GDP: An eruption of paleonews

Fossil resources under threat, a volcanic trailer, two new theropods, and a tweeting tyrannosaur.  It’s all in today’s Gratuitous Dinosaur Post.

Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument. By US Bureau of Land Management (http://mypubliclands.tumblr.com/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

ITEM THE FIRST: You’ve probably heard about the Trump administration’s move to slash land away from Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-National Monument.  What you may not know is that the two sites are paleontological treasure troves.  In fact, their spectacular fossil resources helped get them established as national monuments in the first place.

Trump’s decision puts a lot of scientific data in jeopardy, so the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is taking the administration to court to try and stop it.  SVP President P. David Polly explains why this lawsuit is necessary:

When Grand Staircase-Escalante was set aside, there were very few areas anywhere in the world where we had a mammal fossil record right at the late Cretaceous period, when different mammal groups were diverging. Those fossils really filled a gap in mammal paleontology and put Grand Staircase on the map from a paleontological point of view. We now have the most extraordinary Late Cretaceous ecosystem documented anywhere. After the monument was established, a lot of the dinosaur material was discovered.

In Bears Ears, the very oldest and the very youngest fossils have been excluded, including one area that documents the transition from amphibians to true reptiles. In Grand Staircase, they’ve hacked off most of the very southern edge of the monument and the very eastern edge. That cuts out a really important interval in time, including the world’s greatest mass extinction, and the Triassic period, which is really when life started re-evolving again. Some of the mammal-bearing units I just described are out in their entirety. One of the great ironies is that the original localities where all the great discoveries were made in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to the founding of the monument, are now out of the monument.

[But on BLM lands managed for multiple uses,] if there’s another competing use the paleontology does not necessarily hold sway. An extreme example would be mining—if mining wins out, then the fossils can be destroyed. Second, the monument is better staffed, so it’s harder for someone to sneak in illegally and take things, whereas on ordinary BLM land it’s much less well policed.

Third, in national monuments where paleontology is one of the designated resources, there’s a whole special funding stream for research. A lot of the work that has been done at Grand Staircase has essentially been a public-private partnership. The funding through the monument has really made the science there blossom; we would not have seen the level or number of finds there over the last 20 years had that not existed.

ITEM THE SECOND: Now, how ’bout that Fallen Kingdom trailer?

As far as first trailers go, I like this one a lot better than Jurassic World‘s.  JW‘s trailer, I think, gave away a bit too much.  Revealing the helicopter crash in the aviary was especially unfortunate.  It undercut a lot of the shock we should’ve felt at Masrani’s death.

One thing the trailer does reveal is a ginormous volcanic eruption that triggers a dinosaur stampede.  This prehistoric plot trope dates back to the very dawn of dino movies, having been depicted in the 1925 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.  But I don’t think it’s ever been done as impressively as this.

The Baryonyx at 00:58 has been generating most of the buzz on the Interwebs, but I’m especially glad to see Carnotaurus finally making its debut in the film series.  Crichton featured this genus in the second novel, so it’s high time it showed up in the movies.

Fans have also been speculating about the identity of that carnivore at 1:51.  It looks a lot like an Allosaurus.  As a longtime allo fan, I’d love to see it in a JP movie, but it does seem a little odd to add such a standard carnosaur to a film franchise that already has quite a few big meat-eaters.  With so many weird theropods out there, you’d think they’d want to showcase some of the more offbeat ones.  Then again, since Allosaurus fossils are plentiful, I suppose it’s as likely to turn up in a dinosaur theme park as any other big predator.

ITEM THE THIRD: Halszkaraptor, the newly christened, semi-aquatic theropod from Mongolia, had a goose’s neck, a raptor’s claws, and a snout full of sensors like a crocodile’s.  Convergent evolution is a heck of a thing.

ITEM THE FOURTH: One of the most famous fossils in Haarlem’s Teylers Museum is getting a new name…again.  In 1970, while examining the museum’s pterosaur collection, John Ostrom determined that its type specimen of Pterodactylus crassipes wasn’t a pterodactyl at all, but an Archaeopteryx.  Now a team of researchers has identified the Teylers fossil as a new genus of dinosaur, which they’ve named Ostromia crassipes.

ITEM THE FIFTH: Chicago magazine caught up with Sue, the Field Museum’s resident T. rex, to talk about social media and how she’ll be spending her downtime as she awaits her move to a new gallery:

There may be some behind-the-scenes hijinks while I’m off display getting ready to be remounted. As a (temporarily) disembodied rage emu, I can roam the halls and maybe check in on the new 122-foot-long sauropod playing door greeter. That is, if it can ever shut up about “going vegan.” WE GET IT YOU EAT KALE [leaf emoji].

Also, did you know less than 1 percent of The Field Museum’s collections are on public display? With some free time on my tiny, but powerful, hands I will finally be able to see EVERY rove beetle we have. And buddy…DEMS A LOT OF ROVE BEETLES.

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Turns out you can home go again

I’m pleased to announce that I’m starting a new gig at an old place—old to me, anyway, since it’s where my career in history started.

I’m once again hanging my hat at Lincoln Memorial University as the director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum and instructor of history.  My dream job has always been to work at a small or medium-sized institution where I could combine teaching with some type of museum or public history work.  I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to do so in the region where I grew up, and at the institution where I first fell in love with history as a discipline.

I haven’t abandoned my dissertation, though.  I’ll be writing it while working, with an eye toward moving up from instructor to assistant professor once it’s finished.  So in addition to spending time with my Revolutionary frontiersmen, I’ll be getting re-acquainted with an old friend…

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GDP: “They want to see their expectation”

In case you haven’t seen it, a few seconds of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom footage has hit the Interwebs, and it’s got us dino aficionados in quite a titter.  It shows Owen Grady communing with a baby raptor, perhaps the offspring of Blue from the first JW.

Among dinosaur buffs, reaction to “Baby Blue” has been mixed.  Some fans think it’s adorable, while others are still bummed that the series’ raptors are missing their feathers.  (Click here to see a more accurate depiction of a baby Velociraptor.)  It’s been the subject of heated debate ever since Colin Trevorrow tweeted the news that JW‘s dinosaurs would take their bows sans plumage.

Me?  I’d prefer to see the raptors get a scientific upgrade.  It took me a while to get used to seeing fluffy dromaeosaurs, but now it’s the featherless reconstructions that look odd to me.  They seem unnaturally denuded, sort of like Persian cats with buzz cuts.

Of course, the films’ super-sized raptors have never exactly embodied scientific accuracy anyway.  But there’s already some precedent for a makeover in the movies’ fictional universe.  The makers of JPIII added bold new colors to that installment’s raptors and topped off the pack’s leader with a crown of filaments.  Some of the JP comic books have been even more progressive.  The raptors in the spin-off miniseries Dangerous Games are decked out with wicked plumes and long, pennaceous feathers on their forearms.  I’d love to see future installments use a design along the lines of the wonderful Beasts of the Mesozoic figures.

Jurassic Park: Dangerous Games #2, cover by Jeff Zornow. Image via comicbookrealm.com

What I find ironic about the JW feather brouhaha is that the filmmakers have put themselves in the same position as the people behind the park in Crichton’s original novel.  In one scene, geneticist Henry Wu tries to persuade park founder John Hammond to let him tweak the animals’ genetic code so that the dinos will conform more to visitor expectations.

“The dinosaurs we have now are real,” Wu said, pointing to the screens around the room, “but in certain ways they are unsatisfactory.  Unconvincing.  I could make them better.”

“Better in what way?”

“For one thing, they move too fast,” Henry Wu said.  “People aren’t accustomed to seeing large animals that are so quick.  I’m afraid visitors will think the dinosaurs look speeded up, like film running too fast.”

“But, Henry, these are real dinosaurs.  You said so yourself.”

“I know,” Wu said.  “But we could easily breed slower, more domesticated dinosaurs.”

Domesticated dinosaurs?”  Hammond snorted.  “Nobody wants domesticated dinosaurs, They want the real thing.”

“But that’s my point,” Wu said.  “I don’t think they do.  They want to see their expectation, which is quite different.”

Hammond was frowning.

“You said yourself, John, this park is entertainment,” Wu said.  “And entertainment has nothing to do with reality.  Entertainment is antithetical to reality.”

Wu understands that InGen is in the entertainment business, just as filmmakers are.  And entertainers always run a risk when they don’t give the audience what they’re expecting to see.

When Jurassic Park came out, Velociraptor wasn’t yet a superstar dino along the lines of Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Stegosaurus.  Thus the movie spends a considerable amount of time setting up the raptors as formidable villains, from Grant’s impromptu lecture at the dig site to the feeding scene before the tour.  And the film’s raptors made such an impression that Velociraptor became a bona fide celebrity.

The movie also popularized a more modern view of dinosaurs as birdlike, bringing pop culture more in line with the state of paleontology at the time.  In the two decades after its release, however, the science has kept moving.  We’ve witnessed a new dinosaur renaissance, as dramatic in some ways as the one that resulted in the image of dinos as warm-blooded and birdlike that the original movie helped propagate.  Much of what scientists have found has been surprising and unexpected.  It turns out that raptors and their dromaeosaur kin were even more birdlike than anyone suspected.  As a paleontology buff, I’d love to see the film series disseminate some of these new discoveries, just as the first installment changed people’s image of dinosaurs.  I’d like to see a movie that catches people off-guard with all the weirdness and wonder of what scientists have uncovered.

But as Wu says, people want their expectations met.  And when it comes to raptors, their expectations conform to the indelible image the first movie burned into the popular consciousness back in 1993.  So when Universal decided to revisit Jurassic Park, Trevorrow and company basically adopted the same plan Wu proposes to Hammond in the novel.  They gave people dinosaurs that are “better than real,” and it seems they’re going to do the same thing in Fallen Kingdom.

In other words, the people making the sequels are more or less captive to a set of popular expectations about what dinosaurs should be like—expectations created by the original film itself.  And their dilemma is summed up perfectly by a character in the novel that started the whole franchise.  How meta is that?

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My guest post on manliness and the frontier Revolution at AoR

My contribution to Age of Revolution’s series on the Rev War in Indian country is now online.  If you’re curious about the kinds of questions I’ve been investigating for my dissertation, there you go.  I’m using gender to make sense of the Revolution on the Appalachian frontier, and it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.

I’d like to thank the editors of AoR for inviting me to participate.  Some of my favorite historians wrote pieces for this series, so it was a tremendous honor.

And I apologize to all you folks for the scarcity of new posts here of late.  I’m trying to get a chapter knocked out, so I haven’t had much time to do anything online except tweet.  I’ll try to get back in the swing of things.

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Stopping Reconstruction from falling through the cracks

Kevin Gannon has some worthwhile remarks on teaching Reconstruction.  He notes that one of the reasons we fail to do the subject justice is the way we divide the two halves of the U.S. survey course:

The standard two-semester survey model, for example, can give short shrift to a thorough examination of the postwar era. How many times has Reconstruction been pushed to the last day or two of class because we get behind in the schedule? And many of us start the second semester of the survey with the assumption that students “got Reconstruction” in the first portion? But what if they didn’t? Or what about those students who haven’t taken the first half of the survey?

I agree.  Cleaving the U.S. survey in twain at the 1865 or 1877 mark, as is customary, has consequences.  If you’re teaching the first half and you’re running low on time toward the end of the semester, it’s easy to gloss over Reconstruction.  And if you’re teaching the second half, you’re faced with two unsatisfactory options.  You can pick up the story at the end of the war and launch right into Reconstruction, but that separates the subject from the context out of which it arose.  Or you can leapfrog over Reconstruction and hope that whoever had your students the previous semester got around to it.

Of course, there’s an artificiality and arbitrariness inherent in any periodization scheme, and splitting the survey at any other point would create different problems.  But one thing I’ve done in the past is to begin the second half of the survey with the debate over the nature of Reconstruction between Lincoln and Radical Republicans.  That helps underscore what was at stake in the postwar period, and gets students thinking about Reconstruction as something other than an epilogue to Appomattox, a sort of post-credits scene after the main plot has been wrapped up.

I also think it’s useful to bring in historiography when dealing with Reconstruction in the survey.  Have students read some excerpts from the Dunning School, and then follow up with some DuBois.  This not only gets them thinking critically about the period, but also conveys a sense of history as a contest of interpretations and explanations.

By Waud, Alfred R. (Alfred Rudolph), 1828-1891, artist. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Two lessons I’ve learned about writing a dissertation

In the past few days I’ve learned two things about writing a dissertation.  The first lesson is something I had to stumble across on my own; the second I got from somebody else.

By Marco Verch (Notizblock mit Stiften) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I always had this notion that research and writing were two distinct stages in any project like this, with the writing coming after most of the research was finished.  I’d spend a long time accumulating evidence, and then I’d sit down, sort it all out, and turn it into finished prose.  I’d still have some material to consult while working on early drafts, of course, but I thought I’d have the bulk of it done by the time I started stringing words together.

It hasn’t played out that way.  Writing itself—at least when you’re dealing with a project of this sort—is a process of discovery.  You can’t finish your research before starting to write, because your sense of what material you need will develop as you write.

Right now, for instance, I’m writing a foundational chapter on the meanings of eighteenth-century manhood, both in the English colonies in general and on the Appalachian frontier in particular.  Manhood was closely bound up with ownership of land.  I knew this when I started writing, and I’d acquired some good material on the links between land and manliness.  But once the writing commenced, it became apparent that I needed to explore these ties in more depth, and to do more digging into the historiography of land ownership.

Being OCD, I don’t like the idea of trying to compose text around ideas I haven’t fully fleshed out yet.  It feels a bit like trying to put a puzzle together while looking through a keyhole.  But finding out that I have no choice in the matter—that I can’t have the ideas fully fleshed out until I start assembling them—has been liberating.  It’s eased some of my anxieties about doing historical research and writing.  Since I can’t plan out the whole route ahead of time, I might as well go ahead and start putting one foot in front of the other.

The other lesson is something Christina Snyder told a group of us grad students yesterday during her visit to campus: “A page a day is a dissertation in a year.”  That came as a revelation.  Another assumption I had about a substantial writing project is that you should do it in big chunks.  When I sit down at the keyboard and can’t produce anything more than a couple hundred words, it’s discouraging.  But sometimes productivity means something less like an avalanche and more like the steady drip-drip-drip of mineral-rich water that creates stalagmites.

One step at a time, and if you can’t see the whole route, you can at least see where to plant your foot next.  That’s what it boils down to.

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Age of Revolutions is rolling out a series on Native Americans

If you don’t already follow the Age of Revolutions blog, keep an eye out for a series of posts they’re rolling out over the next seven weeks.  Each piece looks at a dimension of the Native American experience in the American Revolution.  The contributors include some of my favorite historians, so I was doubly honored and excited when AoR’s editors invited me to join in.

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