Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How Misleading are Dinosaur "Bones"?

I just finished reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, a terrific read if you're even a little into National Geographic-type stuff. There are a ton of facts in the book that absolutely boggle the mind, but here's one that I found very disturbing:

The fact is, we don't really know a great deal about the dinosaurs. For the whole Age of Dinosaurs, fewer than a thousand species have been identified (almost half of them from a single specimen), which is about a quarter of the number of mammal species alive now. Dinosaurs, bear in mind, ruled the Earth for rougly three times as long as mammals have, so either dinosaurs were remarkably unproductive of species or we have barely scratched the surface (to use an irresistibly apt cliché).

For millions of years through the Age of Dinosaurs not a single fossil has yet been found. Even for the period of the late Cretaceous--the most studied prehistoric period there is, thanks to our long interest in dinosaurs and their extinction--some three quarters of all species that lived may yet be undiscovered. Animals bulkier than Diplodocus or more forbidding than tyrannosaurus may have roamed the Earth in the thousands, and we may never know it.

Can you imagine if we had those millions of years of fossils? If the other three quarters of the Cretaceous dinosaur species had been found, there would have been enough material for 52 Land Before Time movies. Here, I did the math:

1/4 of species found = 13 Land Before Time films (Yes, I had to check.)
All species found (hypothetical) = 13 x 4 = 52 Land Before Time films

Holy Little Foot, we're missing a lot of information!

Then, Bryson dropped this bomb on the reader:

The entrance hall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York is dominated by...a skeleton of a large Barosaurus defending her baby from attack by a darting and toothy Allosaurus. It is a wonderfully impressive display--the Barosaurus rises perhaps thirty feet toward the high ceiling--but also entirely fake. Every one of the several hundred bones in the display is a cast. Visit almost any large natural history museum in the world--in Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt, Buenos Aires, Mexico City--and what will greet you are antique models, not ancient bones.

You've gotta be kidding me. I mean, I can deal with fake dinosaur bones in O'Hare Airport:



But the Museum of Natural History? This exhibit?


Come on, Science.

Exhibits like that cultivated my love for dinosaurs and led me to force my parents to blow probably thousands of dollars on Dino toys like these:



All I know is the Creationists better not get ahold of Bryson's factoids or it could set science back about four hundred years.

In the meantime, let's get out there and find the rest of those bones! Step it up, Paleontology.

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