Category Archives: Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

History and prehistory in the City of Angels

If you find yourself visiting southern California and you’d like a good crash course in the area’s history, let me recommend a visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Most of us associate natural history museums with fossils and taxidermy, but the NHMLAC also has an exhibit called “Becoming Los Angeles,” which covers L.A.’s story from the arrival of the Spanish up to the present. It opened last year.

I’m not that familiar with the history of California, so this exhibit was an education for me. The section on the Spanish mission system is especially interesting; it explains the impact of European colonization on both the land and the people. The arrival of domestic cattle, for example, dramatically impacted southern California’s vegetation. Cows ate up the grasses that were native to the area while depositing foreign seeds in their dung. Hence the slogan emblazoned on souvenirs in the museum’s gift shop: Cow poop changed L.A.!

Becoming Los Angeles features some pretty neat artifacts. Here’s the table on which the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed in 1847, ending hostilities in the Mexican-American War in California. Of course, the war didn’t officially end until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the following year.

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The exhibit also covers more recent history, including the city’s role in WWII and the birth of the local aviation and entertainment industries. Here’s another historically significant piece of furniture: Walt Disney’s animation stand, used to make the first Mickey Mouse cartoons.

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Other objects on display include Spanish crucifixes from the colonial era, Indian tools, and one of Charlie Chaplin’s costumes.

But hey…I didn’t go to L.A. to see history exhibits. I was off the clock. You guys know where this is headed, right?

If you like tyrannosaurs, you’re in luck. There are more T. rex mounts at the NHMLAC than you can shake a severed goat leg at. One of them is facing off against a Triceratops in the foyer.

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More tyrannosaur skeletons are in the main dinosaur exhibit. This is a really cool mount, because it’s the only place in the world where you can see three T. rexes of different ages posed together in a growth series. At two years old, this is the youngest known T. rex specimen.

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The second tyrannosaur is a twenty-foot adolescent. T. rex grew remarkably fast in its early teens, packing on up to 1.5 tons per year.

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And here’s the third animal, close to full size.

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Mamenchisaurus, a long-necked sauropod from China, dominates the first dinosaur gallery.

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Another Triceratops.

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Carnotaurus, the bulldog-faced meat-eater from Argentina. On a related note, on my last night in town my friends took me to an Argentine restaurant. Best thing about L.A. is the variety of dining options.

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A hadrosaur skull. The horny part of the “duckbill” is really visible on this specimen.

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Allosaurus vs Stegosaurus. I do love a good Allosaurus skeleton. The Denver Museum of Natural History has a very similar mount.

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An ornithomimid. I think it’s Struthiomimus, but I don’t remember exactly.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the La Brea Tar Pits, but the NHMLAC does have quite a few specimens from the site, like this saber-toothed cat.

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And while we’re on the subject of all things prehistoric, the grand finale of my L.A. trip was a pilgrimage to the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studious Hollywood.

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I was wearing a t-shirt from the Jurassic Park River Adventure at Universal Orlando, and some of the ride operators at the Hollywood version asked me which one was better. As a connoisseur of all things JP, I feel eminently qualified to address this question, so here goes.

In terms of the rides themselves, it’s pretty much a toss-up. The Hollywood version has a couple of neat outdoor effects that are absent in Orlando, an additional (albeit brief) encounter with the T. rex, and better-looking sauropods in the opening scene. On the other hand, I think the Florida ride seems a bit less rushed, which means much better pacing, a more coherent story, and a more effective build-up of suspense. For these reasons, I have a slight personal preference for Orlando’s version, but you can’t go wrong with either one.

Looking beyond the boat ride to the overall Jurassic Park experience, Orlando has one big advantage in that Universal had room to build an entire Isla Nublar there, complete with a replica of the visitor center, more dino-themed dining and shopping establishments, and some other attractions besides the main boat ride. But Hollywood still has plenty to offer. On the studio tram tour, you’ll see vehicles used in The Lost World and the water tank used to film the final Spinosaurus attack in JPIII. The die-hard fan should visit both parks—Hollywood because it’s steeped in the history of the franchise, Orlando because you can immerse yourself in the movie’s fictional universe. (Assuming, of course, you can ignore that darned Harry Potter castle looming above the treeline. Zoning laws, people. Zoning laws.)

And that’s a wrap. Back to business as usual.

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They’ve figured out how to open doors

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I will now drop everything to address a tragically common misconception

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this one.

This time it’s Cracked.com that’s accusing Steven Spielberg of making a steep drop appear out of nowhere during the T. rex attack.

There’s clearly nowhere for them to go. If they stay on the road, they’ll be eaten. If they run into the jungle, they’ll probably catch some kind of awful tropical parasite. And then be eaten.

Cut To …

Oh, wait, no: They can climb down this sheer cliff face, which just appeared out of absolutely nowhere.

And we say “appeared” because it literally appeared there during the edit between those two scenes. The tyrannosaur breaks through the fence, then the heroes crawl through the broken fence the dinosaur just burst through, only to find the concrete wall….

Oh, you think the greatest scene ever committed to film has a glaring mistake, do you? Well, I’ve got some news for you.

If you’re standing in the spot where the kids’ car is stopped and facing the fence, the goat tether would be directly in front of you, and that steep drop would be slightly to the left, along the edge of the paddock that’s perpendicular to the road.  After the T. rex overturns the car, she nudges it to the left, past the spot where the goat was tethered, and then pushes it into the drop.  Okay?

There.  I’ve done my good deed for the day.

And don’t get me started on people who can’t figure out how the T. rex got into the Visitor Center when there’s obviously a ginormous opening in the wall.

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World War II’s oldest casualties

With The Monuments Men hitting theaters this week, I thought this might be a good opportunity to discuss the fate of valuable artifacts during WWII.  And this leads us—as all things inevitably must—to the subject of extinct reptiles.

About a hundred million years ago, North Africa was the world capital of big, carnivorous dinosaurs.  The biggest of them all was Spinosaurus, top contender for the largest known meat-eating dinosaur of all time.  Even the lowest estimates of its size would make this animal longer than T. rex, and the higher estimates—up to 59 feet from nose to tail tip—are longer by far than those for any other theropod dinosaur known to science.

By Bogdanov, modified by Matt Martyniuk (User:Dinoguy2) and User:FunkMonk. Jaw muscles taken from[1] by User:Steveoc_86. (dmitrchel@mail.ru) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Spinosaurus got its moniker from the row of spines atop its vertebrae, some of them over five feet high, giving it a prominent sail or ridge running the length of its back.  The German paleontologist Ernst Stromer came up with the name in 1915, based on some jawbones, vertebrae, and ribs discovered three years earlier in Egypt.

Ernst Stromer

For thirty years, these fossils were safe and sound in Munich’s Paläontologisches Museum.  Then the war came, and European museums weren’t safe havens anymore.

On the night of April 24, 1944 the Royal Air Force hit Munich with a bombing raid that wrecked the museum and destroyed the Spinosaurus fossils inside.  Spinosaurus bones aren’t that plentiful, so the loss of any of them is a big deal, but the loss of this specimen was especially significant because it was the holotype (the individual used in the first official scientific description of the species).  All that remains of it today are Stromer’s notes, drawings, and photos.

Perhaps the rarity and fragmentary nature of Spinosaurus fossils help explain why this dinosaur hasn’t always been as popular as you’d expect.  It’s more well known now than it used to be, largely thanks to a starring role as the main antagonist in Jurassic Park III.

I’m partial to T. rex myself, but that scene is just freaking awesome.

Another massive carnivorous dino prowling around Cretaceous North Africa was Carcharodontosaurus, first discovered in the 192os and re-named by Stromer in 1931.  Like Spinosaurus, this guy was huge—upwards of forty feet long.  Its five-foot skull was lined with serrated, eight-inch teeth.

By Ornitholestes (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

And also like Spinosaurus, the holotype got pulverized by Allied bombs falling on Munich.  Expeditions to the Sahara unearthed additional specimens in the 1990s, but Stromer’s original went up in smoke during the war.

In fact, the RAF’s April attack on Munich basically wiped out Stromer’s remarkable collection, including the type specimen of the carnivorous dinosaur Bahariasaurus, the only known specimen of the unusual prehistoric crocodile Stomatosuchus, and the bones of the long-necked dinosaur Aegyptosaurus.  And the war cost Stromer much more than his fossils.  Two of his sons died in the army, while the third spent years as a prisoner of the Russians.

Incidentally, the First World War took its toll on paleontology, too.  In December 1916 the German raider Möwe sank the Canadian ship Mount Temple, along with the twenty-two crates of hadrosaur and turtle fossils on board.

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UT has a dinosaur now

Of course, I heartily approve of this.

A 2,400-pound, 24-foot-long bronze skeleton of an Edmontosaurus annectens—a hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur—was installed today outside the front entrance of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture as part of the museum’s fiftieth anniversary celebration.

Its selection is fitting because the Edmontosaurus is a hadrosaur, and these types of dinosaurs once roamed the coastal plains of Tennessee. The McClung Museum also houses actual hadrosaur bones—the only non-avian dinosaur bones ever found in the state—in its Geology and Fossil History of Tennessee permanent exhibit.

They’re holding a contest to name this sucker at the McClung Museum website; November 8 is the deadline for submissions.

I think the name should relate to East Tennessee history: Chucky Jack if it’s a male, Bonnie Kate if it’s a female.  Too bad it’s so hard to tell the difference.

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It’s a Jurassic World; you just live in it

We’ve got a title and a release date.  Jurassic World opens June 12, 2015.  Serious aficionados may recall that this was also the title given to the single-volume edition of the Crichton novels.

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Prehistoric interlude

When he delivered his famous funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War, Pericles told the Athenians that “the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us.”  I’m not a city person myself.  I prefer a nice small town within easy driving distance of a city, where you can hop in the car to enjoy urban amenities and then go home for some peace and quiet.  But “all the good things from all over the world” do indeed flow in to big cities, which is why they have the best museums.

And enjoying my favorite museum experience in the entire world is always my first priority on those rare occasions when I get to visit New York.  It’s the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History, possibly the greatest assemblage of dinosaur fossils on exhibit anywhere.

That’s New York’s main draw for me—not the theater, the food, the art, or the landmarks.  Not even the historic sites.  As neat as it was to see Washington’s inaugural Bible, I’d rather be in the dinosaur galleries at the AMNH than just about anywhere else.  It’s not just the sheer amount and quality of material in those halls; it’s also the fact that the AMNH collections have such a remarkable history behind them, excavated and studied by some of the most colorful explorers and scientists who ever lived.  A walk through these halls is as much a tour of the history of vertebrate paleontology as a tour of the museum itself.

Time for some prehistoric eye candy.

The Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs

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The first dinosaur specimen ever collected for the AMNH, from the famous dino graveyard at Como Bluff, WY

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A carnivore who needs no introduction, first discovered by the AMNH’s famed dinosaur hunter Barnum Brown and described by Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was largely responsible for building up the museum’s vertebrate fossil collection

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T. rex from the rear

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Allosaurus

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The small, smart, and birdlike carnivore Deinonychus, whose discovery helped start the “dinosaur renaissance” of the 1960′s

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The type specimen of Velociraptor, found in Mongolia during one of the AMNH expeditions to the Gobi desert in 1923

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Hadrosaurs in the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs

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The famous “hadrosaur mummy,” found by Charles H. Sternberg and his sons in 1908

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Saurolophus

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Triceratops

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Stegosaurus

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An ankylosaur, sporting a wicked suit of armor

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Pachycephalosaurus

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A rearing Barosaurus in Roosevelt Memorial Hall

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And finally, a historical artifact—the flag carried into the Gobi Desert on the legendary AMNH Mongolian expeditions led by one of my heroes, Roy Chapman Andrews

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A few Lincoln and Civil War notices

In case you haven’t heard, Jurassic Park 4 will be here in 2015 instead of 2014.  I hate having to wait another year, but oh well.

Hey, speaking of Hollywood, my mom didn’t know World War Z is a zombie movie until yesterday.  I asked her if she assumed, based on the trailers, that it was a movie about Brad Pitt running from crowds of normal people.

Okay, on to business.

  • A woman who claims to have a photograph of Lincoln on his deathbed is suing the Surratt House Museum for $100,000 because of a statement on the museum’s website about the photo’s authenticity.
  • BBC America listed ten connections between Lincoln and Britain, but they left out the most obvious one: Lincoln’s ancestors came from England.
  • If you want to take in the anniversary festivities at Gettysburg but can’t make the trip, C-SPAN3 has got you covered.  They’ll be airing the festivities in both live and taped form during the anniversary weekend, and July 4th will feature 24 hours of non-stop Gettysburg programming.  For those of you in the Gettysburg area, the C-SPAN bus will be in town starting June 25th, and the Lincoln Diner will even have C-SPAN coffee mugs for the occasion.  (That’s the one across the street from the train station, right?  I’ve eaten there a couple of times.  Neat place.)
  • Sorry about the short notice on this one, but Dr. Earl Hess will discuss the Battle of Campbell Station at the Farragut Folklife Museum on June 23rd (that’s tomorrow) at 2:00.
  • Finally, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park has obtained an original Civil War document.

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Spared no expense

I usually avoid 3-D movies. The image is usually too dark, and the artificial depth just reminds me that what I’m watching is, after all, only a movie on a screen. But when Jurassic Park gets a re-release for its twentieth anniversary, I make an exception.

They’ve given it a darn good 3-D conversion. If you get the opportunity to see it in IMAX, by all means do so. Watching the T. rex attack sequence in the larger format is worth the price of a ticket by itself, especially with a good sound system behind it.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t really pay to see it in 3-D or IMAX, but simply to watch it with an audience in a darkened theater again. It holds up remarkably well. Photorealistic CGI effects were still in their infancy back in 1993, but JP‘s visuals still compare favorably with the digital effects in many modern films. Stan Winston’s live-action puppetry and robotics work in the JP franchise remains the pinnacle of the craft. The ensemble’s chemistry is still there. The plot hums right along without missing a beat. (Since it’s been on DVD, I’ve gotten accustomed to viewing my favorite moments separately rather than the movie as a whole, and one of the things that surprised me as I watched it from beginning to end in a theater again is what a lean and efficient piece of entertainment it is.) The whole thing still works.

A lot of people have asked me whether I prefer Jurassic Park as a novel or a film. I think they’re both masterpieces, but I’ve never been able to answer the question simply because the movie isn’t really an adaptation of the book. They’re best taken as two different stories based on the same premise. Spielberg’s distinctive fingerprints are all over his version, not just in terms of the visuals but also in terms of characters, emotion, and theme. Whereas Crichton’s novel ends on a note of uncertainty and pessimism, Spielberg’s movie ends with the creation of a sort of surrogate family. And whereas Crichton’s John Hammond is greedy and temperamental, the movie presents him as a tragic but sympathetic figure whose primary goal is not profit, but the desire to share something grand and wonderful. “An aim,” as he puts it, “not devoid of merit.”

Whether as a novel or a film, it’s one of the definitive expressions of modern man’s peculiar dilemma: there’s a formidable gulf between the power at our disposal on the one hand, and the wisdom and knowledge with which we exercise it on the other. What better way to explore this theme than a story about humans encountering dinosaurs, the creatures we can know about but never really know, who ruled this planet long before we ever started trying to understand it and master it?

Anyway, because I was a thirteen-year-old dinosaur fanatic when Jurassic Park hit theaters, I suppose I’ve never been in a position to be objective about it. Whatever faults the film has, I remain blind to them, like a guy who marries his high school sweetheart and never falls out of love with her. Don’t miss this chance to see it on the big screen again.

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Jurassic nirvana achieved

I just met Ariana Richards. Any personal milestones I reach henceforth are thus rendered insignificant by comparison, and that includes marriage and the birth of my firstborn child.

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