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Tony Grist

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Dinosaurs Galore [Sep. 15th, 2011|11:27 am]
Tony Grist
Spinosaurus was like some kid's composite idea of a really scary dinosaur. It had a bipedal stance, a crocodile snout, teeth sticking out every whichaway and an odd sail-like thing on its back. It could swim- and was the biggest land-based predator we've yet identified- considerably bigger than T Rex- a fact that has yet to seep through into popular culture. It was also ungainly- the animations last night had it teetering about like a bent-backed granny- which will probably stop it muscling T Rex aside in the popularity stakes.  It seems to have lived mainly on fish, hunting them by crouching on river banks with its ever-so-sensitive snout in the water. It also ate pterosaurs.

Planet Dinosaur is a new series highlighting recent discoveries in palaeontology. A later programme will feature Predator X- the biggest  marine predator ever- a find so new (it's still being assembled by its finders) that it hasn't yet aquired a proper zoological name.

I've often wondered whether stories of giants and dragons and sea monsters had anything to do with our ancestors trying to make sense of the fossils they came across. According to Tom Holland- whose show- Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters- followed right on from Planet Dinosaur (but on another channel)- the answer is "Of course". One and a half hours of up-to-the-minute dino-programming in a single evening- Yes!

Holland's programme touched upon the career of Richard Owen- the Victorian anatomist who gave us the word "dinosaur" and created the Natural History Museum.  He was already in my mind because I'd been leafing through a Museum guide-book earlier in the day. Owen is in the dog-house because he was a creationist-  and  his statue- which used to preside over the great hall of his museum- has recently been replaced by Darwin's. Darwin was a better scientist and a nicer man but does he really have to have all the glory? Owen was a great man too- and there's something Stalinist about his demotion. 

[User Picture]From: chiller
2011-09-15 11:20 am (UTC)
You clearly spent your evening the same way I spent mine, last night.

I was sort of thrilled when I realised that pterosaurs are where dragons came from. The leathery wings! The long beaky head! The teeth! There is a part of me which totally believes that small populations of these creatures may have survived the dinocalypse (specifically pterosaurs and some sea creatures), and been killed off by early humans. The memory of dragons and sea monsters seems so vital and alive in us, and both are the stuff of European legend from within the last few hundred years.

It's probably a stupid idea though.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-09-15 11:50 am (UTC)
I don't think it's stupid- there are still sightings of pterosaur and plesiosaur-type creatures being reported. I like to think there are still some of them out there.

Only the other day there was a new Nessie photograph...
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[User Picture]From: chiller
2011-09-15 07:12 pm (UTC)
There ARE? I haven't come across any pterosaur sightings. I hope there are some!

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-09-16 08:02 am (UTC)
They mostly happen in the States, where people think of them as thunderbirds.

There's a photograph in circulation which shows a group of soldiers of the civil war era posing beside a downed pterosaur. It's almost certainly a fake but it's very cool.

Actually there are several variants- one of which is here- http://paranormal.about.com/od/othercreatures/ig/Gallery-of-Monsters/Pterosaur-with-Soldiers.htm
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[User Picture]From: michaleen
2011-09-16 12:02 pm (UTC)
Slight correction: thunderbirds are invariably depicted by Native Americans as feathered and would appear to be true birds. One theory is that, if they indeed had a basis in fact, they might have been some species of giant condor or something like Argentavis. Then again, given that so many dinosaurs seem to have been feathered, this may be a far less meaningful distinction than it first appears.

I was reading just yesterday that the griffin might have originated from Scythian discoveries of Protoceratops fossils that may have come to light while mining gold in the Altai and Tian Shan mountains.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-09-16 03:17 pm (UTC)
I take your point.

But there is some confusion- at least in the popular mind. People regularly report seeing huge winged critters in the American West- some of which resemble giant condors and some of which resemble pterosaurs. Both types get called "thunderbirds".

The griffin thing was new to me. Yes. I think that thesis is very likely.

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[User Picture]From: michaleen
2011-09-17 11:24 am (UTC)
I think, setting aside the vagueries of cryptozoology in general, if there were such a thing as the thunderbird it almost certainly was not a flying reptile. Such a thing simply could not survive the seasonally low temperatures typically experienced throughout the American west. You might as well imagine it nesting on the crags of Ben Nevis. I would also guess that any alleged sightings of the thing as a leathery-winged beast post-date Doyle.

On the other hand, kongamato does indeed seem a much better fit and reports reach us from just the sort of environment one might expect.
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[User Picture]From: daisytells
2011-09-17 03:39 am (UTC)
This one could be genuine. It's a very good offering.
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[User Picture]From: rosamicula
2011-09-15 12:03 pm (UTC)
I went off Darwin quite a bit when I read This Thing of Darkness. It's a brilliant book, and positively made me hero-worshippy about poor bloody Fitzroy of metereological fame who was an utterly remarkable chap.

I loved the Tom Holland prog, not least because I am very fond of Samos where bits of it were shot. And I liked the plastic miniature dinosaur Spartan army.

I always liked to think that the Welsh and the Chinese both had dragon symbols because there were dinosaurs in the collective unconscious, terrible lizard memories working away in our lizard brain.

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-09-15 12:32 pm (UTC)
I don't like cults- and Darwin is in the process of being turned into a cult hero by the Dawkins tendency. I liked him better when he was just a scientist.

Plastic dinosaurs are cool. I have them scattered about the house and garden.

I'd like to believe we have memories of the dinosaurs embedded in our Collective Unconscious- so I will.
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