I demand my dinosaurs be scaly, not furry.
Are you one of those people who cheered at the climax of Jurassic Park when the T. Rex opened a dinosaur-sized can of whoopass on those velociraptors? I’m pretty sure I did, and it wasn’t because Spielberg decided to play John Williams’ happy theme music there. When you think about it, it was a weird reaction to have — 30 minutes earlier, we were probably screaming our heads off watching the Tyrannosaur trying to eat those two little kids. And the T. Rex has been the villain in any number of old dinosaur films. Faced with a T. Rex or a velociraptor, your first instinct would be to run from either. So why cheer the former when attacked by the latter?
I think what audiences were actually cheering for at that moment (apart from the obvious fact that the movie’s human stars were being saved from becoming a dino snack) was the classic idea of the Tyrannosaurus, the “old-school” dinosaur, versus the upstart, more recently popularized, fast-moving and seemingly intelligent raptors. Like an aging cop on the beat singlehandedly subduing a bunch of teenaged gang members, the T. Rex was defending his turf as the status quo against the encroaching threat of future knowledge.
I thought about this as I absorbed the recent news about Yutyrannus huali, a new species of dinosaur recently discovered in China, profiled in the journal Nature.
Yutyrannus is the largest dinosaur so far discovered to feature “protofeathers.” As Jurassic Park so inelegantly pounded into our brains, dinosaurs are closely related to modern birds. What the movie didn’t show was that we’re discovering that a number of dinosaurs looked a lot more like birds than we thought, and many of them — including the velociraptors seen in Jurassic Park — may have sported what an old Monty Python sketch described as “beautiful plumage.”
The idea of raptors looking like colorful parrots is off-putting enough, but since we’ve only had to get used to the idea of raptors themselves in the past few decades, it’s not exactly a cultural shock. But the Yutyrannus is. It’s 30-feet long, about the size of an Allosaurus — the Jurassic warm-up for the Cretaceous period’s 40-foot T. Rex. In other words, it’s dinosaur-sized — the kind of creature we’re used to seeing stomping through Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monster movies and the Jurassic Park films.
The Yutyrannus has even been described as “shaggy” and “furry.” Furry! The (conjectural) coloring in the reconstruction seen here looks more related to a squirrel or wombat than a dinosaur.
Like any good American, I’ve loved dinosaurs since I was a child. And while I’m no expert on the creatures, I try to keep up with recent developments in dinosaur research so my 4-year-old son won’t think I’m stupid. But I’m getting discouraged. First science tells us my long-time favorite dinosaur, Triceratops, never even existed and was just a juvenile form of the Torosaurus, and now this “furry” crap. All my life I’ve been drawn to dinosaurs because they were real live, scaly, roaring monsters with huge teeth. Science isn’t telling us that the T. Rex and Brachiosaurus were covered with shaggy fur like giant dogs (for one thing, the climate where Yutyrannus roamed was colder than T. Rex’s turf) — yet. But paleontology is coming dangerously close to sucking all the fun out of the dinosaurs.
If we’re not careful, science will make the dinosaurs lovable. That’s when we’ll have to strike back.
Illustration by Brian Choo