22 April 2015

Roll Up For the Roadshow

On Saturday, I participated in the kickoff of the Cambridge Science Festival in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Myself and one of the other student employees at the Beneski were asked to help run a booth showing fossils collected from western Massachusetts. The booth was organised by a group called the Jurassic Roadshow, who collect fossils and educate people about our geologic past, often at events such as this one; they kindly invited Beneski Museum docents to get involved with the event.

Jurassic Roadshow fossil fish.
[photo by the author]

At our booth, we presented a variety of fossils and rocks, including several small fish fossils collected by one of the members of the Roadshow; one of his finds, a fossil fish split neatly in half by faulting after preservation, is on display in the Beneski. Naturally, I stationed myself with the dinosaur footprints. These tracks were made at the same time and in the same environment as the ones in the Beneski Museum, on the shores of a rift valley lake during the Early Jurassic, about 193 million years ago, by (mostly) small dinosaurs. The footprints we had were mostly from coelophysids (lightweight, lanky carnivorous dinosaurs between 1-3 metres [3.3-9.8 feet] long) but there were one or two that were likely from juvenile dilophosaurs, the larger carnivorous dinosaurs of the area (over 6 metres [19.7 feet] long as adults) and one slab that bore the faint foot impressions of a tiny, cat-sized heterodontosaur, a member of a group of herbivorous/omnivorous fuzzy primitive ornithischians.

Fossil fish at the Beneski Museum, cut in half by faulting. Collect by
Jurassic Roadshow member Dr Harry Sharbaugh.
[photo by the author]
The nature of this event meant that I spent a lot of the (very, very windy) day interacting with kids. I enjoy working with children because they are generally the most enthusiastic and often the most knowledgeable members of the general public when it comes to palaeontology. Some of the kids who stopped by the booth really knew their stuff; a lot of other ones reminded me that dinosaurs are still a really mysterious subject to a lot of people. We had a game where kids could get a little plastic chinasaur (dollar-store dinosaur toys, accuracy and quality wildly erratic; ours were middle-of-the road) if they could identify what kind of dinosaur it was, with the help of a dinosaur guidebook. Of our six different dinosaurs, four of them (Stegosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Dilophosaurus, and Styracosaurus) should have been pretty easy to identify, especially with a book. The other two were not as obvious (Iguanodon and what we decided was a dromaeosaur on the basis of its huge toe claws, because the rest of it looked like Generic Large Theropod).

Some things I noticed while playing the game:

  • Sorry to disappoint you, but not all theropods are T. rex. Not all bipedal dinosaurs are T. rex. Not all dinosaurs are T. rex
  • People were generally good at getting the similarity between Styracosaurus and Triceratops, but I was surprised to see that most people's guess for Styracosaurus WAS Triceratops. Not 'it looks kind of like Triceratops,' just 'it's a Triceratops!'
  • However, a few kids (sometimes with help from their parents, sometimes on their own) did stop and remark that it couldn't be Triceratops because its horns were wrong. Then they generally turned to the book and identified it correctly. For some of the 'it's a Triceratops' guessers, identifying it from the book was a little harder; pretty much all the represented ceratopsians were guessed at some point. Triceratops being 'three-horned face' or even just 'three-horn' is pretty widely known, so the scarcity of people who noticed the difference between 'three-horn' and the spiky-frilled Styracosaurus surprised me. About two or three kids, however, immediately were able to identify Styracosaurus with no help or incorrect guesses.
  • Not all dinosaurs are T. rex.
  • Stegosaurus was, unsurprisingly, our most frequently-guessed-right dinosaur. 
  • However, I have noticed something bizarre. A lot of people seem to get Triceratops and Stegosaurus mixed up; our tiny-headed, plate-backed, spiky-tailed toy was called Triceratops several times over the day. I've noticed this in the museum as well, where our Triceratops skull is sometimes called Stegosaurus by visitors. I can't figure out why this is as the animals are not really at all similar in appearance. I guess it's perhaps because Triceratops and Stegosaurus are sort of the supporting two of what would probably be the dinosaurs' Big Four (T. rex, Brontosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus; add a generic 'pterodactyl' or a Jurassic Park-style 'raptor' for additional fun!).
  • Talking of raptors, once I pointed out the big toe claws on our dromaeosaur toy, a lot of people were quick to guess 'raptor' or occasionally 'Velociraptor.' Pretty forgivable, as that was by far the least-accurate and least-distinctive of our toys. A lot of people still drew blanks, though. Or guessed T. rex.
  • Iguanodon and the dromaeosaur had not one correct, unprompted guess. Even when using the dinosaur book for help, an awful lot of people simply flipped over Iguanodon. All but one group and maybe one or two other people seemed like they'd never heard of Iguanodon before; this was really weird. Iguanodon is a staple of kids' dinosaur books, and as the second dinosaur to be scientifically described (and known from far better remains than the first one, Megalosaurus) has been a saurian celebrity since the mid-1800s, with illustrations, models, etc. appearing in places beyond just dinosaur books and museums. 
  • No, sorry, there's not a T. rex, stop guessing T. rex.
  • Parasaurolophus impressed me. While a lot of kids didn't know its name, it was clear that they recognised it. There were actually a pretty big number who tripped over the name ('Paralophosaurus,' 'Parasalophalus,' 'I can't say its name but it starts with a "P"') and even a few who said it correctly! 
  • The only kid who identified Dilophosaurus without the book/prompting from me knew them from Dinosaur Train. That show is a big help in palaeontology education, but that's for a different post.
  • Not all dinosaurs are T. rex.
And a few things I noticed while working with the fossils:
  • Many people have no clue when dinosaurs lived. The dinosaurs that made our track fossils lived in the Early Jurassic, about 193 million years ago. I didn't expect non-dinosaur-nerds to really have even a rough idea of that date, but I was surprised by the number of people who seemed to think dinosaurs existed only a few million or even only a few hundreds of thousands of years ago. Of course, I also heard 'these are, like, billions of years old.' 
  • I was asked, after telling the age of the tracks, whether any hominids existed back then. The general history of life on earth, even as just a vague sketchy idea of when a few major groups appeared relative to one another, also seems to be something a lot of people just aren't aware of.
  • No, those aren't T. rex footprints. The largest of our footprints were less than 20 centimetres (8 inches) long, so asking if they are from T. rex seemed like a strange question, especially since Tyrannosaurus is famous for being really big.
  • Mentioning the similarity of bird footprints and our dinosaur footprints got a lot of positive feedback. Mentioning that birds are dinosaurs got a lot of blank stares.  
I hope I don't seem like a snob, but some of that stuff really does surprise me. Maybe it shouldn't; information about dinosaurs is barley imparted in school, and when it is, it's information about the dinosaurs of the 1970s - if we're lucky. But that's why I'm so happy to have been a part of this event, and why I think things like the Jurassic Roadshow are great. It really is a lot of fun to share information about prehistoric life; a lot of people are really interested in dinosaurs, and often seem to take at least some small thing from an up-close encounter. Venues like the science festival we were at let people connect with palaeontology - and science in general - in a fun and immediate way, and that is undoubtedly a Good Thing. 

My Jurassic Roadshow t-shirt, with Safari Ltd. Ceratosaurus.
[photo by the author]
Check out the Jurassic Roadshow's website here; they've got maps, guides to dinosaur tracks, history of palaeontology in the Connecticut River Valley, and more. 

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