Monday, February 25, 2013

Amateur Paleontologists

Ezra hatching a T-Rex
Why are dinosaurs so fascinating to children, but not adults? This was a question posed to me by a friend who did not understand their appeal. I had no answer. I thought everyone was interested in learning more about these mysterious Mesozoic animals. Sure, it’s likely they became distracted by other interests and obligations, but once a little boy reminds them, they once again begin to dream about the earth a hundred million years ago.

Like most kids his age, Ezra went through a dinosaur phase. His obsession with dinosaurs reawakened my own curiosity. I discovered that Paleontologists’ thoughts on these extinct creatures have changed dramatically since I was Ezra’s age. I had a lot to learn, and Ezra was my first teacher. Our lessons began by learning the names and features of many of the vast number of identified dinosaur species. I’m sure Ezra could name more dinosaurs than 96% of the population (99.9% of the population if you remove paleontologists and preschool age boys). Since I remember only learning about T-Rex, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, Triceratops, and Pterodactyl (two of which are not even the correct genus names!), he taught me more dinosaur species than I had previously known. At 2 1/2 he would correct my identification, “Dad, that is a Brachiosaurus not an Apatosaurus,” or pronunciation.  I would struggle, “it’s a Stygim…something.” Ezra would patiently reply, “a Stygimolochs, Dad.”

Ezra’s interest in dinosaurs has tapered off at the moment, while mine has continued to increase.  One of my favorite sources for dino-related information is science writer Brian Switek. Switek did a wonderful job summarizing current dinosaur research and highlighting dinosaur spottings in pop culture on his Smithsonian Magazine blog Dinosaur Tracking. Unfortunately, Dinosaur Tracking is now extinct, but you can still read Switek’s writing, though it is not exclusively about dinosaurs, at his new National  Geographic blog Laelaps.

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