LIKE MANY BOYS of my generation, I went through a dinosaur phase in the early 1960s when I was 10-12 years old. I was fascinated by these huge beasts and my parents indulged my interest by buying me most of the better books on the subject. And there were also those few movies that had been made up till then that had something ‘dinosaurish’ about them.
Along with my brother Charles and our best friend Donny Flynn, we saw every dinosaur movie ever made at the Saturday matinees shown every Saturday at the many movie theaters in our part of Northeastern Pennsylvania that made more than a little pocket money by giving moms a day to herself once a week.
“By knowing that this method was being used so early in the origins of birds we can get important insight into the evolution of temperature control in large ground-dwelling birds like ostriches and emus.”
And we saw them all: anything that featured Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation was incredible, starting with his King Kong pastiche, Mighty Joe Young (1949). Although his best work was on fantasy films like The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958) and Jason And The Argonauts (1963).
But we also suffered through ‘dinosaurs’ that were harmless modern lizards with horns or sails glued to the backs. They would film the critters and then overlay them into a movie (sometimes the edges of those ‘dinosaurs’ bordered on blurry).
But combine the two and there really weren’t many movies that dealt with dinosaurs. And, despite the humongous worldwide success of the Jurassic Park movies, we haven’t had a lot of dinosaur movies in the twenty-some years since that first movie in 1993.
All About Dinosaurs (1953) by Roy Chapman Andrews was a classic of its time. Andrews was the former director of the American Museum of Natural History and actually did important field work. And he knew how to write to—not down to—a younger reader.
All about dinosaurs
There really weren’t that many books on dinosaurs published prior to 1963—those that I would have been exposed to during my Dinosaur Phase. I loved the ones that we found and I especially enjoyed the books with full-page illustrations in color, which I would attempt to copy in my sketchbooks. 1
Unlike the lack of effect that Jurassic Park had on other movie-makers, there has been an unending flood of books on dinosaurs in the last few decades: comic books, children’s books, teen books, trade fiction, non-fiction, and books that require advanced degrees to understand. Kids who have gone through their own Dinosaur Phase since 1993 have no idea how lucky they are!
Anyway, I ‘grew out of that phase’ (a term I now regret ever having used) and moved onto other interests, like baseball and rock & roll records and girls. But the fascination remained.
In fact, enough fascination is still there that an article I received in an email newsletter motivated this article that you are reading.
A reconstruction of an Ornithomimus skeleton on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.
I get to go as far as I can with it
In 2009, a team of scientists from the University of Alberta discovered a remarkably well-preserved partial skeleton of a dinosaur. It was unearthed in a fossil-rich area known as Dinosaur Provincial Park. This particular specimen’s head and arms were missing, so, at the time, the team of paleontologists decided it was less of a priority than some of the other uncovered fossils and shelved it.
A few years later, the team handed it off to undergraduate student Aaron van der Reest to see if there was anything worth exploring further. Just minutes into the project, van der Reest made a monumental discovery: well-preserved dinosaur feathers.
In 2013, van der Reest was given a large fossil that had been discovered in Dinosaur Provincial Park in 2009. Still encased in rock, it had sat unattended because it was missing its head and forelimbs, thus it was given a low priority. So van der Reest found himself the right man in the right place at the right time due to serendipity.
“I started in the tail area. Twenty minutes into it, I hit this black area here, and that turned out to be feathers,” said van der Reest. “This is my baby. I get to go as far as I can with it.” He has dreamed of working on such a find since he was a teenager and volunteering at the Royal Ontario Museum.
The team had discovered the skeleton of an Ornithomimus (Latin for “bird mimic”), a dinosaur that lived over 75 million years ago.
“Ornithomimus is a genus of ornithomimid (‘ostrich dinosaurs’) from the Late Cretaceous Period of what is now North America. It is usually classified into two species; the type species, Ornithomimus velox, and a referred species, Ornithomimus edmontonicus.
Like other ornithomimids, species of Ornithomimus are characterized by feet with three weight-bearing toes, long slender arms, and long necks with birdlike, elongated, toothless, beaked skulls. They were bipedal and superficially resembled ostriches. They would have been swift runners. They had very long limbs, hollow bones, and large brains and eyes.
The brains of ornithomimids in general were large for non-avialan dinosaurs, but this may not necessarily be a sign of greater intelligence; some paleontologists think that the enlarged portions of the brain were dedicated to kinesthetic coordination.” (Wikipedia)
To date, scientists have discovered three Ornithomimus skeletons, but the discovery of such well-preserved soft tissue and feathers makes this a rare and exemplary specimen. After years of extensive preparation and additional research, the team published their analysis of the feathers last week: the structure of the feathers is very similar to a modern-day ostrich feather. 2
The Little Golden Book Of Dinosaurs (1959) featured illustrations for kids that were comic-bookish in a good way. This series of books was ubiquitous in Leave It To Beaver households throughout America in the 1950s and ’60s.
Proof of an important missing link
The Ornithomimus was a fast-moving, flightless creature. Why did it have feathers? Like the Ornithomimus, ostriches are fast-moving, can’t fly, and have bare legs. They use their feathers as an efficient way to regulate their body temperature. Van der Reest and his team believe that Ornithomimus most likely used its feathers in the same way.
While it’s widely acknowledged birds and dinosaurs have an evolutionary connection, this discovery provides proof of an important missing link. According to van der Reest:
“By knowing that this method [of temperature regulation] was being used so early in the origins of birds we can get important insight into the evolution of temperature control in large ground-dwelling birds like ostriches and emus.”
Birds are thought to have descended from carnivorous predators like Archaeopteryx, and Hesperornis, due to their bone shape and egg features. But this breakthrough suggests there may be a common ancestor at the top of the avian family tree.
These hoodoos in the park would make almost anyone assume that this photo was taken somewhere in the American Southwest, not almost 2,000 miles north in western Canada! 3
Dinosaur Provincial Park sounds trippy
The text above beginning under the sub-heading “I get to go as far as I can with it” is lifted almost intact from an article titled “A college student found prehistoric proof of an evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds” by Erin Canty for Upworthy (November 7, 2015). It turned me onto Dinosaur Provincial Park, a new vacation goal:
“Explore the World’s Richest Deposits of Dinosaur Bones! Visiting Dinosaur Provincial Park is like stepping into another world. There’s a chance for a new discovery around every corner! Explore badlands, camp under the stars, or participate in an authentic dinosaur dig.
Be amazed by the abundant fossils, unusual wildlife and stunning landscapes of this UNESCO World Heritage Site near Brooks, Alberta. If you’d like to take a guided tour into the park’s Natural Preserve, we highly recommend booking your tour seats ahead of your visit. These programs are very popular and sell out during the summer months.” 4
HEADER IMAGE: The superb illustration of an Ornithomimus in its environs at the top of this page is by Julius Csotonyi. His art is so incredible that I included If you like scientific art, you should visit his website, Paleoart and Scientific Illustration, and his book The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi. This is the kind of art I dreamed of doing when I was 12 years old.
1 Dinosaurs were perhaps my earliest motivation to draw like an adult rather than just doing comic-book-like images. In would start by endlessly tracing them on onion-skin paper and then using a standard No. 2 pencil on white sketch-paper. I was pretty good for a 10-year old!
2 The feather imprints were found in the sandstone that makes up much of Dinosaur Provincial Park. As there had been no real evidence that sandstone could support such impressions, it is encouraging to paleontologists for future feather finds.
3 A hoodoo (also called a tent rock, a fairy chimney, and an earth pyramid) is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland. Hoodoos may range from 1.5 to 45 meters (approximately 5 to 150 feet). They typically consist of relatively soft rock topped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from the elements. They generally form within sedimentary rock and volcanic rock formations. (Wikipedia)
4 The text is lifted from Alberta’s official website for Dinosaur Provincial Park.