. The carbon problem
“This does happen on very rare occasions, but there’s another problem: The bone isn’t old enough. It should be around sixty million years old.” 
“How old is it?” 
“Oh, I can’t tell really, but it’s clearly contemporary. The dating techniques we used show virtually no carbon-14 decay at all.” 
- Age of Dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex, J.F. Rivkin
Despite what some creationists may tell you, scientists do not use carbon-14 dating methods to determine the age of dinosaur fossils. The technique can only date organic materials back to 50,000 years. Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. That didn’t stop this mistake from appearing in Age of Dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex. It also appeared in Time Tours: The Dinosaur Trackers, where (bizarrely) it was used to date the exact moment of the comet crash that killed the dinosaurs.

3. The grass is greener
"I bet she ran into the grass to hide," Deadshot said. “I almost ran in there myself when you said I couldn’t shoot the blamed thing.” 
- Time Tours: The Dinosaur Trackers by Thomas Shadwell
What’s the problem with the above quote? The setting was the Jurassic, and grasses wouldn’t evolve until millions of years later.

I’ve come across many depictions of grass-munching dinosaurs in paleofiction. Perhaps the most egregious example was in the comic Cavewoman, in which artist Budd Root dreamed up a species of fictional hadrosaur that had evolved to camouflage itself in tall grass. Yes, it is hard for us to imagine a world without grass – it is everywhere in modern times – but throughout most of the Mesozoic it simply did not exist.

That said, recent scientific discoveries may have bailed out any authors who have made this mistake. Fossilized dinosaur dung described in 2005 had traces of grass in it, providing proof that at least some dinosaurs ate grass. The finding doesn’t mean the plant was nearly as extensive as it is today, with grass probably making up only a small part of dinosaur diets.

4. Pick up that tail!
Dr. Piltcher was about to reply when the branches behind him began to snap. The three turned to see a fifteen-foot-tall carnivore coming through the brush, towering above them. Its head and jaws were huge. It walked on two well-muscled back legs, but its forelegs looked smaller and useless. A long thick tail dragged behind. 
- Footprints of Thunder, James F. David
The concept of the lumbering, tail-dragging dinosaur is largely a thing of the past, but this image lasted longer than it should have.

Footprints of Thunder, published in 1997, is the most recent work of fiction to depict dinosaurs with their tails on the ground. (Although, to be fair, the above passage is the only example in the book I could recall.) This mistake is mostly confined to comics, with many comic book artists resisting efforts to modernize their dinosaurs. When Mark Schultz began Xenozoic Tales in 1987, his dinosaurs stood unrealistically erect. It wasn’t until later in the series that he drew them in scientifically accurate horizontal poses. A more recent and therefore more egregious example was the 1998 comic book miniseries Guns of the Dragon and its retro-looking dinosaurs – a pretty glaring oversight from a work that came out four years after Jurassic Park the movie.

5. The Godzilla syndrome
The attack came suddenly, from the left and right. Charging raptors covered the ten yards to the fence with shocking speed. Grant had a blurred impression of powerful, six-foot-tall bodies, stiff balancing tails, limbs with curving claws, open jaws with rows of jagged teeth. 
- Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
Such was the first dramatic appearance of Jurassic Park’s main villains, the Velociraptors. The problem for Crichton was while the dinosaurs had a cool name, in real life they only came up to knee height on your average human. So he embiggened them, making them human sized. It was a mistake, although a deliberate one.

Writers and filmmakers have a habit of Godzilla-sizing their dinosaurs – that is, making them bigger than they probably were in reality. Another example also comes from Jurassic Park, in which Crichton describes his T. rex as standing 20-feet tall. Sue, one of the largest T. rexes yet discovered, was 13 feet high at the hips. (Remembering that with dinosaurs’ horizontal posture, the head was probably kept at roughly the same height.) That’s still plenty big, just not as big as Crichton depicted the animal. I’ve seen this 20-foot-tall T. rex myth pop up in a number of places. My guess it is left over from the days when museums depicted the dinosaur as standing upright, its tail on the ground and its head held above the rest of the body.

An incomplete fossil record gives writers some cover from this mistake. For example, after Jurassic Park the movie was released, Utahraptor was found. The dinosaur reportedly was even bigger than Crichton’s imagined raptors. Then there is the fact that paleontologists rarely discover complete fossils, so determining an animal’s size can come down to educated guesswork. One thing is for certain: If a scientist gives a range for a dinosaur’s estimated size, always expect writers to go with the larger number.

* Painting of Brontosaurus by Charles R. Knight. Image from Wikipedia commons.

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