Friday, August 10, 2018

Stranger than Fiction

A lot of entertainment media has been made over the years in which dinosaurs make an appearance...or in some cases play a prominent role.  More often than not said media goes in fairly predictable directions when it comes to depicting these "terrible lizards."  The thing is though, when it comes to the truth about dinosaurs, they're a lot more bizarre than most stories make them out to be.

Take sauropods, those long necked/tailed herbivores for example...they had hollow, air-filled, almost honeycomb looking bones to reduce weight.  Their teeth were uniformly identical pegs that functioned like a pair of under/over garden rakes used to strip large quantities of leaves off plants - no chewing involved!  Due to the wear-and-tear of constantly eating sauropods grew in new teeth on a monthly basis.  Their heads, when viewed from the side weren't much bigger than an adult horse.  From the front though, they were much wider and box-like, again, for greater chomping efficiency.  The lungs were also quite a bit different than what humans possess.  Most likely, they were akin to the more complex arrangement that birds have.  Thermal temperature regulation was also probably an issue because of their immense size.  Many paleontologists think they radiated excess heat through their necks and tails.  By modern standards these creatures would probably seem fairly lethargic, only taking a step or two now and then while feeding.  In other words, they were giant slow-motion foliage vacuums that sweeped up wide swaths of plantlife as they grazed.

Moving on to theropods...we have everyone's favorite - velociraptor.  Except, in reality, it had a sleek sheen of feathers similar to a modern day crow or raven.  Sadley, the exact coloration remains a mystery.  It's also possible that they climbed trees and made surprise gliding or diving attacks from above.  As for size...the "Utahraptor" might have been roughly comparable to those seen in the "Jurassic Park" franchise, but given that the recovered fossil remains only consist of a few skull fragments, tail bones, and some claws, it's hard to make an accurate estimate.  All other recovered raptor specimens tend to be analogous to various breeds of dogs in size.

Guesswork is a big part of paleontology, and isn't necessarily a bad's just that media about dinosaurs is notoriously coy when it comes to differentiating between hard fact and approximation.  Case in point, fossilized stegosaurus skeletons (as seen in pictures and museum displays) were an amalgamation of six different specimens, all of different ages and genders.  In addition to this fossilized bones can get warped in weird ways after sitting underground for millions upon millions of years.  Unsurprisingly, when just recently a relatively complete and well-preserved specimen was found it turned out that a lot of what scientists had inferred was noticeably off.

Another similarly problematic area is species classification.  Certain types of dinosaurs have so many minor variants one can't help but wonder if some of them aren't simply juvenile vs adult, male vs female, diseased vs healthy, or natural variations within a single species rather than a genus.  Part of me also wonders if some of these "newly discovered species of dinosaurs" aren't the result of overly eager paleontologists trying to make a name for themselves...

Now here at the end of this blogpost, I finally come to the part where I talk about video games.  In particular, games that are trying to depict real dinosaurs (such as the original Dino Crisis).  Running with that example, Capcom probably doesn't have any desire to continue, reboot, or remake the franchise.  However, if they did, I hope they'd choose not to copy the look of the dinosaurs as seen in "Jurassic Park" because those dinosaurs are genetic hybrids, whereas the ones seen in Dino Crisis are supposed to be the real thing (brought to the present via time-travel technology.  More importantly, there's an opportunity to surprise and educate would-be players by throwing at them not what they expect, but rather what the science indicates.  To illustrate my point let me conclude this with a pair of examples.

Perhaps the player comes across a harmless brachiosaurus in a lush patch of jungle early on in the game and when they come back to the spot later they find the entire area denuded of greenery, and because of this a previously hidden secret is now in plain sight.  I would also get a kick out of players anticipating a wolfpack-style raptor attack and instead get swarmed by vicious oversized chicken-like creatures packing sharp fangs and sickle claws a la Legend of Zelda.     

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