Winslow on Dinosaurs
by Steven Utley
Everybody knows that there was an Age of Reptiles, but few seem to know what it was really about. Certain unscientific misconceptions prevail among laymen, and Dr. Thurmond Winslow goes to some pains to point them out in his new book, Dinosaurs and What You Can Do About Them.
Dr. Winslow, a frequent contributor to the scientific journals, writes in a clear, easy-to-understand style. We have previously reviewed his Super-Novae: Flash Cubes of the Gods? The Myth of Bacteria, and Understanding Asimov: a Layman’s Guide to Popular Science. As with those, this latest book, from which the following brief excerpts are taken, cannot be too highly recommended to readers in search of the straight poop.
The Names of Dinosaurs
The names of dinosaurs are usually descriptive but occasionally decorative in nature. The standard suffix, —saur, comes from the Greek (or maybe Latin) word sauros, meaning “lizard.” Dinosaur itself rather aptly sums up the creatures, coming as it does from deinos, meaning “diner” or “to eat,” hence, “eat lizard.” This, of course, is what many dinosaurs did to other dinosaurs.
Almost all dinosaur names are derived from Greek, Latin, or pig-Latin words. In fact, the Triassic genus Plateosaurus received its name from a classically trained and whimsical paleontologist who had just finished reading Plato’s Republic the day before. A few dinosaur names are derived from French, e.g., Triceratops, “tickler.” The great fossil-hunting expeditions to the Dakota Badlands during the 1870s found a veritable mother lode of dinosaur bones. After sorting through the fossils, scientists assembling complete skeletons of Brachiosaurus (“quick-stopping lizard”), Camarosaurus (“photogenic lizard”), and Trachodon (“high-hurdles runner”), as well as the still-controversial Allosaurus fragili (“all the other little lizards”), pieced together from a lot of bones that had been left over.
The Emergence of Reptiles
The Age of Reptiles did not exactly start with a bang. Moreover, it was late getting started. First there was the Age of Trilobites, also known as the Cambrian Period (after Cambridge, Massachusetts). Then came the Age of Fish, when the seas of Earth were terrorized by the fearsome Dinicthys (“thigh nibbler”). Finally, there was the Coal Age, when coal was the dominant life-form and amphibians, the submissive. The most noteworthy amphibians were Eryops, a large, three-eyed type, and its cousin Cyclops, who got the short end of that deal.
It was in the Coal Age that an amphibian in what is now Sweden became a reptile. The reptile told its friends, and the world soon became infested with this new kind of animal.
The Age of Coal gave rise to the Age of Steam, which in its turn gave way to the Permian Period, when reptiles came into their own. It is impossible to say what their own was, however, as the fossil record, which is available on the Columbia label, skips at this point.
Next came the Mesozoic Era, which is divided into three periods, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, which are further divided into Lower and Upper Triassic, Potomac, Cadillac, and Downtown Passaic. It was in the Triassic, on a Thursday, that the dinosaurs arrived. Some of them ate plants, and some of them ate meat. A few took tea. The rest couldn’t make up their minds and died off prematurely. Meanwhile, the Mesozoic skies filled with flying reptiles called pterodactyls, and the seas became home to finny Icthyosaurus (“itchy lizard”), dog-paddling Plesiosaurus (“compliant lizards”), and free-style Mosasaurus (“Hebraic law-giving lizard”).
The Extinction of Dinosaurs
Many ridiculous theories have been advanced to account for the wholesale extinction of dinosaurs and their kin at the close of the Cretaceous — ridiculous because the truth is in plain sight. Worldwide geological unrest marked the Cretaceous. The Rocky Mountains were built at this time, and the shallow sea that had till now covered Kansas receded, leaving wheat in its place. The first flowering plants appeared, and various types of grass began to blanket the ground, including a prehistoric variety of Cannabis.
It is not so difficult for us to imagine the fate that overtook the dinosaurs. Hot volcanic ash set a grass-blanketed world a-smoulder; unable to cope with heightened awareness, to say nothing of the munchies and other side-effects, the dinosaurs fell over in their tracks. Stricken pterodactyls tumbled dopily from the air, leaving their ecological niche to be filled with creatures with greater survival value, such as the passenger pigeon and the great auk. Nor did the sea-going reptiles escape; the Cannabis smog, carried throughout the world on the prevailing winds, rendered the small-brained icthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs even stupider than usual, causing them to forget to hold their breath under water.
Few reptiles were left after the end of the Cretaceous. The mammals, who had been skulking around in the underbrush all this time, came out and started their own age, which they dubbed The Age of Enlightenment. There soon appeared such forms as the proto-horse Eohippus (Greek: “Hi yo silver”) and the sabre-toothed cat Smilodon (Latin: “Smile when your heart is breaking”). Eventually, the early ancestors of Man climbed down out of their trees and went looking for early ancestors of Woman. Together, they hunted the Megatherium, the Berylium, and the Chrysanthemum to extinction, but domesticated the dog and the orthodonts, which have offices in every modern city.
Copyright © 2007 by Steven Utley