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Dinosaurs and Darwin - An Interview with Peter Dodson
Peter Dodson ‘Dinosaurs in the Year of Darwin’
The renowned anatomist and doyen of fossils, Peter Dodson is this months special guest editor for the Anatomical Record.
Q) What attracted you to guest edit this special issue of the Anatomical Record?
It was attractive for a plethora of reasons. Anatomical Record is a distinguished journal with the highest standards of presentation, production and distribution. It seemed an ideal opportunity for highlighting what I call non-systematic or ahistorical paleontology. Whereas much effort goes into the collection and description of new species of dinosaurs (and I do some of this myself), in my judgment it is the analysis of fossils, that is to say the interpretation of fossils and the extraction of paleobiological information, that truly defines the state of the art. Moreover, a number of the authors are early in their careers, or are students, and I believe it is young people who truly define the state of the art. They run circles around us old guys. And in a very personal sense, I point out with pride that a majority of the papers are by my students, the students of my students, or the students of the students of my students!
Q) The great Joseph Leidy, the first president of the American Association of Anatomists, also studied at the University of Pennsylvania. How has the understanding of Dinosaur evolution changed since his work?
Joseph Leidy, “the last man who knew everything,” had the privilege of describing the very first American dinosaurs. These were first based on a handful of teeth from what is now Montana but was then Missouri Territory. Two years later he described Hadrosaurus foulkii on the basis of a skeleton, one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons known at that date (1858). Very few dinosaurs were known at this time. Within a few years, once OC Marsh and ED Cope started the dinosaur wars in the mid 1870s, Leidy, a consummate gentleman, had largely given up on the study of dinosaurs, leaving the field to the quarrelsome duo. He died in 1891, by which time only the barest rudiments of the evolutionary history of dinosaurs had been worked out. Leidy understood dinosaurs to be large reptiles. The excitement of the revolution of the 20th century in which the biology of dinosaurs has been revealed to a considerable degree came nearly a century after his death. Today we understand dinosaurs to have attributes of reptiles, attributes of mammals and birds, and also characters unique to them alone. We have a rich and nuanced understanding of these splendid creatures. We understand diverse aspects of posture, locomotion, metabolism, functional morphology of respiration and mastication, sensory neurobiology, growth rates, and longevity. In short, today we understand the biology of dinosaurs more thoroughly then these are known for many groups of living animals. Dinosaurs live!
Q) 2009 is the year of Darwin how important is the study of dinosaur evolution to building on his scientific legacy?
Darwin knew little about dinosaurs, and they played little role in his evolutionary thought. Darwin was especially aware of the abundance of gaps in the fossil record that made it difficult to document evolutionary lineages. For many years in the 19th century and for part of the 20th century, the study of dinosaurs in particular and fossils in general played little role in evolutionary thought. In the mid 20th century, following the work of G.G. Simpson, fossils were fully integrated into mainstream evolutionary thought. Beginning in the 1980s, the development of rigorous methods of phylogenetic analysis coupled with an avalanche of discoveries of new taxa of dinosaurs changed the situation remarkably. Many gaps in the fossil record of dinosaurs have narrowed considerably if not disappeared entirely, and evolutionary lineages have been elucidated. Fossil finds in China especially have been enormously valuable. Darwin’s attention would be fully engaged by dinosaur research today.
Q)Films like Jurassic Park and Ice Age show that Dinosaurs and the prehistoric world continue to be a big attraction. What is it about Dinosaurs that fascinates people?
The word charisma springs to mind. Some animals have, some don’t. Dinosaurs most definitely have that je ne sais quoi. Just as people are drawn to charismatic mammals such as elephants and giraffes, so they are drawn to dinosaurs. Dinomania first surfaced in London in 1854, with the installation of the life-sized concrete dinosaurs at the Crystal Palace in 1854. Dinosaurs entered popular culture through the novels of Jules Verne and Conan Doyle. In part large size contributes to their popularity, but is by no means the whole story. If it were simply a matter of size, then Brachiosaurus, Seismosaurus and Argentinosaurus would be the most popular dinosaurs. They are not. There is awe inspired by the most terrible of predators, such as Tyrannosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, and Giganotosaurus. Such dinosaurs are both terrifying and “safe” because they are no longer with us. They fuel the imagination about an entire world, or rather series of worlds, which are unlike our own world in some ways, but like it in other ways. They encourage consideration of such topics of current concern as biodiversity, biogeography, evolution, extinction, ecology, climate change, global warming (which seemed to suit the dinosaurs very well, thank you!). Dinosaurs are excellent teaching tools to convey all manner of physical, biological, geological and geographic concepts. They encourage the use of imagination among young and old alike—and imagination is not a four-letter word!
Q) And finally, do you have a favourite dinosaur?
My favourite group of dinosaurs are the horned dinosaurs, and two stand out. My first favourite is Avaceratops, which I discovered and named in 1986, my first scientific offspring. It is from Montana. The second one is Auroraceratops from China, which my students and I named in 2005. We named it after my wife, Dawn.
Professor Dodson is the Guest Editor for a special issue of The Anatomical Record: Unearthing the Dinosaurs, he is currently Professor of Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania.