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September 24, 2019 | by  | in Features Splash |
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Past Bones, Present Realities


Once, dinosaurs walked the earth. They had claws and teeth, they dug burrows, nurtured their young, ate each other. For 80 million years, this was a planet of large and small, fast and slow reptilians; strange and dangerous to mammalian flesh. Then that world ended, and life kept changing to fill the spaces the dinosaurs had left. 


When the dinosaurs died, as far as we know—and it must be said that sometimes it feels like we know very little, and sometimes it feels like we know a great deal, and both are true—they did not expect to ever live again in movies and museums and imaginations. Life returns. Night becomes day. Endings become beginnings. 


Scientifically, ‘dinosaur’ refers to everything in the clade Dinosauria, a diverse group of ancient reptiles that all evolved from a common ancestor. Modern-day birds are descended from theropod dinosaurs, and in this sense could be considered dinosaurs. Culturally, other ancient reptiles including marine plesiosaurs and mosasaurs, as well as pterodactyls and other pterosaurs—basically any large reptile alive in the Cretaceous Period—are all often referred to as dinosaurs, although they are not members of Dinosauria. 


Alan Tennyson, Te Papa’s vertebrate curator, says New Zealand “is not the place to study dinosaurs”, as the fossil record is “extremely pathetic”. Preservation conditions mean that fossils from the Cretaceous Period are either nonexistent, eroded, hard to access, or all of the above. From a site in Hawkes Bay—worked over by Joan Wiffen and her husband for decades—as well as other locations around the country, enough bone fragments have been found to identify a range of dinosaurs which once lived here, but there will probably never be New Zealand equivalents to the kind of magnificent dinosaur fossils found elsewhere. 


Dinosaurs are real, but the idea of them was created. “You never see [a picture of] a dinosaur without teeth,” says Gus Mitchell, dinosaur enthusiast and former Salient science columnist. In movies, we see dinosaurs hunting and eating—not lying down for ten days to digest a big meal. Dinosaurs are shaped as prompters of awe and fear, rather than as living animals, because they are known through fossils rather than flesh.


According to Gus, the appeal of dinosaurs over, say, a Cambrian era sea slug, is partially that they are “terrifying and charismatic” but mostly that they had “a better ad campaign”. From toys to children’s books, then movies like Jurassic Park, there is a cultural idea of dinosaurs as much as a scientific one. 


Gus walks me through the ‘creation’ of dinosaurs from the early fossil hunters of the eighteenth century to the present day. From sculptures at the Crystal Palace world exhibition in 1851, lumpy and lumbering, to the sleek and swift velociraptors of Jurassic Park in 1993, it was not the dinosaurs that changed, but the human interpretation of them. As research into dinosaurs continues, the shape of dinosaurs changes too, even though species are static, trapped in a reality which ended. 


Zoë Stokes, like Gus, loves dinosaurs. When I talk to her, she’s wearing a jacket with dinosaur patches sewn on. Zoë, a drama student at Te Auaha, has written a thoroughly delightful feminist manifesto by altering a dinosaur colouring book, and is currently working on a piece of children’s theatre about dinosaurs. “[Dinosaurs] are considered kids’ things, but they’re from so far back that it puts your little life into perspective.”


Zoë started liking dinosaurs because her brother was given dinosaur toys, but preferred cars, and she sees the gendering of dinosaurs as one of the chief examples of how they are a cultural construction. “Dinosaurs didn’t have [gender] pressed on them, they were just dinosaurs, they ate every now and then and hung out, they lived with their instincts.” 


The fact that science evolves, even as fossils stay the same, speaks to how science works. “The scientific reality and cultural consensus [about dinosaurs] move in lockstep,” Gus says—one following the other, always a gap. To him, this is part of the value of dinosaurs to science, especially those unfamiliar with the scientific method—like kids. “[Fossils] are such a good entry point for how science works in general. You piece things together to make an incomplete picture. Somebody proposes a hypothesis, and then they use evidence to back it up in the same way that a lawyer would.” 


Dinosaurs are one reminder of extinction, but to start talking a species that has disappeared from the planet is impossible: millions, billions, trillions of organisms, enough -illions to choke on, to disappear under the mass of life, and life that has gone. 


There is widespread scientific consensus that we are in the midst of a sixth great extinction, even if human demise is yet a way off. Scientists estimate that the current rate of species dying is a thousand times higher than the background rate of extinction. At some level, all of these previous extinctions have been due to the climate changing faster than life can keep up, although there are ferocious scientific debates about the actual means of this climatic change. 


Some of the lost life get more attention than others. I ask Tennyson which qualities make extinct species appealing. “Your answer is as good as mine,” he says, but elaborates anyway. “They have to be big, iconic species like the moa—beautiful ones like the huia [also] get more attention than other extinct birds.” There are “lots of little birds that people haven’t really heard of,” and Te Papa’s collections are filled with small, neatly labelled bones which will probably never go on display. 


Size, ultimately, is the point to which most people return when talking about compelling extinct animals. Ewan Fordyce, Professor of Geology at the University of Otago and paleobiology specialist, says “it was the large size [of dinosaurs] that astonished people”. It’s also about the fact that they’re vertebrates, that they walk easily into our imaginations. “[You] understand a bit about the animals when you see the skeleton,” he says, and apart from some trace fossils, the skeletons are often all we have to understand.


In the Otago Museum, I look at a plesiosaur which Fordyce excavated (the years-long process of preparing it for display was, he says, “an albatross around my neck”). The flippers reach into the stone, the spine curves, and yes—I can see it moving through bygone oceans, not the rock which holds it now.


There are ancient extinctions, caused by meteors (probably—this is subject to ferocious scientific debate) and climate shifts, complicated chains of events resurrected by reading the stories contained in rocks. But many of the extinct animals that Te Papa takes care of disappeared much more recently, with clearer causes. I talk to Tennyson in the collection centre at Te Papa: shelves of kākāpō skulls, pygmy whales, and crested penguins which will never move again. 


As Tennyson walks me through the collection, I hear a litany of extinction. “It was like a sledgehammer, human arrival,” he says. “These extinctions occurred in a period of relatively stable climate, so we can divorce natural climate impacts from human impacts.” Ferrets, cats, stoats and rats, arrows, guns and spears, forests replaced by monoculture, and now warming unpredictable weather: loss, and loss, and loss. 


“There are lessons here,” he tells me. “We learn from the past to make the future better, but humans don’t seem to be very good at that.” We are surrounded by knowledge about how to prevent the disappearances and deaths petrified here.  


Ewan Fordyce asks me to close my eyes, and places a megalodon tooth in my hands. It is as large as my palm, shiny ivory, serrated. Just one tooth, of hundreds. “This shark could have eaten anything it wanted,” he says drily. “They were giants.” There are fossils carefully being excavated by postgrad students in his lab, the air dusty with discovery, forms slowly coming out of the rock and living again.


In the Te Papa collection, I hold the tiny mandible of a Lyall’s wren, about the same length as the first joint of my index finger. It is fragile, delicate, designed for eating insects; it was once alive, and now it is dead. Tennyson tells me the story of how this species went extinct, the last known living examples killed by feral cats at the ends of the nineteenth century, though further research found that the species was once widespread throughout Aotearoa, and was probably killed by the kiore, or Polynesian rat. 


To make sense of the loss, we mount it, display it, pore over it, and draw pictures of the world that was when this life was in it. There are probably more extinct organisms that we don’t know about than those we do: micro-organisms, small plants, and worms. Yet when we think of extinct animals, it tends not to be slugs or random invertebrates, but dinosaurs or dodos.



“I think to be a palaeontologist, we are privileged, and we owe it to society to talk to people. [Paleontology] really is an important place to use our fossils to understand the history of the earth,” Fordyce tells me, in his fossil-filled office, in a corner of a stone building, in a university—all pieces of a system that is changing the earth. 


Fossils and dinosaurs are valuable in fostering interest in science. “[Dinosaurs] bring the fun,” Zoë tells me, “the kids can have fun with it and adults can study them.” Dinosaurs were what led Fordyce into paleontology too. “As a little kid I was fascinated by dinosaurs… and suddenly I thought, oops, I’m a paleontologist.” 


If we start caring about long dead creatures then it’s easier to notice and care for living ones. “We’ve lost a lot, and it’s only through those sorts of specimens that we know what we lost,” Tennyson says. To have a fossil is to have perspective—the fingerprints of life that didn’t last forever. Perspective can build a future of less loss; for instance, the fossil record is often used for conservationists to think about where to reintroduce species. 


“If we look at the history of life, we can see that it’s a grim, hard race, and organisms are basically evolving as fast as they possibly can. So we as people should have a special role to not make it worse. So I read about a rhinoceros or pangolin or kākāpō, it was tough for them before there were humans, and now [we] make it extra extra hard, and we are all culpable,” says Fordyce. 


This most recent spate of extinctions is happening before our eyes, not being pieced together post-mortem by bubbles of chemicals and changes in the consistency of rock. Death comes from the way that humans—some humans much more than others—live. We take old life that has become oil or coal, and ignite it for our movement and material. The grim, hard race becomes harder. 


“People need hope,” Fordyce tells me. I feel compelled to mention that in the week this article is being published, there is a climate strike—a way to act on hope.


Consider a fossil. Consider a dinosaur. Find a timescale larger than your lifetime, and dream the bony future.

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