Talking With Dinosaurs

(This article originally appeared in Newsletter 83 of the Palaeontological Association)

As with pretty much everything nowadays, an evening class I taught recently asked the participants to complete an end-of-course feedback form. The topic had been ‘Life ThroughTime’, and I had attempted to cover the fossil record in eight two-hour sessions.

A fossil crustacean (from Wikimedia Commons).

The class members were a diverse and interesting group, including geography and biology teachers, a professor of music, and a university director of research. I tried to introduce them to evolutionary palaeontology, combining its development and key figures with some of the latest discoveries and hypotheses. In a fairly short course, though, there had to be restrictions. I made it clear that I would not spend a lot of time assessing dinosaurs, since they constituted only a small portion of the subject.

Being an invertebrate palaeontologist, part of this was an acceptance of my own limitations. I don’t know much about reptiles, Mesozoic or otherwise. This ignorance was also evident at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival (about which more elsewhere), where most under-12s displayed far more knowledge about the creatures’ size, speed and feeding habits than I did.

Don't trust him. He doesn't know what he's talking about (photo courtesy of Jane Francis).

I didn’t neglect the beasts completely though. The class discussed the phylogeny of feathered theropods and thence the question of why birds weren’t bird-hipped. Nyasasaurus made an appearance, as did the topic of warm-bloodedness and, of course, the K-Pg extinction. Archosaurs just didn’t play a starring role.

When the class questionnaires were returned, however, I found a few choice words in one of the comments boxes. It said, “Dinosaurs are not the enemy!”

Being fairly sure which participant had written it, I suspected it was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I also knew it was truthful. The author was quite right. They may attract a disproportionate public interest, but dinosaurs are certainly not the enemy. My decision to relegate them to a minor role was probably unnecessary. From funding cuts to a lack of jobs to the teaching of creationism as science, there are an enormous number of things that should attract a palaeontologist’s ire more than the over-promotion of lizards.

To try and show it was nothing personal, I went a few weeks later to see “Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular” in Newcastle. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the target demographic; if my better half hadn’t accompanied me I fear it would have looked somewhat suspicious, but I wanted to re-engage with my inner ten year-old. I was secretly quite excited to see how the monsters would be resurrected in a half-full ice hockey arena.

It certainly can.

The show was excellent, a mix of mechanics, puppets and special effects. It included the colliding and breaking up of continents and the greening of Pangaea. The scientific explanations weren’t bad either – lots of proper names, lots of information on dinosaur ecology and biology and even some ichnology. I don’t know what the children made of those sections, but they seemed to enjoy the overall experience. I enjoyed it too.

Afterwards, I found myself wondering about the educational uses of dinosaurs, and how (or indeed if) children make the connection from loving these giants to learning about palaeontology.

At the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, I asked a few groups of children if they could tell me the name of a fossil. Ammonites, belemnites, trilobites, bones, came their answers; dinosaurs were almost always an afterthought. The impression seemed to be that there was a distinction: “They aren’t fossils, they’re dinosaurs!”

A dinosaur, but also a fossil.

That they (and every other primary school group I’ve worked with) were interested bodes well though. Whether the pupils know it or not, they have an enthusiasm for palaeobiology and palaeoecology. The problem is that there doesn’t appear to be a clear mechanism for channelling this, especially after they turn 11.

Unless they are fortunate to be at a secondary school with a fossil-loving teacher, their exposure to palaeontology diminishes significantly. From what I’ve seen, those who retain their early love of dinosaurs often become hobby fossil hunters. If they end up choosing a palaeo-related degree programme it is often in spite rather than because of the system.

This is where I see an opportunity. If, as a learned society, the Palaeontological Association is genuinely concerned about the future of palaeontology, we must look at targeting this period, the transition from primary school to university, from the ages of 11 to 18.

Pupils making decisions about their career paths should be one of the focuses of our attention. We should be providing them and their schools with high-quality information to facilitate a better understanding of what palaeontology really is and what palaeontologists really do.

I’m not claiming this is a novel observation. Lots of my colleagues are aware of the issue and have been discussing it for some time. Education and outreach have both featured strongly in recent Association Council meetings; plans are afoot to try and use our position and financial strength to help projects in both areas get off the ground.

One of the developing conversations is with the Earth Science Teachers’ Association (ESTA), who are hosting their annual meeting at Plymouth University in September. ESTA points out that A-Level courses (the UK pre-university qualifications aimed at 16-18 year-olds) are due for a rewrite. Initial discussions have suggested that there is an opportunity for the Association to help drive a change in the course specifications, with professional palaeontologists identifying what subjects should be leading the teaching of Earth sciences within the syllabus.

A recurring comment we’ve had from teachers is that more resources are needed to explain how fossils are used to determine palaeoecology and palaeoenvironments. Dinosaurs can play a key role. They may be a big business, but they are also a source of so much interesting research.

From coprolites and colour to feathers, flight and footprints, the potential to use these prehistoric monsters to explain ancient biology and ecology is enormous. Taking such an approach might also act as stealth-learning, where more obvious, glamorous subjects are used to educate pupils about rather more cryptic disciplines. From there we can move on to the ecosystems of Solnhofen or the Burgess Shale or (my favourite) the Wenlock Limestone.

A nice stick of rock from Dudley (from Wikimedia Commons).

In preliminary discussions, teaching colleagues have come up with seven key points, arguing that resources:

[1] Must be online;
[2] Must have good quality, downloadable images;
[3] Must incorporate feedback so that students are able to see what they have understood;
[4] Must be interactive;
[5] Should have links to external resources, such as university websites;
[6] Need to have downloadable, printable exercises;
[7] Should summarize key information at the end.

The Association has the capacity – and the need – to facilitate the creation of such materials. If it did so, putting them online would ensure that the resources were available to anyone who wanted to use them, anywhere in the world. The resources should emphasize clearly the uses and applications of palaeontology rather than just the idea of collecting fossils.

I realize I am writing this all from an Anglocentric perspective and that the situation will be different in other regions. I am sure, though, that similar issues exist elsewhere.

As for my personal mission, I have started showing reptilian respect by (literally) running a class on footprints, speed and sediments for a Geoscience Club at a local secondary school.

Combining jogging on a beach with some of the famous trackways from the Jurassic of the Yorkshire Coast, I will try to show how we can use a modern approach to understand fossil behaviour. I promise to begin giving dinosaurs the treatment they deserve.

Hopefully, a step in the right direction.