The Dinosaur Society Corrects Popular Dinosaur Inaccuracies

A young nonprofit organization is dedicated to revealing and correcting inaccuracies in popular dinosaurabilia.

By Judith Stone|Friday, May 01, 1992
RELATED TAGS: DINOSAURS
Are you sitting down?

Contrary to what you may have been led to believe by the folks who make Sunkist Fun Fruits Dinosaurs Assorted Real Fruit Snacks, the monstrous reptiles that roamed the planet for 170 million years or so of the Mesozoic Era were not half-inch-high gelatinous blobs of red, purple, and green. They contained neither corn syrup nor partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Nothing in the fossil record suggests that they traveled primeval Earth in groups of six individual pouches.

Yes, I exaggerate. You and I are obviously aware that dinosaurs, wildly popular as a motif in toys, games, books, clothing, interior design, and foodstuffs, are often inaccurately represented. We sense somehow that despite the maiasaurs’ reputation for attentive parenting, the good mother lizards didn’t iron their kids’ clothes like Mrs. Sinclair of TV’s Dinosaurs. We’ve guessed that Chef Boyardee doesn’t bake his T. rex ravioli to scale, and we know that regardless of the way milk-chocolate Dinosuckers are configured, the flesh-and-blood originals didn’t have sticks through their middles.

Still, the Dinosaur Society is worried. A nonprofit organization barely a year old, the Dinosaur Society is dedicated to revealing and correcting inaccuracies in popular dinosaurabilia. Its board of directors includes eminent paleontologists like John Horner, curator of Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies (1), and David Weishampel and Peter Dodson, editors of the authoritative text The Dinosauria. They’re concerned about business folk who act as if there’s a dinosucker born every minute.

We’re not put out by pasta, or plush toys, or The Flintstones, items that don’t pretend to be anything but edible, squeezable, or watchable, says Weishampel, an expert on hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs) and a professor of anatomy--human--at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. We’re worried about toys, games, models, books, and software that claim to be educational, museum quality, and state-of-the-art, when the information they convey is two decades or more out of date.

Half the 600 species and 350 genera of dinosaurs that we know about were discovered in the past 20 years, Weishampel notes. A new genus is described every seven weeks. Late-breaking bulletins of new fossil finds have radically changed some long-held notions about the beasts’ evolution, behavior, appearance, and habitats. And commerce, he says, hasn’t kept up with this information explosion.

Some mistakes fry Weishampel’s hide more than others. One that drives me nuts is having prehistoric humans associated with dinosaurs: you buy a Tyrannosaurus model and get a caveman with the set. I also don’t care for the wedding of dinosaurs and extraterrestrials.

And the tails are all wrong. You may think this is trivial, but dinosaurs didn’t drag their tails. If the tails in models and book illustrations were properly suspended in the air, the more dynamic pose would suggest a more dynamic animal. The old notion that dinosaurs were slow, plodding, stupid animals has been given the lie by information showing them to have been energetic and fast-moving creatures, some quite possibly warm-blooded, involved in complex locomotive, hunting, and social behavior.

Society founder Don Lessem, author of Kings of Creation, a just- published book about dinosaur science, feels even more strongly: We’ve got to stop dinosaur abuse! He insists our very metaphors malign the beasts. We say ‘dead as a dinosaur’ as if they were failures--dim-witted, swamp- bound sluggards, hopelessly unable to cope with the world. And that’s clearly not true. They were enormously adaptable animals that also lived in desert and arctic environments. Yes, dinosaurs did perish in some manner 65 million years ago, but as a group, they were dominant for 135 million years--an unmatched record. Dinosaurs were the most successful land animals, and there’s a lot we can learn from their success. (Perhaps we can set things right by renaming a sports team after these inspiring animals. How about the Green Bay Pachycephalosaurs, for the dome-headed dinos with a skull the shape and thickness of a bowling ball?)

Lessem is irked by museums that present static, outdated exhibits. The Boston Museum of Science has a T. rex that looks more like a kielbasa than a dinosaur! And he’s annoyed by toys like Diener Industries’ What, Where & When Dinosaurs, a collection of six plastic figures, each about two and a half inches long, packaged with a poster describing them.

When he sends me the offending knickknacks, I’m not immediately sure what the problem is. Unfounded claims on the box? Clearly the toy makers aren’t suggesting the real things were safe, soft, and flexible (although it is true that like their tiny representations, dinosaurs--the largest of which, Seismosaurus, stretched 160 feet--were not intended for use by children under three).

Perhaps it’s the models themselves (which double as erasers): Dimetrodon, with a saillike dorsal fin; Triceratops, sporting a bony frill; armadilloish Ankylosaurus; scallop-spined Stegosaurus; menacing Tyrannosaurus; and flying Pteranodon. Tails, they lose?

Yes, the tail on T. rex is this enormous kangaroo-tail-like appendage, dragging behind like a rudder, completely the wrong posture for this animal. The arms are wrong, but that’s more excusable since it’s a very recent discovery. According to Horner, they were even shorter than we thought. Because of the way they were attached to the muscles of the chest, on a living animal we would have seen only a bit of forearm and the claws.
The informative poster also poses some problems. It says that Tyrannosaurus lived ‘from about 65 million years ago to about 135 million years ago.’ Not only do they have time going backward--in all the descriptions--but Tyrannosaurus actually lived from 75 million to 65 million years ago.

But that’s not what really bothers Lessem. Two of these animals, Dimetrodon and Pteranodon, aren’t even dinosaurs! he says with exasperation. Pteranodon is a pterosaur, an order of flying reptiles removed from any close evolutionary relationship with dinosaurs. Dimetrodon belongs to an order of large reptiles that preceded the dinosaurs. To be fair, the poster does call Pteranodon one of the pterosaurs, or winged reptiles and asks, somewhat inelegantly, Is the dimetrodon a true dinosaurus, or did it come just before the dinosaurus itself? But that doesn’t get the toy maker off the hook in Lessem’s book. They’re packaged as dinosaurs.

Such taxonomic blunders also bother Dodson, who teaches anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. I found a particularly egregious example a couple of years ago in the Smithsonian’s gift shop: a book called Dinosaurs That Swam and Flew. I was appalled, because dinosaurs didn’t swim or fly; they were strictly land-living. They had no flippers, paddles, or wings. To find it at the Smithsonian, of all places, just broke my heart.

Okay, so a few reptile ringers are presented under the more familiar generic term dinosaur. Okay, so a bunch of toys wear tails that aren’t anatomically correct. (How many of us would have to say the same, in all honesty, of our own tails?) So our metaphors mislead. Common sense suggests a bug in a rug wouldn’t technically be all that snug, but you don’t see entomologists having a cow over the expression. Is this kind of misinformation really so bad? Who cares?

‘Who cares?’ may be an adult response, says Weishampel, but my experience with children is that, for whatever reason, they do care what a paleontologist sees as correct and incorrect. One of the motivations may be that children innately don’t want to be misled by sources of authority. Children want the straight poop, and that’s reason enough for toy manufacturers and book publishers to give it to them.

To Dodson it’s a matter of principle. Will incorrect dinosaur information affect a child’s ability to do math, balance a checkbook, or build a better automobile than the Japanese? No. But as a general rule, we want our children to have the best information available. If they confuse a horse with a cow, we think something’s wrong with their education and we try to correct it. The same thing ought to be true when it comes to the study of dinosaurs and nondinosaurs.

It’s also important for children--and adults--to understand that science is a process; not a set of static facts, but subject to revision. It’s good for them to know why we believe what we believe and how that can change. Take the reposturing of two-legged dinosaurs, such as tyrannosaurs. In old reconstructions, dating back to the beginning of this century, tyrannosaurs were mounted with the body slanted up 45 degrees and the head 18 feet off the floor. Today, as fossil finds reveal more about anatomy and thus locomotion, we’re more inclined to mount them with the body horizontal and balanced over the hips.

How to stop dinosaur abuse? It occurred to me, Weishampel says, that paleontologists should be establishing rapport with the makers of these products, giving them up-to-date information, and that those who have been making money from information they get from us free should invest one percent of their profits in dinosaur research. (Which is notoriously underfunded--less than $1 million is available for all the world’s fieldwork, most of which is done by a mere 40 or so experts.) In return for the tenth of a tithe, Weishampel and his colleagues would bestow the Dinosaur Society Seal of Approval on products that pass muster.

Toy manufacturers are beginning to seek the society’s approval and advice, Weishampel says. For example, Aristoplay Limited, a company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, asked about the artwork for two proposed items, a board game called Dinosaurs and Things [sort of a Cretaceous Candyland meets Trivial Pursuit] and a card game called Paleopals [stegosaurs or better to open]. About 80 percent of the art and information was quite good. Aristoplay was up on the latest interpretations of dinosaur anatomy and what they suggest about behavior; they knew that some dinosaurs seem to have nested and been good parents. But the dinosaurs’ posture was off; Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops were too lumpy. Says the company’s president, Jan Barney Newman, They’ve offered us the society’s imprimatur, and in return a portion of profits, as yet undetermined, will go into their dinosaur research fund.

Ideals Publishing of Nashville, Tennessee, is paying a flat fee for help with a game called Smart Squares, in which kids answer questions about dinosaurs. We’re thrilled to use the Dinosaur Society’s, expertise and hope to consult them again on a book, says vice president and publisher Patricia Pingry. It’s appealing to us that the money’s going to research. Cleveland art dealer Bill Scheele plans to donate 5 percent of the take from limited first editions by leading dinosaur artists. And the society is working with the Nature Company, Lessem says, to improve an inflatable T. rex. The dinosaur’s not bad, but it says on the box that it could raise itself by its arms--do push-ups, kind of--which is impossible. Financial arrangements haven’t been worked out yet (2).

The president of Diener Industries, makers of the misclassified Dimetrodon and Pteranodon, got off to a bad start with the society. As Murray Garrett recalls, the society contacted the company, noted its errors, and offered to correct them for a fee, a move Garrett considered coercion. Lessem says Diener’s public relations man wrote to ask for the seal of approval, but Lessem considered the toy so rife with problems he didn’t send it on to other board members. A basic service of the society is that we help fix the product for a fee, which goes straight to research. Of course, we also want to endorse products that are good as is and not charge anyone for endorsing them. We’d still be glad to help Diener if they want us to overhaul the product.

I’m praying they work things out before they all turn up on Oprah. Meanwhile, things seem to be going well. Says the society’s director of corporate marketing, Joseph Donnelly, We’re negotiating a number of cooperative projects. We’ve started a children’s club. And we’re about to hire a director of educational programs who will help teachers use the Dino Times, our children’s newsletter, as a resource for teaching science, math, and reading skills. We’re also working on arranging corporate sponsorship of particular digs.

Budlitesaurus? If it helps the cause.

1. The Museum of the Rockies was, of course, created to display artifacts from Rockies I-V, most notably the side of beef that served as Stallone’s sparring partner (a role originally written for Chuck Norris) in the initial film; Mr. T’s chains (Rocky III); and Mr. Coffee’s filter (Rocky .5, The Prequel: Yo, Paulie, How ’Bout Some Java?). Lately, to the disgust of purists, other Rockiana has been added to the collection: what may be the fossilized trunks of Rocky Marciano, the only undefeated heavyweight boxing champion; Rocket J. Rocky Squirrel’s leather aviator helmet; the Gideon Bible found by Rocky Raccoon when he checked into his room; and several marshmallowlike formations that geoconfectioners say may confirm the existence of the so-called Rocky Road, thought to have connected Asia and North America during the Ice Cream Age.

2. Tip: I gave that very dinosaur as a wedding present, and it was a major hit. The fondue pots went back; T. rex stayed. Or try it as an anniversary gift. Technically, of course, the first anniversary is paper, the second rock, the third scissors, and so on up to the twenty-fifth (silver), fiftieth (gold), and seventy-fifth (plutonium). But an inflatable dino is right for any occasion. You won’t find information like this in Martha Stewart Living, ladies and germs, but you can always count on a science magazine.
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