My love affair with dinosaurs began in the prehistory of my life—that is, I literally cannot recall a point throughout the span of my days that I was not madly enamored by them. Like many little boys (and probably more than a few little girls), I found dinosaurs to be the epitome of cool, the most baddest-assed creatures ever to walk the earth. When I first began to draw, at age three or four, the crude figures I traced were of fish, then birds, and then right on up to dinosaurs, with scarcely a look back. My first big polysyllabic words described the pictures I obsessed over: “tyrannosaur”; “ornithischian”; “Hypsilophodon”; “Quetzalcoatlus”. I may not have had any real friends, but I knew my dinosaurs down pat.
In the fuzziest haze of my childhood, I remember my father going on a business trip to Utah, which shares bragging rights with Colorado as home of the Dinosaur National Monument. If I couldn’t come along, I told him, please at least bring me back some souvenirs. He returned with a small stuffed dinosaur for me—a nondescript, Beanie Babie-sized thing—only marginally fulfilling the laundry list of items I had requested of him. This purple biped of indeterminate race I named “Dino”, after the family pet from the Flintstones. Not long afterward, in my kindergarten’s first show-and-tell, I drew up a series of dino-portraits on fancy paper that I exhibited to the class. I considered bringing Dino in to bolster my presentation—he being a bona fide souvenir from the Dinosaur National Monument—but at the last moment I pulled him out.
My interests as a child began taking on a decidedly dino-bent, especially during the elementary years. For example, a brief but colorful foray into Lego architecture gave rise to the variegated Brachiosaurus, the kaleidoscopic Euoplocephalus. I built them on a coffee table and stood over them with pride, until my brothers ransacked them for parts. We watched The Land Before Time from a papasan, and I willingly suspended my disbelief. From the library in White Center I borrowed dinosaur encyclopedias and read them cover to cover. These perusals inspired more drawings, and soon led to a desire to catalog the species, to document in full the breadth of Dinosauria.
In the third grade I remember having the opportunity to “publish” a book in class. We students were encouraged to write about anything at all, especially the sort of stuff we were keen on, and submit it for publication. The staff at Sanislo would take our feebly-written manuscripts, punch holes in them for spiral bindings, laminate some bookends, and slap the whole mess together with an embossed seal stating, “Published at Sanislo Elementary”. I of course tried to create the end-all dinosaur guide, complete with three discrete sections based on the geologic eras of dinosaur-dom: the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. The scope of my ambition was downright sauropodomorphian—big as a city block, and dense as a coprolite. I planned to write profiles for each species and illustrate them all, but after the first ten or so I realized I needed help. Enter Eric and Tony, my dino-indifferent buddies who agreed to choose dinosaurs at random from my library-owned guide and write (read: plagiarize) blurbs on them. All the while I cranked out crappy little drawings at a glacial pace. As the publishing deadline loomed, my goal of cataloging every known species had grown increasingly far-fetched: We had maybe forty blurbs, tops, and they were bad. Only twenty or so had pictures, and none in color. The profiles contained parts both inscrutably esoteric (“Only the maxillae of Heterodontus have ever been found, in which bicuspid molars and spatulate incisors can be observed…”) and laughably dull, like “Lesothosaurus was found in Lesotho, Africa. Its name means ‘Lesotho lizard’.” The final copy was titled, simply, “Dinosaurs”, and it listed three authors on the pine-green cover. It was a piece of shit. The sole distinction it earned was being the longest book in class, which at the time seemed pretty cool to us.
When the film Jurassic Park came out at the Admiral, I was in fourth grade and I was fucking ecstatic. I remember begging my father to take my brothers and I to see it…and because it was super cheap there, he did—four glorious times. Whenever the Tyrannosaurus roared through the Dolby Surround my whole body would break out in gooseflesh, not from fear but pure, terrific delight. I saw dinosaurs rendered in flesh and blood, and it was rapturous, transcendent even. Of course I knew that the “Velociraptors” were more likely Deinonychus based on their size, and that less than half of the dinosaurs depicted in the film (and later made into action figures, most of which I owned) actually hailed from the Jurassic, and that the whole “dino-DNA spliced with frog genes” was a Crichton-cooked crock of shite—I knew these things, but it didn’t stop me from loving the movie. Not even close. Hearing John Williams’ soundtrack still makes my heart swell as I picture the Gallimimus bounding across the plain, the brachiosaurs and the Parasaurolophus wading for water plants, that poor Triceratops, poisoned by time-traveling plants, heaving under a darkening sky.
These days, I’ve dialed back the dino-craze quite a bit. I still try to read about all the new studies and discoveries, though, because they are a reminder of what endeared me to dinosaurs in the first place: their enduring mystery. Sure, it’s all but agreed (I can’t speak for the Creationists here) that dinosaurs did exist, from 230 million years ago until around 65 million years ago, when natural forces conspired to scour them from the face of the earth. They are forever gone from the surface, but deep down (or sometimes not so deep), squished in the rock, we find clues. We unearth their bones and, increasingly, their feather imprints from lodes of shale and limestone, we examine their tracks pressed indelibly onto ancient lakebeds, we study their teeth and make educated guesses as to what these creatures ate—but much is yet left to conjecture. We know next to nothing of their behavior, their odors and vocalizations, their colors, their intelligence—but we wonder, and occasionally we grasp at straws. We hypothesize and compare these long-lost reptiles to modern-day analogs, because those we know with certitude. But the analogies are never watertight. For most of us—for the foreseeable future, at least—dinosaurs remain an enigma: fascinating, humbling, and utterly alien.
Of the more than 1,300 dinosaur names bandied around throughout history, less than a thousand are today recognized as legitimate species. That inflated figure was a product of the dark days of dino-digging, when redundancy and misidentification—an all-too-common gaffe, especially when one held only a jaw fragment, or a couple dusty metatarsals—were rife. Many so-called “discoveries” have since been written off as juveniles of established species, or simply not dinosaurs to begin with, but something else entirely. (A famous example is Aachenosaurus, a purported hadrosaur fossil that turned out to be a chunk of petrified wood.) This paring-down of the dinosaur family tree was made possible by technological advances—three-dimensional mapping, MRI scans, and much else aid the modern paleontologist—and also by the maturation of the field. There are more paleontologists today than at any time before, working in ever farther-flung parts of the globe, making more and more genuine discoveries. Between twenty and thirty new dinosaurs are announced each year—a rate that’s held surprisingly steady for more than a century—and some estimate that only half of all the dinosaur species that ever existed have been unearthed.
Despite a fossil record that’s spottier than an ocelot, ossified dino-bits new to science are still regularly found, particularly in China and South America. This leads to all sorts of speculation as to what’s been lost through the epochs: Who knows what’s still out there, buried in the sediment? And, more importantly, will we know what it is, if and when we find it?
Dinosaurs offer us an exquisite puzzle, a saga of epic proportions—and unlike the rock in which their fossils are embedded, our understanding of them is fluid, not set in stone—and amenable to change.