Dinosaurs: Fact, Fiction, and Guesswork

THE dinosaurs are coming.

Or they have already arrived.

It depends on how you look at it. Or on how much imagination you have. Or on where you live.

In Europe, where I live, the movie "Jurassic Park" hasn't been released yet, so we have a few more weeks of freedom - of dinosaurlessness. We are still peacefully sure that dinosaurs are extinct.

But how alive dinosaurs are to you (even though they have been extinct for 65 million years) may also depend on how old you are. Some people, probably between the ages of about 3 and about 15, have been dinosaur-crazy since who knows when. They haven't been waiting for Steven Spielberg to make his film. They're already experts.

They are already surrounded - at least in their imaginations - by dinosaurs.

They probably know more about dinosaurs than they do about their own grandmas. Vulconodons may even mean more to them than the family dog.

Their bedroom walls are likely to be plastered with dinosaur posters. They'll have dinosaur rulers and dinosaur erasers. They eat dinosaur cookies. Their shelves display rows of scale models of Protoceratops and Triceratops. Their T-shirts have Oviraptors on the front and Velociraptors on the back. There's no doubt about it. Dinosaurs can get hold of some people. Have they gotten hold of you?

I've never met him, but I have a great-nephew, age 8, named Sam. He, I am informed, has been learning about such animals as Parasaurolophus and Carcharodontosaurus more or less since birth. When other kids build sandcastles on the beach or splash about in the surf, Sam draws dinosaurs in the sand with seaweed stems. Then he tests the adults nearby. "Identify!" he cries.

The adults all pretend they haven't heard him. This is because just about the only dinosaur they can remember is Tyrannosaurus rex! And they don't even know how to spell it. They have no idea what it looks like.

It's a puzzle, really. You'd expect old, old things like prehistoric reptiles to be very appealing to old, old things like parents, but mostly it seems to be young, young things who like them best.

Did you know that "Jurassic Park" was a book before it was a film?

Written by Michael Crichton, it first came out in 1991. It wasn't written for kids. (Some concerned people believe that the film is not for kids either because of its excessive violence.)

The book has a serious side to it as well as being gripping. Although it is science fiction - that is, not true at all - it is based on something that some physical scientists consider theoretically possible (but other scientists call impossible): that humans might be able to make living clones of extinct creatures. It's an aspect of what is called genetic engineering. And Crichton is pointing out, through his novel, that playing around cleverly with biology in this way could be very dangerous indeed.

Everything we know - or think we know - about dinosaurs comes from fossilized bones or even footprints, remains in rocks that were once buried deep but now are closer to the surface of the earth. Imagine footprints that millions and millions of years old! Some are large enough for a small child to sit in. Some are thought to show where and how a mother dinosaur and her baby went for a walk. Some scientists have decided that dinosaurs - and they were both very large and surprisingly small - were quick mov ing and lively. (Scientists used to think they were slow and cumbersome.)

Paleontologists have been studying dinosaur remains for only about 150 years. New dinosaur remains keep being discovered and uncovered. Previously unknown kinds of dinosaurs are all the time being pieced together and given names.

The first one ever to be named was the Megalosaurus (which means "giant reptile"), in 1824, by Willam Buckland, the professor of geology at Oxford University, England. He worked out what he thought this prehistoric creature must have been like from a small collection of bones found in a nearby village - a jawbone with long teeth, some limb bones, ribs, and vertebrae: That's all.

"Facts" like this - many of them - can be found in a well-organized and interesting book called "Dinosaur and Other Prehistoric Animal Fact Finder," by Dr. Michael Benton. The book is clear and has an informative introduction. It also has an A-to-Z list of more than 200 dinosaurs and prehistoric animals, good clear pictures, and longish descriptions of each animal.

Maps show where particular dinosaur remains have been found in the world. Diagrams show how big or little a dinosaur would be compared with a man; when it lived; and when and by whom its remains were first discovered.

The book also explains what each dinosaur's name means: Massospondylus, for example, means "massive vertebra." And the book tries to keep away from fiction; but it is best to remember that a great many of the so-called facts about these incredibly old creatures are actually theory and hopeful guesswork.

As the hero-scientist of the book "Jurassic Park," Alan Grant, thinks aloud, we know "so little about dinosaurs.... After 150 years of research and excavation all around the world" we still know "almost nothing about what the dinosaurs had really been like."

It has been suggested that the character and ideas of Grant (a fictional person) were based on two real paleontologists. One, Robert Bakker, has challenged a number of longstanding theories about dinosaurs.

He thinks they were not cold-blooded at all, as everyone had thought, but warm-blooded.

He believes they were probably rather brightly colored, because their eyes could probably see color, and because birds, which are their descendants, are often very colorful.

And his ideas about why they became extinct are different from other theories.

Some other paleontologists do not agree with Dr. Bakker at all.

What is intriguing is that when people like Crichton and Spielberg come along and make fictional stories and films about dinosaurs, they try to base their fiction on the facts that most appeal to them. The same goes for the modelmakers who specialize in dinosaur models. And it can be the case with even the inventors of computer games.

Sega, the company that has made a new computer game (to be released in late summer and fall) based on "Jurassic Park," employed Bakker as a consultant. (He also appears in the game as a consultant for the players.) This means that a scientist dealing in facts is used to help make a game that is pure fiction. And this has been done in an area of knowledge that often has to fall back on speculation, guesswork, and even imagination to fill in where facts are simply not known.

There are books about dinosaurs, however, that don't even pretend to be based on fact.

One of the most charming is "Dinotopia," by James Gurney. This book, full of very carefully painted illustrations by the author, explains in smaller letters that "Dinotopia" is "A Land Apart from Time." It is!

Mr. Gurney's paintings of all sorts of herbivorous (and just one or two meat-eating and dangerous) dinosaurs are based on fact as far as possible. But his story is pure imagination. It is about an island where, over the years, humans are shipwrecked and then live in great harmony with the dinosaurs that inhabit it.

One thing - in spite of "Jurassic Park" and "Dinotopia" - that everyone is absolutely certain of is that that no dinosaur ever met a human being or the other way around. They lived many millions of years apart in history. But still we

are always saying, "But what if...?"

The idea that the world at the time of the dinosaurs was tranquil and not as violent as we sometimes think is held by some scientists, though.

In a recent science section of a British newspaper, the Guardian, a geologist named Anna Grayson is quoted as saying that the dinosaur era "was a sort of Garden of Eden type of life ... with lots of creatures living together in a fairly settled ecosystem." She thinks the carnivores "were no more violent than the average lion or vulture; they had to eat to live, but they weren't monsters."

So perhaps the fictional fantasy of "Dinotopia," a kind of "peaceable kingdom," isn't completely off the wall.

Maybe we find dinosaurs fascinating because fact and fiction get mixed up easily when we think about them. Or because we can let our imaginations have fun with them.

This is what Gurney thinks. He says at the start of "Dinotopia" that his book is a journey in pictures - "an odyssey for the eye." He then adds that perhaps "imagination" is "in the end more true" than fossil evidence.

What do you think? `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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