• Dinosaurs - Our fascination with them lives on

  • Dinosaurs may have died out, but our fascination with them lives on

    Misty the diplodocus was a bargain in this new golden age for fossil hunters, writes Tom Holland.

    It is hard to think of a more remarkable bargain than “Misty”, the diplodocus that went under the hammer this week for pounds 400,000. The chance to own a 17-metre dinosaur does not come along every day, after all. So remote from us is the Jurassic period that the odds of even the tiniest fragment of a diplodocus being preserved, let alone discovered, is staggeringly small. The specimen auctioned at Billingshurst in Sussex on Wednesday was one of only six in the world. Whoever bought it got it for a snip.

    Perhaps, though, the low price reflects the sheer ubiquity of dinosaurs. Since they were first discovered two centuries ago, they have become more familiar than most creatures still alive on the planet. There is no child easier to buy a present for than one with a dinosaur fixation. Yet the kitsch that sugar-coats the Mesozoic era is easily purged. Dull would he be of soul who could handle the remains of a creature that roamed our planet 150 million years ago, and not experience a sense of awe. To contemplate a fossil is to feel both how close the prehistoric past is to us, and how infinitely far removed. “What are fossils, after all,” as the palaeontologist Pascal Tassy has put it, “if not vestiges both destroyed and preserved by time?”

    Their lure is one that even the most casual enthusiast can grasp - or the youngest, come to that. To poke among the rocks of the Jurassic Coast is one of the great joys of a British childhood. It is a delightful, but not altogether surprising, detail of Misty’s story that her skeleton was first discovered, in the US, not by the palaeontologist who went on to excavate it, but by his two teenage sons. They stand in a long and honourable line of amateur fossil-hunters. Centuries before the immensity of geological time was properly understood, people were stumbling across giant bones, and seeing in them evidence of colossal heroes or fantastical monsters. Even St Augustine got in on the act. Walking along a beach one day, he was amazed to find an enormous tooth made of stone. “I believe,” he declared, “that the molar belonged to a giant.” The proper identification of prehistoric creatures, when it did finally come, owed everything to an alliance between anatomists and amateurs. Megalosaurus and iguanodon, the first two dinosaurs to be named, were found respectively down a limestone quarry and by a country doctor. The most famous fossil-hunter of her age, though, was the remarkable Mary Anning, who possessed such a keen nose for extinct marine reptiles that she was able to turn professional. “She sells sea shells on the sea shore”: the inherent fascination of Mesozoic fauna was so great that scientists and museums were willing to pay huge amounts for her fossils. Anning would not have been remotely surprised to find a diplodocus going up for auction.

    What might have surprised her, though, and perturbed her too, was the possibility of so precious a specimen ending up as a showpiece in a billionaire’s atrium or a shopping mall. Traditionally, in the history of fossil-hunting, self-advertisement has ridden shotgun with science - sometimes literally so. Back in the 1870s, when the West was at its wildest, the same Wyoming badlands where Misty was recently discovered saw America’s two leading palaeontologists, professors Cope and Marsh, having to dodge cattle-rustlers and bands of Sioux in their quest for dinosaur fossils. The biggest threat they faced, though, was one another. In the most vicious personal rivalry in the history of science, both men employed gangs of heavies to steal or smash up their rival’s collections of bones. Eventually, as was so often the way in Gilded Age America, their struggle to establish a monopoly led to the ruin of both their fortunes, and the takeover of their enterprises by Andrew Carnegie. It was Carnegie who donated the diplodocus that dominates the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London - the same species as Misty. There is another way too in which it bears witness to Carnegie’s genius for self-promotion. Not just diplodocus, the proper scientific name of the dinosaur is Diplodocus carnegii.

    Today, the lead in fossil-hunting that passed in the 19th century from Britain to America has passed in turn to China. Even though huge specimens like Misty continue to be found in the fossil-beds once ransacked by Cope and Marsh, size is no longer the chief measure by which a find’s value is judged. Chinese fossils have opened windows on to a whole new dimension of palaeontology: one in which dinosaurs have the feathers, agility and size of birds. The auction of Misty should not lead us to imagine that the fossils of these extraordinary creatures are mere curiosities, toys for someone with a spare pounds 400,000 to burn. We are currently living through a golden age of dinosaur research. The question of how exactly they are to be defined, and why they should have become extinct when birds did not, is one with implications well beyond the Mesozoic age. More than they have ever been, the fossils of dinosaurs are vital objects of scientific study. Let us hope that the auction of Misty has helped to enshrine, not obscure, this fact.

    Tom Holland’s new translation of Herodotus is published by Penguin
  • 2013-12-04
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