Today’s title pretty much wraps up my aesthetic approach to life. I’ll get to my point in a moment.
Meanwhile, I’m wracking my brain. WASN’T there a science fiction movie with a Tyrannosaurus Rex wrestling with a giant, primeval snake? There MUST have been, wasn’t there? I swear that I vaguely remember something like that. If there wasn’t, why WASN’T there? Ray Harryhausen should’ve done it. If you remember that movie, for goodness’ sake, post a comment.
Well, Gresham’s Law posits that bad money drives out good money and, by extension, we might conclude that bad storytelling trumps good science.
Here’s my point. This week, the New York Times carried a story about a fossil snake discovered in association with fossil dinosaur eggs and hatchlings. You can read that story HERE. The import of the story is that it suggests that ancient snakes hung out around dinosaur nests and nabbed the hatchlings as they emerged from the eggs. Big deal. What sort of behavior does one EXPECT from snakes? They’re not the archetype of loathsome behavior for nothing.
Snakes have been around for a hundred million years or so. Not so long as dinosaurs, but long enough. And, of course, they outlasted the ol’ dinos, or so we thought, until we figured out that dinosaurs cleverly transformed themselves into birds and have been hopping around on our lawns and hovering around our bird feeders, waiting for their chance to COME BACK!
That rather dispassionate news about ancient snakes behaving like modern snakes brings to mind a rather snappier story that ran a year or so ago. Back then, paleontologists looking at fossils from Colombia determined that they had discovered the mother of ALL snakes. Titanoboa cerrejonensis, which came on the scene just after the dinosaurs disappeared in the Big Meltdown or whatever it’s called, 60 million years ago, was more than 40 feet long and outweighed even Sarah Palin’s pretensions. It made its living by eating anything it wanted to eat, whenever it felt like eating. The dinosaurs had exited, stage left, and left the stage to Titanoboa. Giant turtles? Snacks. Crocodiles? Main course!
As I learned from reading every possible book about ancient creatures during my childhood, there are, basically, two ways to report on fossil discoveries. The first, scientific, dispassionate, factual and somewhat restrained, is probably preferred by professional publications and doctoral thesis committees.
One gets that sort of reportage in this more or less straightforward account from Reuters about the discovery of Titanoboa HERE.
The other approach (which I greatly prefer) is a slightly — or largely — more sensational style that serves the basal instincts we seek to satisfy with our interest in creatures the size of school buses whose raison d’être is consuming mass quantities when we set out read about them in the first place. Taken from the same sources, quoting some of the same authorities as the Reuters story, the tabloid, Toronto Star, vying for the same audience as its austere, responsible competitor, Globe and Mail, dishes up a much tastier version, HERE.
THAT is what I expected when I considered a career in paleontology. Not a bunch of restrained descriptions of the radius of the biting edges of teeth or the pounds-per-square-inch leverage of the locomotor functions. Give us GORE!
Dinosaur digging just ain’t what it used to be. There used to be adventure: men and machines laboring across trackless wildernesses to uncover unknown monstrous creatures, not the slow, steady science of the laboratory as described in the Times piece. It’s not an accident that the book that captivated me when I was ten was Roy Chapman Andrews’ “All About Strange Beasts of the Past.” I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if it had been titled, “A Description of Vertebrate Cretaceous Fossils of the Gobi Plateau.” Roy, come back. We need you.