There aren’t many places where extinct animals are more visible than living ones, but along Highway 40 in Utah and western Colorado, dinosaurs rule. You see them everywhere as they’re portrayed in paintings and envisioned in sculptures. Although these outrageous creatures died out millions of years ago, they are neither gone nor forgotten. The dinosaur has discovered a fertile habitat in the human imagination.
Although you might encounter dozens of prehistoric creatures on a drive between Duchesne, Utah and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, most of them will not resemble the real deal — not even close! There are two main reasons for this: 1) Our scientific understanding of what dinosaurs actually looked like is constantly evolving as we come across new specimens and develop more sophisticated research techniques. 2) Humans, as a species, love to tell stories and fabulous monsters are major characters in most of our primordial mythologies. We love a good monster, especially if they’re scary — but not too scary. Roadside dinosaurs are made to fit the bill. They get your attention, but unless you’re under, say, five-years-old, you’re unlikely to worry that you’ve wandered into Jurassic Park.
This disconnect between what we actually know of dinosaur biology and what we imagine them to be like is the focus of paleontologist Brian Switek’s new book, My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs. After Brian was a guest on Cara Santa Maria’s “Talk Nerdy To Me” video series, she asked viewers, “How long do you think it’ll take before our romantic vision of the dinosaurs catches up with modern science?”
Having traversed our nation’s dinosaur hotbed, I’d say, “Never!” We know what bears look like but has that led to the demise of the Teddy Bear? No! There’s fossils, and there’s fiction. Something as monstrously cool as the Brontosaurus is not going extinct a second time.
(The Brontosaurus (thunder lizard) turned out to be an inadvertent hoax but that hasn’t kept it from becoming the most popular dinosaur, hands down. Read Brian’s book if you want the whole scoop.)