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.