Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Rethinking Dinosaurs

Robert Rath | 24 Jan 2013 16:00
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According to Dr. Holtz, we have the venerable T. rex wrong too. Due to budget constraints, Tyrannosaurs in films and games usually only have one to two offspring, but in reality they would've had a dozen at a time. T. rex also kept its mouth closed most of the time - a detail that would ruin its movie monster appearance - and didn't roar that often, since making loud noises would've made it impossible to sneak up on prey. Then there's the real mind-bender: "The biggie, though, is the possibility that T. rex was feathered! New discoveries of more primitive feathered tyrannosauroids, including one ton Yutyrannus, strongly suggests that Tyrannosaurus itself had at least some feathers."

If that revelation just completely upended your childhood, I know how you feel. Anyone who reads this column regularly will know that I have an almost fetishistic love for historical accuracy and detail, but I admit that my mind recoils from the thought of a Tyrannosaurs Rex covered in downy fluff. This then, is the mental fault line where evolving science meets popular perception. Even as a lover of accuracy, the fact that my beloved T. rex didn't look how I imagined it - or saw it onscreen, in books, in the models I built, and the toys I played with as a child - sends me into fits of unscientific rationalization. What if the feathers were only found on smaller tyrannosaurids? I think. Maybe they lost them as they got older? Please? Public perception, shaped by years of media conditioning, is a difficult thing to sway. To some extent dinosaurs will always exist in the shadowy valley of our collective imaginations, dwelling somewhere between the movie theater and the museum.

Gradually, the game industry is beginning to come around to showing dinosaurs, and other animals for that matter, as something more than vicious man-eaters. Last year's indie hit Tokyo Jungle followed animals such as Pomeranians, deer, cats, and lions as they try to eke out a living in a post-human landscape. Both Deinonychus and Dilophosaurus appear as playable animal types in the later stages, and Pterodactyls appear as enemies. Not only does the Dilophosaurus appear sans frill and toxic sputum, but with no humans in sight something becomes increasingly apparent: Apart from being larger and tougher, playing as dinosaurs is really no different than playing as a lion or hyena. You still have to find food, avoid predators, mark territory, find a mate, and try to pass on your genes to your offspring. In other words, removing humans from the game let dinosaurs exist in a more or less natural state - as animals trying to survive in an ecological system. When they kill, it's not out of malice but out of biological necessity. If prey eludes them, they don't go crashing through buildings to go after it, they just find slower prey. Playing as dinosaurs teaches a fundamentally different lesson than playing against dinosaurs.

Other games have made small, subtle changes, too: The Dilophosaurs in Turok and Dino D-Day steered clear of the Jurassic Park influence. And for all its dinosaurs-vs.-humans multiplayer silliness, Primal Carnage included a feathered raptor skin as a pre-order bonus. Far Cry 3 players, including some in the gaming press, are currently lobbying to get dinosaurs included in future DLC. That means we could someday see Tyrannosaurus Rex roaming Rook Island, exhibiting the same behavior as the tigers and leopards that simply hunt wild prey until they're disturbed by inquisitive players or blundering pirate patrols. Finally, two weeks ago Universal confirmed a summer 2014 release date for Jurassic Park IV, meaning we could see the most prolific dinosaur myth-makers retool and revamp their creature designs.

This is exciting, since there are lessons we can learn from dinosaurs and paleontology that aren't communicated by treating these biological creatures as movie monsters. Mehling would like to see media pay closer attention to how paleontologists discuss the fossil record: "We use qualifiers liberally. When we say 'probably,' 'possibly,' 'maybe' we definitely mean it. When we say 'oldest known' we do not mean 'first,' which may be subtle but is a very important distinction. I'd love to see dinosaurs portrayed as animals that didn't only kill or get killed. And I'd love for paleontologists to be allowed to say what they say instead of being led or coaxed into the pre-written storyline, or worse, misquoted or taken out of context." Dr. Holtz agrees that he'd like to see more about the peculiarities of dinosaurian life histories - their large litters of young, for example, and their short lifespan. T. rex, he says, doesn't seem to have lived past 30. But the biggest missing piece is evolution. "Most TV shows on dinosaurs look at an individual species, or a community, but not at tracing the evolutionary history of a lineage and its diversification over time." Perhaps some future game could be Tokyo Jungle by way of Spore, challenging players take on the role of a small Triassic dinosaur and gradually level them up the evolutionary ladder into a hulking (mink-coated) T. rex.

And, of course, there's the other lesson. Dinosaurs lived through one of the greatest mass extinction events in planetary history, either dying out or evolving to meet the new challenges that climate change and ecological meltdown forced upon them. Since Earth is currently experiencing another mass extinction event, and facing the possibility of environmental change, perhaps we should look at dinosaurs not as our enemies, but as both an example and a dire warning.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com (robwritespulp.com) or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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