R is for Renaissance

Variations of Dinosaur Renaissance images abound. From Creative Mechanics at tumblr.

Didn’t I just write about the history of the Renaissance? Wait, that was 2022, the human renaissance. Today, I’m talking about the Dinosaur Renaissance.

The Dino Renaissance is a well-established phenomenon, one which has spawned books and video series and is now “aging.” It’s captured the popular imagination so much that there are games and apps which advertise “Dinosaur Shakespeare!” and dating complete, with humanoid-dinosaur Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Lawrence. Now, that’s just silly. We don’t need to put a triceratops head on a biped in a dress to understand what the dinosaur renaissance was about. We just need to know about the relatively recent history of paleontology.

Cue the Go-Go music because this story starts in the 1960s.

Deinonychus was the key to the renaissance. Drawn by renaissance-man himself, Robert Bakker.

The Missing Link to the Family Tree: John Ostrom

When the first few giant reptile skeletons were discovered, the public was pretty intimidated. They visualized the monsters as dominating everything in their path, scary, menacing, and fast. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the idea of dinosaurs changed, mostly because of the tree. The skeletons were constructed, and multiple species were building out the dinosaur types.

But the more they dug, the more they knew something for sure. The dinosaurs died out, rather suddenly in geologic terms. Sure, there were a lot of them, some quite big and others quite fierce, but *poof* they lost out. In the interpretation of Darwin, that survival of the fittest stuff, the dinosaurs weren’t fit enough. Mammals took over. Birds, too. There were a few reptiles still around, but they didn’t evolve into humans–mammals did.

If the reptiles lost, then they must be different from mammals. In particular, the dinosaurs must have been slow and clumsy. Their bones were big, so it seemed to make sense. The dinosaur tree led to a dead branch. All the rest of the living lines which were fast, agile, and successful came from different branches.

John Ostrom and his Deinonychus find, wikipedia.

Until 1964. When Yale paleontologist John Ostrom was on a dig, he discovered bones of a mid-size predator called Deinonychus. Deinonychus had been found before, but not quite as much of the skeleton. Ostrom found so many bits and pieces that he noticed something that hadn’t been seen before. Deinonychus was definitely a time of dino-predator, with the lizard hips of the Saurischians, but he also had bits of bones that looked like birds.

It’s one thing to build out a dinosaur skeleton. It’s another to find enough pieces that you can redraw the tree. But that’s what Ostrom did–first arguing it, but later finding enough evidence to support the argument. Deinonychus formed a way to link the earlier carno-predators with the line that led to birds.

If dinosaurs were like birds, then they would have to very different from the clumsy giants that had dominated conceptually. We can look back at the last few decades and see that, at some point, dinosaurs tails were no longer dragging on the ground. But it didn’t happen because they found dinosaur muscles. It happened because someone made a connection between 150 million year old bones and the bones of birds today. If birds are in fact the descendants of dinosaurs, then that changes the view of what the dinosaurs could have been.

Red in Tooth & Claw, Warm in Blood: Robert Bakker

Robert Bakker’s drawing of Triceratops, full gallop.

Ostrom’s student, Robert Bakker, went even further. He said started putting together evidence that supported dinosaurs as warm blooded creatures. The whole issue about metabolism was at the heart of what dinosaurs were. If they aren’t tied to warmth and sunlight, then they can live at the North Pole, they can come in all sizes, and they could adapt in innovative ways.

Bakker was a good artist along with being a paleontologist. As he argued for the speed of Deinonychus, he thought it was natural that the tail would be held up, for balance. Triceratops might lumber most of the time, but conceptually he could even gallop.

Szymon Gornecki’s view of paleontologist Bakker on his own Deinonychus drawing.

Tennyson had written about the dinosaurs, newly discovered in his age, and referred to them as “Nature, red in tooth and claw…” That fit the megalosaurus and iguanodons of the 1850s, but didn’t fit the ones that King Kong had destroyed in the 1930s. It didn’t fit the pictures from the 1960s. But it was what Robert Bakker and the new paleontologists saw as they dug up more and more skeleton pieces.

The renaissance made a lot more scientists interested in paleontology. And, since then, a lot more bones have been unearthed. The other game-changer was the end of the Cold War. Opening up new fossil sites across Asia and Russia created collaboration and a wave of new opportunities. When they only had a few skeletons to build their theories on, they drew some conclusions. But when they had a lot more skeletons, the theories would change. It’s how science works.

What’s Walter Cronkite Got to Do With it?

In digging up info on this dinosaur renaissance, I discovered another interesting tidbit. Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS news anchor, was apparently as big a dinosaur enthusiast as your truly. Cronkite, even when younger, had a personality like a grampa–an uncle at least–a big, calm demeanor that marveled at the Moon Landing and calmed the public during the anxiety of war, inflation, and whatnot. The dinosaur renaissance bloggers note that he had been part of a big series on dinosaurs in the 1990s. But the Internet shows he was interested much earlier.

Punctuated with B movie sci fi, theramin-laced soundtrack, this video was Cronkite describing a contemporary book. Kind of like the way Captain Kangaroo used to read picture books. Oh, if you don’t know, Captain Kangaroo was not a cartoon kangaroo. The thing is that Cronkite describes dinosaurs with great relish.

Cronkite’s original series is on youtube.

So maybe it should be no surprise that he’s the narrator of what was–at the time–a groundbreaking series on dinosaurs on A&E. It’s dated now, only because Steven Spielberg came along just two years later with a much bigger budget and four dinosaur experts on staff. In the A&E series, the animation was by Ray Harryhausen, and it’s creditable, but it was not match for the Jurassic CGI.

But what’s fascinating about this series--now housed at the Internet Archive--is that Cronkite is truly gleeful to be digging so deep in the topic. He goes to museums, he talks to kids and paleontologists with starry-eyed fascination. Both Bakker and Ostrom make an appearance. At one point, he even does the dinosaur dance.

At the time, people might have the 75-year-old was kind of a dinosaur. And he would have been pleased to think of himself as agile, warm-blooded, and ready to fly.

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