Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What is YOUR favorite dinosaur or other prehistoric animal?? A study of the general public’s (as well as the expert’s) ideas of the ideal extinct creature

I’ve loved dinosaurs ever since I can remember. I was three years old when I happened upon my first dinosaur museum experience in Toronto and it had me hooked ever since. (Note: this was BEFORE Jurassic Park ever came out. Yeah, I feel old.) At the gift shop, my parents bought me a little red cup with a picture of a Triceratops on it…

            … And that was it. From then on, I was destined to name Triceratops as my all time favorite dinosaur throughout my childhood and, to this day, it has stood the test of time. I didn’t care that it was an herbivore. In fact, I preferred it over any carnivore (all of those carnivores, like T. rex and Velociraptor, looked the same to me anyway...). I mean, come on. Triceratops had the best kind of weaponry there is on any animal ever!
Okay, that might be a bit much, but it still looked WAY cool. Three sharp horns, two of which were over three or four feet long! And the frill with all the extra smaller horns made it look even cooler. EVERY time I went to a museum with a Triceratops skeleton, I had to take my picture with it, no matter what. It was absolutely essential. And now, guess what. After all these years, my dissertation research is on jaw mechanics in plant-eating dinosaurs. Better still, Triceratops is part of it! (Albeit, it is one of many, many genera I’m looking at, but still.)

Pentaceratops (a relative of Triceratops) and me.
            Now, a big part of why I have liked dinosaurs is that I loved to draw them all the time. I have now been learning a lot about scientific illustration in grad school to help me out with creating publishable illustrations. One day, I thought to myself that it would be a lot of fun to draw my friends as their favorite dinosaurs or other prehistoric animal. So I (stupidly) posed this question on a couple Facebook statuses:

“What is your favorite DINOSAUR / PREHISTORIC ANIMAL?”

I got many responses. Way more responses than I expected and I said, “Well, damn. I can’t draw all of these, now, can I?” And that’s when it hit me. I could analyze the responses and see, both in the general public and in the expert world of paleontology/zoology/physical anthropology, who (and how many) finds what prehistoric animal the most interesting and, dare I say, AWESOME? What is each person’s ideal prehistoric animal?

I got answers from around 146 people. What I didn’t realize when I went into this was just how interesting the answers would be. Before I get into that, though, let’s look at the rankings of all of the answers that were given that made it past one vote:

Okay. I promise I didn’t make this up. Triceratops beat out everything else. In fact, it beat out Tyrannosaurus by 6 votes. That was the first shock to me. But it makes the case that herbivores are, by far, way cooler and more diverse than carnivores. (YES!) Granted, this is not nearly a statistically robust graph by any means. I would need a LOT more answers to get anywhere near that, but I figured this was a good start. The graph above shows all answers that got more than one vote. (I counted half-votes for people who gave me two answers because they couldn’t make up their minds.)

Check this out, though. Elasmosaurus (a plesiosaur) is in sixth place. After that, Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat. “Pterodactyl” and Wooly Mammoth are not too far off either. Why? Because they are the most publicly known non-dinosaurian prehistoric animals out there. If I ask someone who is not a paleontologist what their favorite non-dinosaurian prehistoric animal was, 90% of the time it would probably by one of those. I couldn't do that, though, because sometimes when I’d ask the question “What is your favorite dinosaur?”, some people would respond with “pterodactyl” or “plesiosaur”. Both things that are NOT dinosaurs. So I had to broaden the question I asked a little bit to all of prehistoric life to avoid that for now.

In any case, we have Triceratops first, then Apatosaurus, then Velociraptor as our top three answers. I had to take this a step farther, though. While getting responses, I got a lot of answers that were not QUITE the actual name of the animals. For instance, for Apatosaurus, I counted “Brontosaurus”, sauropod, and “Long neck” in the same category. Also, any time someone asked a descriptive question (i.e., “What’s that one that’s really big with a really long neck?”), I put that under Apatosaurus as well. Here are those answers parsed out in a small graph:

Funny, isn’t it? Most of the people that said Apatosaurus was their favorite dinosaur didn’t even know it’s actual name. Some knew “Brontosaurus” from childhood stories and movies, but that name has actually been invalid since the early 1900s. Some knew the term “long-neck” from the classic cartoon movie “The Land Before Time”, but that is all they based any knowledge of paleontology off of.
Little Foot, a "long-neck" from "The Land Before Time"

Well, that and “Jurassic Park”, which brings me to Velociraptor.

Now, I grouped Velociraptor, Deinonychus, and “raptor” in the same category too because, let’s face it, any non-paleontologist who says Velociraptor is thinking of “Jurassic Park’s” portrayal of Velociraptor, which is actually a Utahraptor or Deinonychus with a cooler name (Velociraptor is actually quite a lot smaller than that seen "Jurassic Park").  
"Velociraptor" from "Jurassic Park"
Most people said Velociraptor, but quite a few non-paleontologists said Deinonychus as well, which I was pleased about. The term “raptor” snuck in there by some people, which irks me a bit, but I’ll get over it since that is, again, what much of the media and the movies call them.

Thankfully, most people who picked Triceratops actually said the real name, except for one person, who said “three-horn” like in ‘The Land Before Time”. 

Ducky, a "swimmer" from "The Land Before Time"

A few people said “Ducky” like in “The Land Before Time” rather than Parasaurolophus or Saurolophus because, unfortunately, not a lot of people actually know what a hadrosaur is called outside of paleontology enthusiasts.

Six people said “Saber Toothed Tiger”, while only one person actually said “Smilodon” (its actual genus name). This was not surprising at all, but again, it’s a sign of how prehistoric animals are being portrayed to the general public.

More people said "plesiosaur" instead of Elasmosaurus, too.

Also, here's the breakdown of "T. rex" vs. "Tyrannosaurus", just for kicks. T. rex won by a landslide, probably because its easier to say. Everyone knows T. rex.

Tyrannosaurus from "Jurassic Park"
I’m happy to see Archaeopteryx (early avian ancestor), Stegosaurus, and Ankylosaurus make this list, though. It shows that many people know at least a bit more diversity of dinosaurs outside of the norm, although I wish the numbers were larger. What it all comes down to, though, is what prehistoric animal they thought was the coolest looking. It didn’t matter to them that they didn’t know what its name was, as many did not. They just knew it looked cool at some point in their lives when they saw it.

I guess what I’m trying to emphasize is that we need a much larger push to get paleontology out there more in the general public. We need to teach every one of ALL ages that paleontology is real and it is important. Movies are fantastic ways to get the public more interested in paleontology, and more movies have been and are coming out, but we need to take it a step farther. Let’s start teaching more about them in schools, in documentaries outside of mere fanciful animated dinosaurs running around with brief commentary, in books, in the news, anything you can think of. Paleontologists and evolutionary biologists need to make their research known in the media to a much greater extent. This will gain more public interest and, ultimately and hopefully, improve upon how much scientific interest is received in the general public. Hopefully we can get that ball rolling soon and I look forward to being a part of it.

~ Ali

P.S. ~ Here are all of the genera which only had 1 (or one half) vote. Oh, and a good majority of these are from paleontologists/paleoanthropologists. :) Some of these are way cool. Look them up if you haven't heard of them!

Homo ergaster
Homo floresiensis

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