Calling All Former Five-Year-Old Paleontologists

PeabodyMuse (2)When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? I imagine there are many of us who once dreamed of hunting for dinosaur fossils. Now, my five-year-old twins’ love of dinosaurs has finally reached that level.*

As I discussed in a previous post, The “Brontosaurus” Between Us, the dinosaurs my daughters know through books, TV shows, and museum visits are different from the ones I grew up with in the 1980s. My knowledge was based largely on books that were inaccurate even at the time I was reading them.  Apparently, it takes a long time for scientific information to trickle down to general audiences.

For example:**

  • “Brontosaurus,” at least by that name, hadn’t existed for almost eighty years by the time I read about it in Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Day of the Dinosaur, published in 1987.
  • Dimetrodon isn’t even a dinosaur (it’s from an earlier time period), and it’s actually more closely related to you and me than to dinosaurs!
  • And even the dinosaurs I recognize by name, like Tyrannosaurus rex and Stegosaurus, don’t look the same. They are much sleeker than the sluggish creatures I once knew, even though this paradigm shift had started in the 1960s.

Wanting to keep up with my kiddos, I decided to reacquaint myself with these ancient creatures. By fostering this and other multi-generational shared interests, maybe I can delay the rise or reduce the thickness of that “unassailable barrier” that author John D. Swain has said eventually separates parents from their children (See My Dear Daughters (The Present Isn’t Worse Than the Past)). A mom can hope, right?

So, I turned to the only paleontologist my children know by name (at least by his first name): “Dr. Scott, the paleontologist” from PBS’ playfully anachronistic, yet chronologically accurate, Dinosaur Train.

Sampson Thumbnail CoverDr. Scott Sampson’s book, Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life, is an ideal choice for former aspiring paleontologists, particularly those of us who’ve become rusty on the subject. In this book, Sampson presents a broad view of dinosaurs by describing what we know about the environments in which they lived and their connections with past and present organisms. As he explains, popular culture has often portrayed dinosaurs “as poster children for failure,”*** a view that forgets that these creatures lived for about 160 million years–much longer than humans have been around–and that their line continues today in the form of modern birds. Intended for a general audience, this book not only walks through updated theories about my favorite dinosaurs, but also serves as a refresher on basic scientific concepts.

I particularly enjoyed Sampson’s anecdotes from the field, which highlight the tedious but rewarding nature of discovering fossils, piecing them together, and deciphering what they contribute to our understanding of the world. I also found his frequent mentions of his work with other scientists (from paleontology and other fields) interesting and refreshing. Sampson’s book makes it seem like there is quite a bit of camaraderie and collaboration in a scientific community otherwise known for fierce competition thanks to the highly publicized “bone wars” between paleontologists Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope in the late 19th Century.

Certainly, debates persist in this academic community, and Sampson describes several examples where there is little consensus about what certain dinosaurs looked like, how they behaved, how they interacted in their environments, and what ultimately happened to them. Our knowledge of dinosaurs is in a constant state of flux as scientists uncover new information and reanalyze the old, making it quite likely that the creatures my children recognize as dinosaurs will be different from what the next generation of children will learn.

Maybe my twins will be among the new crop of scientists to contribute to new understandings of these ancient creatures. However, considering that only a small percentage of young children grow up to be paleontologists (Sampson says there are only about 100 professional dinosaur paleontologists), it’s more likely that the only “dinosaur hunting” they’ll do will be with a pair of binoculars and a birding list. Whatever occupations and hobbies they choose to pursue later in life, I hope that what my daughters learn from their love of dinosaurs will stick with them for the rest of their lives, including a love of nature, a humble and realistic view of human beings’ role on Earth, and an appreciation for scientific discovery.

 Image: My daughter at the Peabody Museum at Yale in June 2013.

*Previously, one of my twin daughters wanted to be a doctor and the other wanted to be a firefighter.

**Sampson discusses the latter two examples (Dimetrodon and sleeker dinosaurs) in his book.

***This point reminds me of the famous Gary Larson Far Side cartoon: “The Real Reason Dinosaurs Became Extinct”

13 thoughts on “Calling All Former Five-Year-Old Paleontologists

  1. Pingback: Please Stop Parenting My Children | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. That was me too. I did have a grandmother that nurtured it though. She went on digs, but was an archeologist, not a paleontologist, so was always sending me fossils and rocks from around the world. I still have the interest and was just reading some new findings. Apparently they found a dino feather. Not like we need more proof that birds are related. Having a cockatoo, I know he has roots way back. He can be ferocious.

  3. I think the dinosaur-love stage of childhood is so interesting. I often wonder, was there a demand for dino-material from children at some point? Or is the popularity of this subject a result of marketing and promotion done by adults? What is it about these creatures that kids find so attractive, anyway? Is it just that there are so many shows/books/toys that feature them? Or do dinosaurs speak to children on some level? Is it their size, or monster-like appearance? Or the unbelievable idea that such creatures “ruled the earth”, then (equally amazing) “went extinct”?

    Like so many things about my kids (How does a stuffed animal protect them from monsters? Why can’t they squeeze out only a “pea sized amount” of toothpaste? Why do they wait until it’s an emergency to tell me they need a bathroom?) this will probably remain a mystery to me.

    Love that picture of your cutie at the peabody. I loved going there as a kid, too 🙂 Maybe the best thing about Dinosaur-love is that it gets us into the museums together.

    1. Thanks! The Peabody is a great place. I think there are many reasons children love dinosaurs–their impressive size, their mysterious extinction, and the way they’re found. My girls love the idea of digging in the ground and finding fossils (they have no idea how tedious it is!).

  4. I was one of those kids who was really into dinosaurs too! I even had my 8th birthday party at our local natural history museum, complete with a dinosaur cake. I’ll have to check out Dinosaur Odyssey.

    1. Ha! That’s a question Paleontologists get all the time. According to Sampson, “One day, after facing [the question about extinction] for the umpteenth time, [dinosaur paleontologist Jack Horner] famously replied, ‘I don’t give a damn how they died. I want to know how they lived.” For the rest of us, though, it’s hard not to be fascinated by a mystery like that, and I appreciated that Sampson went through the different theories in his book (you’ll have to read it to find out what he says!).

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