Dino-fanatic author Brian Switek grew up in New Jersey, dreaming of Jurassic celebrities like Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus (now known as Apatosaurus). An imaginary pet Brontosaurus figured in carefully crafted crayon portraits of his family. He discusses his passion in the new book My Beloved Brontosaurus. Switek, who writes the Laelaps blog for National Geographic online, just returned from doing fieldwork with the Museum of Utah paleo crew at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. He spoke with National Geographic Editor at Large Cathy Newman by phone from his home in Salt Lake City, which he shares with his wife, Tracey, and a full-size cast of an Apatosaurus skull.
You just got back from a dig. Explain the kick of meticulously digging through rock and sand for a splinter of fossilized bone?
The American paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson said it’s kind of like gambling without the vicious aspects of it. You never know what you are going to find. Sometimes you get skunked. But you find enough to keep you going back.
What is it that makes dinosaurs so intriguing?
Dinosaurs demand answers. There is nothing quite like them. Every time bones are found, people keep coming up with stories about them, attempting to get at how they fit in the world. We explore them through myth and legends. All manner of questions tumble out of their bones. They cause us to question our own place in nature.
You write about the paleontological discoveries that resulted in the rechristening of your beloved Brontosaurus as Apatosaurus. You were five years old then. Do you remember your reaction? Was it like being told there was no Santa Claus?
I don’t recall being upset or crying. It was more like, “Well, OK, that is the proper name now. The adults got it wrong.”
In the chapter “Big Bang Theory” you tackle the subject of dinosaur sex, something the average reader doesn’t usually read about. Why?
Actually a lot of books mention it, but it’s been given short shrift because it was thought there wasn’t a lot to say. It’s an essential process that kept them around for millions of years. I really wanted to show that this is not trivia that can be brushed aside with a lurid illustration. The way they reproduced was how they generated the next wave of little dinosaurs and maintained their dominance.
You wrote that if there ever is a Jurassic Park 4, dinosaurs in the starring roles should sport some feathers and fuzz in accordance with the paleontological evidence, Steven Spielberg’s sense of taste be damned. Isn’t that Hollywood heresy?
I wrote a blog saying so, too. http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/03/20/a-velociraptor-without-feathers-isnt-a-velociraptor/
Quite a few fans of the film pushed back and wrote that feathered dinosaurs look stupid. In fact, there will be a Jurassic Park 4, and Colin Trevorrow, who will be directing, has said that there will be no feathers in it. Although we know Jurassic Park got things wrong, it was the first time that I saw something on film that looked real. It’s still the greatest dinosaur film of all time.
“Dinosaurs,” you write, “are our guideposts to the past.” Do they have anything to teach us about the future?
Evolution continues. The world changes. Now we influence those changes. If we can understand why dinosaurs were successful over the many years when they were, and why so many died out when they did, maybe we can use them as predictors of human driven climate change. Dinosaurs are proof that life changes dramatically over time and that extinction is the ultimate fate of all species.