Mark Witton, Depicting prehistoric animals as monsters: how, why, and so what?

One of the oldest and most prevalent conventions in palaeoartistry is the 'monsterising' of extinct species, where deliberate efforts are made to depict prehistoric subjects as more formidable and intimidating than they likely were in life. If you've got even a passing interest in prehistory you'll have seen plenty of examples of such artworks. The prehistoric animals of most films are monsterised to greater or lesser extents, as are those adorning the covers of many popular books on dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates. Even museums and educators regularly employ monsterised depictions of extinct animals.

Monsterisation is achieved in a few ways. It might involve restoring animals as especially lean and vicious, giving them minimised soft-tissues (e.g. 'shrink-wrapping'), conspicuous teeth and claws, or posing them in aggressive dynamism. Compositions that focus on dangerous anatomies, that use proportion-distorting foreshortening to make jaws or talons look particularly imposing, or that have backgrounds recalling dark fantasy settings are also common components of monsterised palaeoart. Monsterisation is not restricted to violent or aggressive depictions either: it can apply to any subject or any scene. Conversely, palaeoartworks featuring blood or violence are not always monstrous, they only become so when these elements are overemphasised or fetishised by their artists.

The decision to restore prehistoric animals as monsters is artistic, not scientific. It is entirely possible, and probably more scientifically credible, to restore ancient animals in naturalistic ways even when they are engaged in potentially violent acts, like predation. Here,  Velociraptor mongoliensis  chases down  Zalambdalestes lechei . The choice to show this famous movie villain pursuing small prey is at odds with our cinematic experiences, but is also far more consistent with the behaviour of living predators.

The decision to restore prehistoric animals as monsters is artistic, not scientific. It is entirely possible, and probably more scientifically credible, to restore ancient animals in naturalistic ways even when they are engaged in potentially violent acts, like predation. Here, Velociraptor mongoliensis chases down Zalambdalestes lechei. The choice to show this famous movie villain pursuing small prey is at odds with our cinematic experiences, but is also far more consistent with the behaviour of living predators.

Monsterisation is almost as old as palaeoart itself. The oldest known scientifically informed palaeoartworks date to 1800 (Taquet and Padian 2004) and within just a few decades prehistory was being restored with a monstrous edge. Early examples include the draconian pterosaur featured in Reverend Howman's 1829 Noctivagus Dragon, de la Beche's extremely violent Duria Antiquior (1830), and the grim primordial scenes of John Martin, such as The Country of the Iguanodon (1837). Not all early illustrators and scientists were portraying extinct animals this way, however. Georges Cuvier approached his reconstructions with a predictable level of anatomical objectiveness, and much of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' work, including his famous Crystal Palace restorations, was naturalistic and grounded. This dichotomy in approaches reflects the fact that there are no anatomical correlates for monstrousness. Whether an ancient animal is monsterised or not is entirely an artistic choice, the deliberate emphasising of brutishness over a more holistic and objective reading of palaeontological and zoological data. The unspoken idea that certain features should lead to greater monsterisation is refuted by the great number of extant species with stereotyped ‘monstrous’ features - giant size, large teeth, horns, or claws - which are far from terrifying in appearance or behaviour.


It's tempting to link the artistic monsterisation of prehistory to changes in Western culture during the last 200 years, especially to shifting attitudes to religion and evolution, as well as the establishment of prehistoric animals as marketable pop culture. 19th century science sought to align Christian doctrine with then new data concerning geology and extinct animals, and also regarded Western civilisation as the acme of Creation. Accordingly, artists such as John Martin and Édouard Riou, who were no strangers to rendering biblical scenes, reconstructed ancient animals as denizens of a violent, Godless world unfit for human habitation. Later artists such as Knight, Zallinger and Burian, were not working under this strict religious framework but the idea that man and the modern age were somehow special lingered in the form of orthogenic evolutionary concepts. While not the most overt monsteriser, some of Charles Knight's extinct reptile restorations have a tinge of exaggerated savagery, and comments in his books (e.g. Knight 1935, 1946) leave little doubt that he regarded Mesozoic reptiles as monstrous, brutish things. Conversely, he regarded extinct mammals as noble, intelligent and behaviorally complex. Humanity, one of Knight’s favourite subjects, continued to hold a special place in the order of things.


Today, perhaps the most significant driver of palaeoartistic monsterisation is a commercial one. Violent, savage prehistory has been a proven money-maker since at least the early 20th century and it's now popular books, comics, and blockbuster films that harbour the most monsterised prehistoric species. An evolution of the convention has seen modern media involving us, their audience, in the monsterisation process. We are now the targets of aggressively restored animals which lunge from their products towards us, mouths agape and claws bared. This relatively recent trend surely draws inspiration from the highly foreshortened palaeoart popularised by Luis Rey, and there are now hundreds of products using this theme. Viewer-targeting monsterised theropods are surely the most significant stereotype of modern palaeoart.

The results of Google image search for ‘dinosaur book’ or ‘dinosaur DVD’: dozens and dozens of prehistoric animals (mostly theropods) that want to eat our faces.

The results of Google image search for ‘dinosaur book’ or ‘dinosaur DVD’: dozens and dozens of prehistoric animals (mostly theropods) that want to eat our faces.

Monsterisation thus dominates the majority of popular palaeontological media and palaeoart, to the extent that some conventions - open-mouth roaring, fights and violence, the fetishising of claws and teeth - are so entrenched that clients regard them as essential in all new palaeoart. I’ve certainly experienced this myself when creating PR images for scientists, leading to sometimes difficult conversations about compositional storytelling, the scientific basis for visible teeth and claws, and exactly how animals behave in predatory scenarios. Perhaps this reflects fears that new products or artwork will be overlooked if they do not follow wider marketing trends for prehistoric outreach and merchandise? Notably, even products of primarily academic or educational remit, or those aimed at older audiences, often feature screaming, roaring dinosaurs, making them indistinguishable from those targeted at young children.


But does it really matter if artistic takes on prehistory are monsterised? As someone keen to promote a science-led and naturalistic view of ancient animals, it’s easy to take a purist perspective where monsterisation is framed as a corruption of palaeontological data - a portrayal of a violent prehistory that likely never existed. But could we look more favourably on it, perhaps admitting that such artwork is merely being infused with excitement and optimised for promotion? Could it even be a useful convention, helping palaeoart and associated products appeal to audiences beyond natural history enthusiasts?


I suspect the value of monsterisation falls between these two extremes. The proven marketing success of vicious, snarling prehistoric species means that palaeontological subjects are pasted on the side of buses and billboards while other sciences struggle for public attention. While it’s frustrating to see incredulous takes on prehistory being featured so widely, perhaps we should be grateful that it helps palaeontology maintain such a prominent public face, and for the outreach springboards it provides. The public at large may have a very distorted view of what Velociraptor was and looked like, but at least they’ve heard of it. On the other hand, many pieces of monsterised artwork distort well-established facts of life appearance or likely behaviour of their subjects, leaving educators with the task of deconstructing misinformation during outreach events instead of imparting new ideas. This creates a sense that we are progressing little in conveying what prehistory was like because basic aspects of anatomy or behaviour have to be continually clarified.


More positively, monsterised palaeoart clearly has a following and can be profitable. It does not appeal to everyone, but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying monsterised prehistory, and even paying for it, if that’s what people desire. I admit to having concerns about the absence of a mainstream alternative however, as the ubiquity of monsterised palaeoart makes the genre look stereotyped, unimaginative and unsophisticated compared to other branches of natural history art. This is worsened by the fact that a lot of monsterised palaeoart is technically and scientifically poor as well as crudely composed, giving it an air of pulpy cartooniness. The visibility of so much poorly-executed art of animals with big teeth, big claws and big roars does nothing to dissuade the public that palaeontology is anything more than low-grade 'kids stuff', and undermines palaeoart as a mature and skilled artform with depth, history and nuance.


A concern without silver lining is how monsterised palaeoart separates prehistoric life from species alive today. Monsterisation brings fantastic and supernatural elements to prehistoric species which gives them an otherworldly quality. They do not look like they belong to the same tree of life as modern species, and their dark, low-key environments resemble film sets rather than actual habitats. This is a problem. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are lauded as a gateway to science, a means to educate on important topics such as scientific methods, ecology, extinction and even climate change by stealth. But we undermine this by presenting prehistory as a fantasy world populated by fighting gargoyles. Any discussion we have of palaeoecology, evolution or biological vulnerability featuring monsterised artwork overshadows our points with visual fictions, informing audiences that these animals were somehow more fantastical than extant species, and therefore of lessened relevance to understanding modern times. Restoring extinct animals in more relatable, grounded ways makes our educational messages far more on point. We can communicate ideas about fossil species as real animals far more effectively if we show them as real animals as well.


And this brings me to my ultimate question: whether monsterised palaeoart qualifies as ‘real’ palaeoart at all, and if those of us involved in palaeontological outreach and education should be making a conscious effort to move away from it. Palaeoart is defined as being evidence-driven and its success depends in part on an ability to reflect all available data on a subject’s predicted life appearance and behaviour. Monsterisation cherry picks this data however, selecting anatomies and behaviours that suit edgy portrayals but overlooking data hinting at less ferocious or more grounded restorations. Art of a monsterised prehistory is therefore certainly inspired by palaeontology, but I cannot regard it as palaeoart in a true sense. This might seem like pretentious artistic noodling or even snobbery - does it matter if monsterised depictions are ‘real’ palaeoart or not? - but if we concede that such artworks are not reflective of scientific data about ancient animals, then what value does that art have to educators and scientists?

We must remember that the visuals chosen by educators and science communicators are seen as an endorsement of their content by a trusting public, and that artwork is often more informative and memorable than written or spoken content. There are plenty of alternatives to monsterised palaeoart if bold and interesting palaeoartworks are needed (see, for example, the naturalistic but stylised work of Ray Troll, Rebecca Groom, Raven Amos, David Orr or Johan Egerkrans), nor we should not underestimate the power of traditional palaeoartistic approaches to inspire and invigorate. Where education is concerned, we might do better to explore visually arresting but scientifically credible takes on prehistoric species, but to leave the monsters in the fantasy realms where they belong.



●       Taquet, P., & Padian, K. (2004). The earliest known restoration of a pterosaur and the philosophical origins of Cuvier’s Ossemens Fossiles. Comptes Rendus Palevol, 3(2), 157-175.

●       Knight, C. R. (1935). Before the dawn of history. Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Incorporated.

●       Knight, C. R. (1946). Life through the ages. Alfred A.Knopf, Inc.

Richard Fallon, Aesop's Triceratops

Contemporary dinosaur palaeontologists, like Steve Brusatte in his The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (2018), have been keen to stress that the dinosaurs were diverse and spectacular evolutionary successes (whose ancestors survive today). This point requires significant stressing, because dinosaurs have long signified failure.

In the acrid visual language of political cartoons, dinosaurs usually represent the worst accusations cartoonists can think of (Figure 1). Falling down the Google Images rabbit-hole we encounter recent political dinosaurs, most of them American, standing in for the Republican Party, the mainstream media, NATO, Brexit, recessions, the coal industry, climate change deniers, Wall Street, bureaucracy, and the national debt, in addition to many, many dinosaurs which have been retrofitted with the head of Donald Trump. You call something a dinosaur when you think it’s on the wrong side of history or living on borrowed time; when it’s unmanageable, short-sighted, old-fashioned, self-destructive, unsustainably ravenous, distinctly unsuccessful. At least, you do if you’re a political cartoonist. In recent decades, the dinosaurs of political cartoons have sometimes been depicted as sufferers of asteroidal bad luck, but the political dinosaur is usually its own worst enemy and/or the enemy of progress.

Figure 1.  Here,   famed cartoonist Winsor McCay depicts the ‘Dinosaur’ alongside other outdated animals, objects, and institutions supposedly swept away by the progress of ‘Time’, including ‘The Rack’ and ‘Slavery’. Winsor McCay, ‘Oblivion’s Cave—Step Right In, Please’, Sunday American, 19 March 1922.

Figure 1. Here, famed cartoonist Winsor McCay depicts the ‘Dinosaur’ alongside other outdated animals, objects, and institutions supposedly swept away by the progress of ‘Time’, including ‘The Rack’ and ‘Slavery’. Winsor McCay, ‘Oblivion’s Cave—Step Right In, Please’, Sunday American, 19 March 1922.

 At PopPalaeo, we have often interrogated narratives, like ‘progress’, which are used to shape and frame palaeontology. At the December 2018 session, for instance, Elsa Panciroli looked at how non-specialists and even specialists have tended to view the idea of evolutionary success in loose or colloquial ways. These perspectives have usually been detrimental to the idea that the small Mesozoic mammals that lived alongside dinosaurs were – despite often being the prey of those dinosaurs – diverse, abundant, and successful. Mark Witton, moreover, spoke about the tendency of so many artists to ‘monsterise’ extinct animals, turning the denizens of prehistory from credible animals into improbable killing machines. Compared to these nightmare fiends, modern nature looks positively reformed by comparison. Both speakers were, to a significant degree, looking at how and why we turn prehistoric animals into goodies and baddies, winners and losers—progressive and conservative. Throughout history, dinosaurs have typically represented unprogressive moral qualities.

The dinosaurs’ dart-board-like role in mediating political disagreements today is steeped in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century evolutionary science. When the most famous dinosaurs—Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus—were unearthed in the Gilded-Age United States, their incredibly tiny brains stood out in the face of evolutionary theories that emphasised continuous brain growth. Low intelligence, hardly a factor in the original classification of the dinosaurs by Richard Owen in 1842, became one of their most notorious characteristics (Figure 2).

Figure 2.  Triceratops in E. Ray Lankester’s children’s book, Extinct Animals (1905). Lankester, formerly Director of the London Natural History Museum, described the ‘incredibly small’ brain of this dinosaur compared to the size of its head, observing that ‘[v]ery probably this small size of the brain of great extinct animals has to do with the fact of their ceasing to exist.’ E. Ray Lankester, Extinct Animals (London: Constable, 1905), pp. 207, 209.

Figure 2. Triceratops in E. Ray Lankester’s children’s book, Extinct Animals (1905). Lankester, formerly Director of the London Natural History Museum, described the ‘incredibly small’ brain of this dinosaur compared to the size of its head, observing that ‘[v]ery probably this small size of the brain of great extinct animals has to do with the fact of their ceasing to exist.’ E. Ray Lankester, Extinct Animals (London: Constable, 1905), pp. 207, 209.

The rise of dinosaurs as the subjects of political cartoons paralleled the rise of ‘phylogeronty’ as an explanation for the evolution of traits that seemed opposed to the logic of adaptation. Writing as late as 1962, in the London Natural History Museum’s official book on Dinosaurs, William Elgin Swinton explained the logic of this theory:

Then again, we are familiar with the effects of old age in the individual; toothlessness, lack of energy and diminution of the sense, and it appears that a similar series of characters can, in fact, affect a whole group of animals. This is called phylogeronty, the old age of a phylum. The symptoms of this are gigantism, spinescence and loss of the teeth […] Taken together, these facts mean that old and tried stocks (exhausted perhaps by evolutionary activity) and those like the Ceratopisa that were very specialized were suddenly faced with changing environmental conditions that demanded new efforts from them at the very time they were unable to give them.

Certain types of dinosaur were frequently assumed to have evolved in futile directions: namely the oversized sauropods, inexplicably spiny stegosaurus, and heavy-headed ceratopsians. Such views had been influential (although not universally accepted) in palaeontological circles throughout the first half of the twentieth century, even if they were, by the time of Swinton’s writing, becoming distinctly outmoded. Phylogeronty was also called ‘racial senility’ or ‘racial senescence’, in a common but telling slippage between early twentieth-century anthropological and palaeontological science.

Palaeontologists and science writers revelled in the stupidity and inherent obsolescence of so many dinosaurs – slamming into Stegosaurus and Triceratops again and again. The moral implications a reader might take from Swinton’s words about the decadent dinosaurs are clear. The palaeontological writer Henry R. Knipe had put it even more plainly in his Evolution in the Past (1912), ‘the superior intelligence and higher moral qualities of the mammals’ were key reasons by which ‘the old reptile nobility, unable to march with the times, had been swept away’. Those familiar with the illustrated palaeontology books of the artist Charles R. Knight will recall his many tirades against the ‘stupid, unadaptable, and unprogressive dinosaurs’ and his fondness for the ‘little warm-blooded beings, furry, alert and aggressive’ who ‘were to supersede them’ (1946).

In fiction, the threat presented by dinosaurs acted as a spur to energy against complacence and decadence. Predatory dinosaurs, not so commonly associated with phylogeronty, were potentially dangerous foes despite their tiny brains. In romances like the lost-world adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs, fish-out-of-water male protagonists rediscover their masculinity while pitting their bodies and their wits against largely brainless and cumbersome but physically powerful dinosaurs. While contemporary palaeontologists might object to films like Jurassic World (2015) that depict predatory dinosaurs as scaly serial killers, early twentieth-century naturalists were less sympathetic to their subjects. When Arthur Conan Doyle made the dinosaurs in his romance The Lost World (1912) brainless killing machines, the famous naturalist E. Ray Lankester wrote to congratulate him on his accuracy: ‘I notice that you rightly withhold any intelligence from the big dinosaurs’.

In specialist circles, the stark contrast between warm-blooded, far-sighted mammals and cold-blooded, idiotic dinosaurs would eventually be chipped away by suggestions that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded; subsequently, the theory that an unlucky encounter with an asteroid killed off most of the dinosaurs put paid to the idea that dinosaurs like Triceratops—objects of derision since the 1890s—were simply at the end of their tether. Memorable images of dinosaurs growing too large, spiny, and vicious for their own good, however, stay with us. It’s no surprise that dinosaurs continue to entice not only palaeontologists, but also cultural historians, historians of science, and literary scholars. The Mesozoic is a morality play.


Will Tattersdill, “A riotous tangle of living vegetation”: Brontosaurus and the Forests

In Murray Leinster’s ‘Sidewise in Time’ (Astounding Stories, June 1934), Cyrus Harding glances out of the back door of his Ohio home and notices that the “farmland flat as a floor” has been replaced with “a riotous tangle of living vegetation”. Time has fractured, and numerous historical possibilities have run together - the story is traditionally accounted one of science fiction’s first performances of ‘alternate history’ - with the result that “jungle such as palæobotanists have described as existing in the Carboniferous period” is suddenly present in, well, the present. As Harding watches, a long neck reaches out from the jungle and Harding’s wife becomes the subject of the narrative:

She looked through the open door and saw the jungle. She saw the jaws close upon her husband. She saw colossal, abstracted eyes half close as the something gulped, and partly choked, and swallowed – She saw a lump in the monstrous neck move from the relatively slender portion just behind the head to the feet-thick section projecting from the jungle. She saw the head withdraw into the jungle and instantly be lost to sight.

We need not let the snake-like description of “the something”, nor its choice of meal, prevent us from realising that it is a sauropod, most probably Brontosaurus. Carnivorous brontosaurs had popped up before – there’s one in King Kong (1933) – and the repeated appearance of hostile, violent dinosaurs across the SF of the interwar period allows Leinster to introduce his dinosaur without using any of the proper nouns which his Ohioan characters would not have known.

This is the solitary appearance of a dinosaur in Leinster’s story, which otherwise mixes together only distinctively human possibilities (for example, a reality in which the Chinese have colonised America). It reached my attention as yet another example of a dinosaur making a cameo at the beginning of a new genre of popular literature – a subject in which I’m much interested – but after this latest PopPalaeo, and in particular after Susannah Lydon’s brilliant paper on plant blindness, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the forest. “Carboniferous”: that’s about 143 million years before the first Brontosaurus, (very) roughly twice as long as ago from the present day. Yet Leinster isn’t using the technical term at random – he describes the forest as “the source of our coal beds”, as indeed the Carboniferous forests are.

Dr Lydon pointed out in her paper that nineteenth-century palaeoart was more willing to strive for botanical accuracy than contemporary work, citing the cultural importance of the coal industry as a possible explanation. In this story, the jungle not only precedes the dinosaur but is described in considerably more detail. Whilst the dinosaur is metonymically characterised, simply a “long, snaky neck, feet thick at its base and tapering to a mere sixteen inches behind a head the size of a barrel”, the jungle is rendered whole, entire, and every bit as upsetting:

Huge, spreading tree ferns soared upward a hundred feet. Lacy, foliated branches formed a roof of incredible density above sheer jungle such as no man on earth had ever seen before. The jungles of the Amazon basin were parklike by comparison with its thickness. It was a riotous tangle of living vegetation in which growth was battle, and battle was life, and life was deadly, merciless conflict.

Though the jungle itself never harms anyone – it is never seen again in the story – this language of implicit violence contrasts interestingly with the farmland which has been replaced. Particularly striking is that phrase “living vegetation”, which seems to imply a lack of vitality in our contemporary flora. These plants are somehow more alive than ours – and that’s bad.

How has the Brontosaurus ended up in this anachronistic environment? The story is about time periods being jumbled up, although other details about the way in which the mixup has happened make it unlikely that the animal has just wandered into the past. Is it Leinster’s own illiteracy or laziness? Possible – this is pulp SF, and would likely have been written too quickly for robust fact-checking. My preferred explanation, though, is thematic: it makes instinctive sense to have this grand jungle to set the stage, just as it makes sense to have the largest known land animal along to eat somebody. Whatever the explanation, the incident forces me to confront my own plant blindness: I’d paid so much attention to the vague sauropod that I’d overlooked the jungle entirely. With my research emphasis on palaeontology, I’d failed to notice that it’s palaeobotany Leinster evokes by name. Like Sam Neill’s character at the moment of revelation in Jurassic Park, I ignored the massive botanical revolution and concentrated on the charismatic megafauna. More fool me.

Elsa Panciroli, Popularising Palaeontology Workshop, 2018

There are few arenas where Brontosaurus, ‘awesome-bro’ palaeoart, and Dutch missionaries are topical bedfellows. What could possibly unite the last British bear to Belgian Iguanodons, or move conversation smoothly between ‘plant blindness’ and Neanderthals? It can only be the fourth Popularising Palaeontology Workshop.

Popularising Palaeontology, or PopPalaeo, was held in London just before Christmas. The purpose of the workshops - which have been running since 2016 - is to explore themes around palaeontology and its role in culture, such as depictions in art, film and literature. Attendees come from a truly multidisciplinary spectrum including historians, archaeologists, artists, scientists, journalists – and those who wear more than one of these hats at a time. I got so much from participating in the first workshop, I was excited to get stuck in to this latest event.

The overarching theme for this workshop was Debates and Issues. On the first day, our opening session by Paul Brinkman was on the strong personalities of antagonistic palaeontologists in the late 1800s in the United States. This revolved around the famous squabbles between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Brinkman told us about Henry Fairfield Osborn collecting ‘Marshiana’: a term coined by his mentor Cope to describe the letters, notes and other evidence collected against Marsh. Quite quickly, Osbore realised “collecting data on the foibles of my rivals is a good move” said Brinkman. We wondered as a group about the role of unpleasant personalities in the history (and the present) of palaeontology, as Brinkman declared that Cope, Marsh and Osborn were, to be honest, all “massive jerks”. But would we still be talking about them if they weren’t?

Hannah O’Regan explored how long wild bears persisted in the UK. She outlined the evidence from scant bones, and coupled this with our understanding of the survivability of isolated populations, calculated using a programme called VORTEX. The evidence suggests to her that bears probably died out by the early Bronze Age, and later reintroductions by the Romans explain the scattered bear bones found in later time periods, which are all from sites associated with humans. A line of support for this, is the lack of bears in old place-names. Wolves on the other hand, are incorporated into local names, and we know they persisted for much longer. This is an interesting example of the impact of the disappearance of animals on human culture and language.

With this thought fresh in our minds, we heard about Lost Species Day from Matt Stanfield. Held on November the 30th each year, it is an opportunity to honour the many animals already extinct through human activity. Stanfield talked about the emotional, personal connection that people form with these lost creatures, particularly after creating artwork of them. The process of creation and desire for accuracy forces the artist to take a much closer look at these animals than many of us usually would.

After coffee it was my turn to talk – and it will come as no surprise that Mesozoic mammals (#MesozoicMammals) were a strong thread throughout the presentation. But what I was really interested in discussing was how we still talk in outdated progressionist terms about evolution, despite our increasing scientific literacy. We also focus on the big, often carnivorous animals as examples of ‘advancement’ and ‘success’ in evolution - but what do we really mean by ‘success’? The term is problematic both in meaning and application, and rarely corresponds to the biological definition of the word. Despite the undoubted success of things like small mammals, herps and insects, we rarely ever discuss those groups in those terms.

To round off the first day’s presentations, Hanneke Meijer told us the story of the ‘man who didn’t dig deep enough’; a Dutch missionary named Theodor Verhoeven who carried out excavations in Indonesia in the 1950-60s, including in the cave that in 2013 yielded the skull of the new species of hominin, Homo floresiensis (aka ‘Flores Man’ or ‘the Hobbit’). He discovered many bones and even published his findings, yet his legacy is considered a failure. We attach great value to the hominin discovery that we don’t give to other finds, however diligently collected or well-intentioned. This led to a fascinating discussion about how we assign value to some fossils over others, based on science, culture, and personal values.

That evening there was a public event asking the question: ‘What is the point of palaeontology?’ Hoping that we wouldn’t be expected to have an answer (but we were), I joined colleagues Becky Wragg-Sykes, Darren Naish and Mark Witton on a panel with lively Q and A from the public. In an adjacent room, old and new palaeoart was on display, addressing themes such as historical depictions of extinct animals, and whether palaeoart is successful when following an art-first approach. But most crucially: there was also free wine, which made everyone very happy.

It was a delight to hear PopPalaeo’s first botanical-themed talk: Plant Blindness and the Fossil Record. Presented by palaeobotanist (and former fellow Guardian science blogger) Susannah Lydon, this presentation touched on a subject too-often overlooked in discussions about representations of extinct life in art and culture: where are all the plants? From large extinct herbivores depicted standing on barren brown plains, to wishy-washy green backdrops that say nothing about the true undergrowth of the past, plants are treated merely as stage settings for a dinosaur theatre. Placed in the context of young people’s decreasing nature-literacy, it comes as a disappointment but not a surprise that most children barely recognise plants as living things, let alone being able to identify them. We all lamented the lack of good palaeobotanical reconstructions, which impacts the ability to produce good palaeoart. This has the repercussion of diminishing our view of extinct ecosystems, and our understanding of the natural world in deep time. “Plants are never going to be at the forefront,” Lydon admitted, “that’s okay, but I just want them to be fairly represented!”

From something under-represented in art and culture, to something people just can’t get enough of: Neanderthals. This lost branch of humanity not only lived alongside our own genus, Homo, but DNA shows us they are the ancestors of many of us. But as Becky Wragg-Sykes points out, the actual science of the Neanderthal is often overshadowed by the deep-seated fascination they hold for the public. They unfairly remain a cultural shorthand for the primitive and stupid. The media leaps on any new research about Neanderthals, and simultaneously perpetuates these old stereotypes. Wragg-Sykes took us through a wonderful series of palaeoartistic reconstructions, reflecting our changing understanding (and prejudices) about these hominins through time. She reflected that our fascination with them is like the fascination with aliens: Neanderthals are historically our first-contact with an alien being, a humanoid but not quite human, the ‘other’.

For some time we tried not to mention the sauropod in the room, ‘that Spielberg Hollywood film’. Inevitably, Jurassic Park featured often in discussions, to many people’s chagrin. This also raised an interesting question: what is it about JP that means we always end up talking about it? It’s hard to deny that the film was a pivotal point, not only for the story of palaeontology and culture, but for palaeontologists and those who work in connection with that discipline. We only have to look at the level of enthusiastic gushing that took place among palaeontologists during the recent twenty-five year anniversary. Some of the participants at PopPalaeo argued we should try not to talk about it so much, believing its role in our discipline has been massively overplayed.

The next two talks of the workshop were on ‘Dinosaurs and their uses’, and it was interesting to reflect that in two days of presentations, these were the first dedicated to that stereotype symbolic animal of palaeontology. In the first, Shana Van Hauwermeiren surprised us with the extensive role of Iguanadon in the history of Belgium in the 1800s and early 20th Century. “You could recreate the history of Belgium [at this time] using only articles that contain the word ‘Iguanodon’” she told us. They permeated politics, language, contemporary popular culture and science from this period. Yet, astonishingly, their role in Belgium’s past is virtually unknown in the country today.

Will Tattersdill shifted our focus to the Brontosaurus: an animal that existed, then didn’t, then did again, as science changed its mind about its validity. He reflected on the sense of loss we feel for the dinosaurs of our childhood; science is changing them – adding feathers, altering posture and behaviour, bringing them to life then poofing them out again like candle flames. Each time we revisit our beloved childhood dinosaurs and find them gone, he argues, it is an experience analogous to a fresh ‘extinction’.

In the final two talks we tackled the monstrous in palaeoart. First, the chimeric reconstructions made of synapsids, the line of animals that includes mammals. Ilya Nieuwland shared the attempts at interpreting ‘Naosaurus’ (now correctly identified and reconstructed as Edaphosaurus), a Permian animal related to Dimetrodon that also had ‘sail’ structure on its back formed from the extended spines of the vertebrae.

We went from honest attempts to reconstruct animals that mistakenly made them monstrous, to deliberately making monsters by augmenting an animal’s ferocity beyond the data their fossils provide. Mark Witton polished off the talks by discussing the phenomenon of turning extinct animals into terrifying angry monsters – completely at odds with our understanding of real animals and their behaviour in the natural world. He shared three powerpoint slides depicting a furious toothy montage of T. rex and friends screaming from the cover of almost every book on dinosaurs and extinct animals on the shelves today. Why are we so obsessed with turning extinct creatures into monsters? Is it really about the animals, or more about the role of monsters in human culture?

Witton’s talk brought us into lively discussion about what extinct animals mean to us. Why does it matter how they are depicted? As a scientist, my gut reaction is that accuracy matters. Certainly one of the most concerning reasons is that these depictions reflect the growing gaps in our understanding of the natural world, today and in the past. Fewer and fewer people know how animals behave in nature, and the roles they play in an integrated ecosystem. If dinosaurs are scary monsters, we can be glad they’re gone. This lessens the reality and impact of our current extinction crisis, because culturally the extinct is monstrous, and is therefore already unreal to us.

We levelled the responsibility of helping change depictions of extinct animals at scientists and artists, recognising that trying to persuade advertisers and Hollywood to do it was a somewhat lost cause – or at least, approaching the problem from the wrong direction. While we can never remove all prehistoric ‘monsters’ – nor should we want to – we can make sure that there are plenty of images and information that depict extinct creatures and their habitats in an informed, scientifically up-to-date way, and that they are available to the public and media.

As a scientist, I have access to one kind of ‘truth’ about the past. Although I place great value on it, it is not the only ‘truth’ that matters. The role of vanished animals in human culture is ingrained and multi-faceted. Fossil species will exist, and then cease, like the Brontosaurus. But one thing we know for sure is that their meaning to us as creatures of science, history, and popular culture, will never become extinct.

Paige Madison, Sparking Interest About the Past

Some of us are intrinsically fascinated by fossils. We have been reciting dinosaur names, memorizing geologic timescales, and finding joy in natural history museums for as long as we can remember. I am absolutely one of those people. I was enchanted by fossils early, quickly—and without a single thought as to why.


This captivation-from-birth phenomenon occasionally puts me at a disadvantage in communicating science. What, exactly, is it about the dusty old bones that I find so intriguing, I often wonder? The answer to this question sometimes difficult to articulate. Unlike some of my friends who are forced on a consistent basis to explain and defend why rat bones or bird fossils matter, I often fall back into my comfort zone of thinking my subject matter, the fossils of human ancestors, speaks for itself.


But a fascination with fossils does not afflict the entire population equally, of course. Some people are excited by dusty old bones while others find joy in studying rockets ships, distant planets, or the depths of the ocean. I often wonder how I can best communicate with these audiences, those who are not intrinsically interested. If I struggle to article what first got me interested, how can I effectively communicate my passion to someone else? How can I (or we as a community) make palaeontology attractive to a range of audiences? What tools can we use to light the initial spark of enthusiasm?


At the Popularizing Palaeontology workshop held in December 2017, this question of which strategies can help spark people’s interest came up. While I don’t know for sure, my guess is many of us gathered in that room suffer from this same disadvantage—we are those who have this innate fascination. We are not the majority. So how do overcome this to reach audiences of those who are not necessarily interested? A few ideas were put forward at the meeting.


First and foremost, there is the power of the dinosaur as a window into prehistoric worlds. We know that dinosaurs capture peoples’ imaginations in powerful ways. But palaeontology is about so much more than massive, impressive extinct beasts like Tyrannosaurus rex, members of workshop complained. What about the fossils of ancient snails, trilobites, or pigeons, for example? These creatures also hold important knowledge about the past. Some science communicators use dinosaurs as gateway fossil of sorts, one that sparks an audience’s interest. Later, once the audience is paying attention, we try to show them that palaeolontology is so much more than Tyrannosaurus. But this second step is often difficult to accomplish.


In my own work, which is focused on human evolution, I use a different strategy, often falling back on the power of a face. The stare from the hollow eyes of our ancestors—the Gibraltar Neanderthal, for example, or the scouring brow of a Homo erectus fossil—reveals a creature that exhibits both a glimmer of humanness and a distinct otherness. Sometimes this fossil gaze can catch peoples’ attention and light the initial spark. But his method is limited as well; we don’t always have the face of ancient fossils, and a Neanderthal face doesn’t get us any closer to communicating the importance of those important snails or pigeons.


A different idea was brought up during the workshop, an alternative that struck me as a powerful tool: using the concept of deep time to spark peoples’ imaginations. This strategy moves away from the fossil itself, instead painting a picture of the deep, geologic timescale that has housed so many creatures and seen countless extinctions and massive evolutionary shifts.


I find this approach fascinating, and it is one that I have never considered. Can something so foundational to our understanding of ancient life also be an important tool to communicate science? Deep time reminds us that there are so many lost worlds of strange creatures, that we are just a speck in the most recent point of time scale, that an enormous amount of time has passed before our potentially fleeting evolutionary moment as humans. For these reasons and many more, deep time seems to be a strategy to spark the fire that is worth pursuing.


As many science communicators already know, this strategy of communicating deep time is not about a number. Indeed, speaking in terms of millions and billions of years involves numbers that are distant to for the human brain to conceptualize. As Charles Darwin admitted in the Origin of Species, “What infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years.”


Visuals can help communicate the vastness of deep time, filling in the illustration where the numbers simply can’t. Upon exploring this topic further, it seems there have been many interesting art exhibits around the world that have focused on deep time. This is one of the values of having meetings like Popularizing Paleontology, with a mixture of scientists, artists, and historians. Those of us who are not visually creative stand to gain a tremendous amount by asking questions alongside artists. Metaphors, too, help paint a picture while reigning in the immensity of this stretch of time. As a result of the workshop, I am working on developing fun and interesting metaphors that plot human evolution on a more relatable time scale.


Now of course, there are a series of precursory questions that are worth bearing in mind as consider this issue of which strategy is useful to get people excited about the prehistoric past. These questions include: “Should we? Why should we?” –And so on. These are much more difficult questions to answer, it seems to me. But they are important to keep in the back of a science communicator’s mind. For now, though, I am working on quieting that part of my brain that contemplates those issues in order to think more creatively about strategies to communicate the fascinating world of fossils to new and diverse audiences.



Mark Carnall, What can we expect the public to know about Palaeontology?

One of the themes that came out of the second popularising palaeontology workshops was the democratic access to knowledge around palaeontology. In my presentation ‘What has palaeontology ever done for us?’ I aimed to show that popularising palaeontology and making ideas accessible is laudably ingrained in the discipline. From schools outreach, museum displays and exhibitions, social media, fieldtrips for the public, fossil festivals, documentaries and popular science books many palaeontologists undertake these activities as part of their role, normally giving up a lot of their own time to do so. Popularising palaeontology is also part of the formal training for many palaeontology students, certainly in the UK, as evidenced by the enthusiastic undergraduates and postgraduate students communicating their work at fossil festivals and on social media. Many natural history museums were founded on the principals of sharing information for the common good, previously under the guise of ‘betterment’ (with a dash of social status boosting for founders of these early institutions) and today part of public engagement and public engagement with research.

However, pursuing an interest in palaeontology is still a luxury activity for most. Visiting museums, picking up the latest popular book on dinosaurs or watching a documentary are all activities competing for people’s ‘free-time’. As a museum professional, I’m interested in trying to assess what information people bring with them. Where are the baselines for knowledge that can help us plan and pitch interpretation, tours, events and blog posts? Pitch it too high and you could end up baffling or alienating audiences (and it’s already a big challenge to get people through the doors of intimidating museum spaces). Pitch it too low and you miss the opportunity for transformational learning, although there is a debate about if engaging with museums should purely be for learning/education or not.

That the public know anything about palaeontology in the first place, is in itself a testament to the success of a couple of centuries of popularising palaeontology. There’s very little that we can expect everyone coming through the doors of a museum to know when it comes to palaeontology. In the UK there’s not much in the national curriculum directly dealing with the subject and curriculum taught content at schools is a great equaliser in that, with exceptions, people of all classes and backgrounds are exposed to the same(ish) content. At GCSE and A-Level, students start to choose their own curriculum or leave school altogether. Of course there may be some who choose geology A-Levels or even pursue degrees in earth sciences but as a portion of the overall population this is a diminishing number of people.

So where do people get access to palaeontological information beyond what they may learn at school and how can this inform how museums engage them with palaeontology? A bag of a fag-packet analysis might look at how readily available information is in terms of financial accessibility as well as intellectual accessibility. The idea behind the below figure I presented at the workshop. Of course, there are many more aspects to consider than these but in thinking about a baseline for the information people are likely to bring with them we can expect that more democratic sources of palaeontological information are more widely taken up. For example, it’s reasonable to assume that fewer people splash out on extremely expensive technical palaeontological texts costing hundreds of pounds than visit museums or go to the cinema to see Jurassic World.


Plotting the financial and intellectual accessibility of palaeontological outputs.

Plotting the financial and intellectual accessibility of palaeontological outputs.

This is where we hit a tension that has been another major theme of the Popularising Palaeontology workshops, accuracy and authority of available palaeontological information. Jurassic World is famously, misrepresentative and inaccurate and obviously not intended as a palaeontological text, but as a piece of entertainment it requires the cost of a cinema ticket to access. Many palaeontologists are frustrated that such an impactful piece of media doesn’t take the extra care to get things right but then that’s the conflict between the goal of movie producers and the goal of science communicators. In any case, people do take the information they get from movies like Jurassic World and fold it into their general knowledge about palaeontology, hence questions like “Can we bring dinosaurs back from extinction?” that anyone who has staffed a stall at a fossil festival will undoubtedly have got. 

In the museum context, the nature of palaeontological specimens also presents issues unlike perhaps social history, art and archaeological collections. Irrespective of education, artifacts such as paintings, sculpture, ceramics or coins are more easily understood as human made objects. The panoply of palaeontological specimens are less intuitively understood from the casts or composites dinosaur skeletons through to the complex variety of different kinds of fossils.

So we have very little assurances when it comes to the palaeontological information that the public bring with them into museum spaces. It’ll be a mix of information from children’s books, movies, documentaries, science reporting in the mainstream media, toys, games and maybe a Wikipedia article or two.

This presents a significant challenge for public engagement in museums both in terms of the range of content that is covered as well as the level. Ideally we’d pair up each visitor with their own expert palaeontologist and science communicator who could react to questions and queries and run them around the museum offering bespoke tours and trails pitching the content precisely at the needs of the individuals. For obvious reasons, it’s the proxies of museum labels and interactives which do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to communicating science to the public which is precisely why there’s a perpetuating cycle of subjects and topics covered in museum displays. Most natural history museums will likely have a dinosaur, human evolution and perhaps ‘Ice Age mammals’ gallery or display.  Few will give the same space and attention to archaeocyathans or mollusc evolution even when, on paper, there is a rich science behind all of them. It’s why displays called ‘These Are Not Dinosaurs’ highlighting pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs are still present (and needed) in museums as a direct response to the fuzzy public conflation of all these charismatic extinct animals.

So how do we break the cycle or do we need to? Well fortunately, museums do have a lot of agency in steering this as intellectually and financially (more so in some parts of the world) accessible, trusted spaces with millions of visitors a year. With a bit of creativity we can employ some of the tools we use to push dinosaurs to shed light on other areas of palaeontology. Instead of buying another Stan or Sue, commission a life-size Cameroceras model or a diorama of an Ordovician reef. Smart technology also has a better part to play in museums than is currently being employed. I’d like to see displays that link through to relevant articles, papers and blog posts to give visitors the opportunity of exploring more and to kick start self-directed learning. We may not have enough expert guides for each and every visitor but livestreams, videos and podcasts are surely less of a compromise than static interpretation with a choice fact or two.

By straying beyond the well-worn paths we’ll undoubtedly inspire film makers, scientists of the future, authors and museum visitors to explore these subjects more. This has happened a few times in the past. Virtually every natural history museum will have the same set of horse fossil casts on display which can be traced back to George Gaylord Simpson’s work on fossil horses. The same can also be said of Bernissart Iguanodon specimens, Archaeopteryx and the Oxford Dodo. Interestingly, all of these examples stem from museums sharing objects and casts of objects with each other. With 3D visualisation and printing so readily to hand these days, rather than retread the tropes of popular palaeontology we should be looking at creating palaeontological tropes of the future which, hopefully in turn ends up as part of the baseline public consciousness around palaeontology.




Figure          SEQ Figure \* ARABIC       1          :  J. A. Shepherd’s representation of the ‘Dinosaur Party’ in E. D. Cuming’s Wonders in Monsterland (1901).

Figure 1: J. A. Shepherd’s representation of the ‘Dinosaur Party’ in E. D. Cuming’s Wonders in Monsterland (1901).

To explain why children love dinosaurs so much, biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously gave an answer ‘proposed by a psychologist colleague: “big, fierce, and extinct”’. The folksy wisdom of this nameless social scientist has been continually re-quoted ever since. But how can we historicise and contextualise the mythic appeal of bigness, fierceness, and extinctness?

I wouldn’t say that dinosaurs have always been the elephant in the room at PopPalaeo workshops – for reasons that include a recently-acquired paranoia about mixed metaphors – but they do eat more than their fair share of the sandwiches. In the first workshop, Mark Witton suggested that, despite their formidable reputation, dinosaurs have chiefly been of interest to enthusiasts and children, and that, by over-relying on this group of animals, modern popularisers potentially miss out on other demographics. Considering similar issues, Elsa Panciroli and Mark Carnall explored how to interest wider audiences in less spectacular specimens. These key questions about audiences for palaeontology were integral to last year’s follow-up, PopPalaeo 2017. Different academic fields, however, require us to approach the same questions from different ends. While modern popularisers grapple with reaching out beyond one-dinosaur-fits-all approaches to popularisation, cultural historians can look back to a time when dinosaurs didn’t have such overwhelming powers of suggestion.

Gould was fascinated by the often child-oriented ‘dinomania’ of the late-twentieth century. The Dinosaur Renaissance and its media are indeed crucial subjects of study, although historians of science have long recognised that parallels drawn between the era of Jurassic Park (1993) or The Land Before Time (1988) and the period when the word ‘dinosaur’ first gained cultural power can be superficial. For my part, I’d like to know much more about what dinosaurs meant to children (and the young at heart) before dinomania but after the well-known early- and mid-Victorian vogue for antediluvian saurians.

Nowadays, the joke goes that children are more aware than their parents of what is or isn’t a dinosaur, and of how to pronounce polysyllabic names like Carcharodontosaurus. When did children’s authors (or at least those writing in English) start to trust that their young readers possessed this expertise? Before the American discoveries of the ‘Bone Wars’, the word ‘dinosaur’ was generally considered unimportant or relegated to a bashful footnote, even in books for adults and specialists. Dinosaurs only occasionally enjoyed prominence over their extinct confreres the pterodactyls, ichthyosaurs, mammoths, and megatheria. They were often drowned by lengthy discussions of geological processes that are more likely to be quickly dispensed with today.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, when mounted and articulated dinosaur skeletons first started to populate museum galleries and shift copy, the word lumbered into the vernacular. Early popular writings that paid attention to dinosaurs for dinosaurs’ sake include John W. Dawson’s The Story of the Earth and Man (1873), Henry N. Hutchinson’s Extinct Monsters (1892) and Frederic A. Lucas’s Animals of the Past (1901).

From this time on, the word seems to have lost its taboo status (although that’s not to imply it meant the same things that it means today). In E. D. Cuming’s Wonders in Monsterland (1901), young Jenny objects to the idea that dinosaur is a ‘hard’ word, to which her brother concedes “[t]hat’s an easy one” (p. 7). The cheerful title of Winsor McCay’s classic 1914 short film, Gertie the Dinosaur, attests to the word’s decreasing ‘hardness’. The earliest writers confident enough to use ‘dinosaur’ in general-interest book titles were two palaeontologists: W. D. Matthews of the American Museum of Natural History in Dinosaurs (1915) and W. E. Swinton of the London Natural History Museum in The Dinosaurs (1934). I suspect that to keep track of books called ‘Dinosaurs’ after the 1970s would be an exercise in futility.

Undoubtedly, during the Long Gilded Age and for many decades thereafter, dinosaurs were accompanied in the popular imagination by the titanotheres, dinocerata, and ancestors of modern elephants and horses that have not enjoyed a late-twentieth-century Jurassic Park surge. All the same, there was a growing sense of distinctness. While it may be ahistorical to consider the Crystal Palace dinosaurs a manifestation of ‘dinomania’, the term is not quite so misleading when discussing the famous arrival of Diplodocus carnegii at the Natural History Museum in 1905 or the stop-motion effects of the 1925 film The Lost World. The concerns of interwar audiences can still be very alienating, however. During the adventures of Joc & Colette at the Natural History Museum by Vera Barclay (1935), the titular children spend only a few pages with the dinosaurs, but even their rather dense friend Jane knows that ‘some of those old dinosaurs who lived ages ago had another little brain’ in their tail (p. 135).

My talk at the most recent PopPalaeo tentatively probed these questions by focusing on a small but telling phenomenon that I explore in my PhD: the entry of terms from the books of Lewis Carroll into the language used to describe extinct animals. This language was put to considerable use as a journalistic cliché, as when someone or something was flippantly dismissed as being ‘as extinct as the Mammoth or the Jabberwock’, but it was also applied more earnestly. When Richard Owen coined ‘Dinosauria’, the dinosaurs had all been similarly reptilian quadrupeds, although the word caught on only when it signified a far more heterogenous group, from kangaroo-birds to lizards with long necks or rhinoceros horns. For the earliest popularisers of these new dinosaurs, such as Henry Hutchinson, beasts like Carroll’s Jabberwock from Through the Looking-Glass (1871) presented an attractive analogy.


Figure          SEQ Figure \* ARABIC       2          :  John Tenniel’s famous depiction of the Jabberwock in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871).

Figure 2: John Tenniel’s famous depiction of the Jabberwock in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871).


Despite his best efforts, many of Hutchinson’s readers found the illustrations of dinosaurs like Triceratops in his books to be almost as incredible and grotesque as the Jabberwock. As dinosaurs quickly became more familiar, Wonderland turned into a less volatile metaphor. It was used in sophisticated works of popularisation for children like Cuming’s Wonders in Monsterland and odd hybrids like E. O. Bray’s Old Time and the Boy or Prehistoric Wonderland (1921). Nowadays, dinosaurs could probably function as gateways to Carroll’s books as much as Carroll’s tales work as hooks into palaeontology.

Of course, for the cultural historian convinced that there remains something interesting to say about dinosaurs, but who is simultaneously trying to shrug off the albatross of Jurassic Park, the moments of relative indifference to dinosaurs are as telling as the moments of enthusiasm.

What I’ve talked about here certainly aren’t uncharted territories in terms of academic study. Nonetheless, they are uneven ground. I suspect there’s still more to learn from the media of popular palaeontology between the 1870s and the 1920s, when ‘dinosaur’ (just about) became a household word, and especially from media consumed by or addressed to children. There is also, surely, more subtlety to add to what Wikipedia calls the era of ‘moribund dinosaurs’ (the 1930s to the 1970s).  The cultural construction of the dinosaur from the 1870s to the 1970s encompassed changing ideologies of evolution, new forms for the communication of science in the mass media (including cinema), the shaping of national identities, and many other evocative issues. Recreating this dinosaur will require a few more trips through the looking-glass.


Announcing: Popularizing Palaeontology Workshop II, Wednesday 13 & Thursday 14 December

Following on from the event in September 2016, we are pleased to announce that we will be holding a second workshop in December 2017 (talks and blogposts from the last workshop can be found here:  The aim, as with the last event, is to encourage dialogue between palaeontologists, science communicators, artists, museum professionals, and social sciences and humanities academics, and discuss the public role of the deep-time sciences in current society and historically. 

At the first event, we went through a variety of different topics and issues, with discussions on the prominence of dinosaurs in public discussions of palaeontology, the role of artwork in disseminating and discussing palaeontological theories, and some historical and current case-studies of palaeontological outreach. The main themes for this workshop will carry on from open questions left hanging at the end of the last event. In particular, we’ll be engaging with questions of motivation and audience. Key questions will be:


  • Why popularize palaeontology at all?  What have been the difference motives and agendas for this, and how have they affected popularization efforts? 
  • How has the public position of palaeontological research affected scientific research and scientific careers?  What are the potential costs and risks of making palaeontology a ‘popular’ science?
  • What audiences have traditionally been interested in palaeontology, and why?  What audiences should we try to reach with palaeontological outreach today, and how? 


The workshop will also feature a pop-up exhibition of palaeoart on the evening of Wednesday 13th December at the KCL Strand Campus (more details to follow).


Current attendees include: Paul Brinkman, Steve Brusatte, Mark Carnall, Vicky Coules, Richard Fallon, Melanie Keene, Darren Naish, Bob Nicholls, Ilja Nieuwland, Paige Madison, Beth Windle and Mark Witton.


If you are interested in attending or participating please get in touch withchris.manias AT  The workshop does have fairly strict limits on numbers, owing to space and funds: if we can’t fit you into this event, we will certainly keep you posted about future events and activities.  The talks will also be recorded and uploaded to the workshop website.

Will Tattersdill, Multidisciplinarity

When I asked “what am I doing here?” at the start of my PopPalaeo presentation, it was a rhetorical question – or it was supposed to be. Later, when one of the other delegates took me aside and asked (not, I think, maliciously) if there had even been a hypothesis in my paper, I began to wonder all over again. It is both a privilege and a curse of study in the humanities that questions of purpose continue, time and again, to present themselves.

I’m a literary critic. I write about and teach popular fiction, but I’m especially interested in thinking through the ways in which our culture narrativises science (and vice versa). The complex interactions crudely articulated by the ‘Two Culture’ model are, in a way, themselves my subject. Whilst working on my last book, which was about the relationship between science and fiction in the pages of 1890s magazines, I slowly realised that dinosaurs were the ideal way into the research questions I wanted to answer: enormously and persistently popular, they are impossible without both highly rigorous science and a decidedly artistic imagination. They are also – and I hope that the palaeontologists reading will not grimace too much at this – extremely human things, and to tell their story is also, as any museum display will confirm, inevitably to tell the story of how it has come to be told.

I suppose I mean by this that dinosaurs are interdisciplinary. Thinking about them necessarily entangles not only a spectrum of scientific pursuits but a broad range of cultural and artistic ones, and the list only grows if we consider the history (itself, of course, a disciplinary concern) of how they have been imagined. Geology, sculpture, evolutionary biology, museum studies, archaeology, architecture, information technology, comparative anatomy, fine art, climatology – these are only the broad strokes. For somebody whose intellectual project is the scrutiny of the Two Cultures model, this subject is a gift: no reasonable approach to the idea of ‘Popular Palaeontology’ allows us to leave separate domains of scholarship which have, historically, been separated.

To study the popular, though, is not to become it. My publisher is keenly aware of this, which is why my book costs £64.99. By the same token, to study disciplines – the ways we in which we relate knowledge, in every sense of the word ‘relate’ – is not to become interdisciplinary. To imply that I could, in time I have spare from teaching Victorian novels, develop an expert knowledge of vertebrate palaeontology would be the deepest insult to both fields, as if nothing worthwhile proceeds from the former (I worked hard to develop an understanding of Victorian literature and I don’t regret it) and as if the latter can be compassed without a lifetime of study and dedication. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is a fraught concept anyway, and I’m far from convinced that achieving it is either possible or desirable, however much universities like to say the word. We all have our competencies and need to be proud of them.

It’s thinking like this which has turned me into an enthusiastic proponent of multidisciplinarity. A room full of people with the breadth of experience to take on something as complex and multimodal as ‘the dinosaur’ effectively, meeting on common ground with as little prejudice as possible, has the potential to provide insights into much more than Mesozoic life. With such a rich subject, and such a rich range of approaches to it, we can begin critically to think about how our culture processes knowledge of all kinds – and about how the politics of disciplinary division shape the ways in which we think, teach, and understand the world.

I think we began to see a hint of what this might look like in the final discussion session at PopPalaeo, and it’s the reason I’m excited for whatever happens next. I lack the army of competencies and character virtues which would make me a Shaena Montanari or a Darren Naish, but if there is indeed to be a multidisciplinary table discussion about palaeontology and popular culture then it could be useful to have along for the ride somebody who is thinking about the table itself.

Marco Tamborini, ‘Like anything that does not bring in any money, there seems not to be the slightest interest in natural history in Prussia:’ Fundraising for Tendaguru


When and under what conditions did scientists successfully appeal to the public? And how did the public’s perception influence scientists’ agendas? These are key questions in order to understand the relationship between knowledge production and dissemination. At the Popularising Palaeontology workshops held at the King's College London in August 2016, I tried to tackle this issue by analyzing how German paleontologists marketed their discipline in order to obtain enough financial resources to excavate dinosaur bones in German East Africa (Tanzania) between 1909 and 1913. (Video here )


What was the financial situation of early 20th-century German paleontology? The 1900 annual personnel budget of the Stuttgart Museum of Natural History was fixed at 20,000 marks; whereas in order to attract the physicist Friedrich Kohlrausch (1840–1910) to the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin-Charlottenburg the Ministry of Interior was ready to pay him 18,900 marks per year. That means almost the entire amount of money available for Stuttgart. Or, the 1905 operating budget of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt came to 40,000 marks; while between 1909 and 1911 the entire budget of the Berlin Geological-Paleontological Museum of Natural History amounted only to 17,300 marks.


Thus, during the first decades of the 20th century, it seems that industrial-based sciences as physics, chemistry etc. obtained much more financial support than natural history did. Concerning the lack of Prussian interest in natural history, German paleontologist Otto Jaekel (1863–1929) remarked: “Like anything that does not bring in any money, there seems not to be the slightest interest in natural history in Prussia.”


Let us focus now on another kind of numbers.


Figure 1: Overview of the Tendaguru donations. In Carl Wilhelm Franz von Branca, “Allgemeines über die Tendaguru-Expedition,”  Archiv für Biontologie  3 (1914): 3–13.

Figure 1: Overview of the Tendaguru donations. In Carl Wilhelm Franz von Branca, “Allgemeines über die Tendaguru-Expedition,” Archiv für Biontologie 3 (1914): 3–13.




This table shows the budget of first two excavation seasons of the so-called Tendaguru expedition. This was one of the most successful paleontological expedition of the 20th century. Between 1909 and 1913, Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde unearthed more than 225 tons of fossils near Tendaguru in German East Africa (todays Tanzania), and transported them to Berlin. Among them were the bones of a Brachiosaurus, which would eventually become the biggest mounted dinosaur in the world.


Figure 2: Exhibition Hall of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin with the skeleton of the  Brachiosaurus brancai  standing in the middle © Carola Radke.

Figure 2: Exhibition Hall of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin with the skeleton of the Brachiosaurus brancai standing in the middle © Carola Radke.



As figure 1 shows, the first two excavation seasons of the German expedition were mainly financed by private citizens, who donated a total of 1,727 German marks. The Prussian central state was less generous. Even the Berlin Society of Friends of Natural Science [Gesellschaft Naturforschender Freunde zu Berlin] and the Berlin city council donated more than the central state did—making contributions of 20,000 and 8,000 German marks, respectively. Whereas the Prussian central state gave a mere 5,000 marks.


However, the Prussian state decided to become more closely involved in the expedition, making a large donation of 45,000 marks to the 1912 excavation season. Why and how did this happen? Why did the Prussian state decide to support a discipline detached from industry, like vertebrate paleontology? And, how could paleontology acquire an institutional, social, and scientific value in a society that put a premium on the industrialization of science? The answer to these questions lies in Wilhelm von Branca’s fundraising campaign.


Wilhelm von Branca (1895–1907) was the director of the Geological-Paleontological Museum in Berlin. He conducted a highly successful campaign to market the importance of dinosaurs in Prussia and to convince public opinion and the Prussian central state of the value of paleontology. Branca used dinosaurs to underpin and disseminate his notion of natural history as a synthetic activity and to merge paleontological and geological research (see Richard Fallon’s post for a comparative perspective: )


Branca’s communicative strategy was extremely simple. He sought to conjure up dinosaurs before the eyes of the public and the Prussian government. In order to do that, he focused on two main aspects: the exceptional enormous size of the bones discovered and the international prestige linked to this expedition. He presented the find in these terms to a significant number of different audiences in order to mobilize a great deal of financial resources, consensus, and sponsorship. In other words, he marketed Tendaguru and with it his idea of natural history.


With the help of pathologist David Paul von Hansemann (1858–1920), Branca established a committee to launch an efficient public fundraising campaign. The committee’s first move was to advertise the dinosaur finds in various local and national newspapers as well as in popular science magazines. In 1909, the committee chose the popular weekly journal, Naturwissenschaftliche Wochenschrift, to place a fundraising advertisement. After briefly describing the importance of the expedition, the committee explicitly cited the competitive emulation of the United States in order achieve its goal: “It would be desirable for this enterprise to be energetically supported by local friends of the sciences following the example set by American sponsors.”


As a result, great excitement arose in the Prussian Empire about the paleontological findings with various applications arriving at the Museum from people eager to accompany the Berlin paleontologists to Tanzania. First and foremost, though, the newspaper advertisement gave rise to generous voluntary donations from the German middle classes, who were eager to see the German expedition unearth dinosaur bones bigger than the American ones.


Hence, Branca’s communicative strategy was extremely successful. He gathered enough resources to excavate a huge volume of paleontological remains, send them to Berlin, and prepare them. This was so effective that even the Prussian central state eventually decided to financially support the 1912 excavation season. This was an important victory. In fact, vertebrate paleontology, as was the case for other so-called “field sciences” like archeology and ethnography, was for the most part financed by private philanthropists both in Europe and elsewhere. Yet, what kind of service could a discipline detached from industry offer to the state?


Prussia decided to support the expedition, not because it was convinced that paleontology was able to foster the state’s industrial development, as chemistry or physics did, but rather because it played a significant role in promoting German nationalism. Branca decided to market the value of paleontology by taking advantage of this particular aspect. Indeed, he noted that the “unexpected success” of the Tendaguru expedition was due to the fact that “the excavations revealed an incredible wealth of forms and remains of enormous reptiles. Their size outshone what was already known so far, [they eclipsed] even the American giant finds… the Emperor himself has expressed his warm interest in this scientific as well as national enterprise” [italics mine]. By 1912, the Tendaguru expedition had indeed become a national enterprise, increasing the prestige of a state seeking to compete with other states politically, economically, and socially.



More on early 20th-century German paleontology and the Tendaguru expedition here:



Ilja Nieuwland, Palaeontology - Cowboy Science?

A few years ago, the presenters of the car show Top Gear (yes, I know) compared American and British police chase videos, much to the detriment of the latter. Where car chases from the United States offered exciting, edge-of-seat entertainment, UK coppers seemed unduly hampered by procedure, protocol and a marked lack of performance from their Astra diesels. There may be very good reasons for this (taking into account the 5,000 bystanders killed by American police car chases since 1979) but it’s all so much less exciting. Any ten-year-old will gladly swap the dullness of safety for a chance to go out in a blaze (pun intended) of glory.

In palaeontology, we have more or less the same problem in a field whose marketing is largely dominated by the priorities of the ten-year-old. You only have to take a look at popular palaeontological literature to appreciate the immediate consequences of such an approach. Of course it is all about dinosaurs. Big, brash, roaring dinosaurs eternally opening their enormous mouths to devour other dinosaurs. And if the movie industry is to be believed, dinosaurs with a peculiar preference for human flesh if it happens to be on offer.

Figure 1: Presentation of the Tyrannosaurus specimen RGM 792.000 in the 2016-2017 exposition "T. rex in town" of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, the Netherlands. By Rique (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons ( )

Figure 1: Presentation of the Tyrannosaurus specimen RGM 792.000 in the 2016-2017 exposition "T. rex in town" of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, the Netherlands. By Rique (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons ( )


In this version of reality, the study of dinosaurs entails little more than digging up huge bones, putting them together in museum mounts, and spending much time envisioning how dinosaurs ate other dinosaurs. It is an depiction worlds away from the habitual white-coated scientist in a lab. Dinosaur scientist are no Stephen Hawkings or even Richard Dawkinses; they are Bob Bakkers, Jack Horners and other big bearded men wearing cowboy hats. And as far as popular literature is concerned, they have always been. The heroism associated with the life of the cowboy and the 19th century American frontier spirit is simply irresistible. The most lasting images of the history of palaeontology, eternally regurgitated and repeated, are those of the Marsh-Cope battle, Roy Chapman Andrews on top of a Mongolian hill, or Bob Bakker in the Badlands of Montana.

Those that know a bit a bit more about the realities of palaeontological work are aware how far this image has strayed from the reality – or rather, how badly it serves as a pars pro toto for palaeontological work today or in the past. For every hour excavating, palaeontologists are spending many in laboratories; and they have always done. Yet even those active in the discipline insist on perpetuating the myth of the lone frontiersman.

Even looking at serious works in the history of paleontology, I’m struck how pervasive it still is. Numerous books have been written about the Bone Wars and the AMNH expedition to Mongolia. Barnum Brown, perhaps the archetype that Jack Horner and Bob Bakker have moulded their public personas on, has been the subject of a biography, and John Bell Hatcher will soon be. But little attention is still being paid to the actual science of palaeontology. As a consequence, there is a persisting image that palaeontology only happens in the United States and, in previous years, in the United Kingdom. The very active palaeontological communities in continental Europe, which moulded the direction the discipline would take, are all but totally obscured from view.

But perhaps more seriously, the success of that image has backfired rather badly on palaeontology itself in a number of respects. Being essentially perceived as “something for kids”, the discipline’s portrayal has created a problem for broader scientific credibility, which makes itself felt in the way it is seen by scientific peers. The same peers that determine whether a researcher is eligible for a grant – or not. To compete with doctors and engineers that can demonstrate a direct relevance of their work is difficult enough. Using “Kids’ stuff” it is nearly impossible. As a consequence, there are very few academic positions for palaeontologists, and they appear to be on the decline.

Is it necessary to maintain this mascot? Does it make sense to perpetuate such an image because it is the only way in which we can draw people in, or are we alienating more people than we reach? And is the lone frontiersman an accurate depiction these days for even a tiny part of palaeontological work? Or, the other way around, is a more accurate representation detrimental to the public appeal of the science? As far as I can see, the identification of disciplines such as astronomy with a more technocratic image hasn’t hurt its appeal.

Of course, dinosaurs are for kids. But we should perhaps stop being afraid for what they can be for adults, too.

Mark Carnall, The Other 97%

My presentation at the workshop, titled The Other 97%: Making the most of the underwhelming fossils in museums (video here) was a tongue-firmly-in-cheek examination of some of the difficulties of popularising palaeontology, especially in museums but also further afield. As Mark Witton has already touched on in his blog post and as evidenced by a number of (excellent) talks during the Popularising Palaeontology workshop, popularising palaeontology is almost always synonymous with talking about dinosaurs. Occasionally, mammoths will sneak in there and every now and then there’s a focus on human evolution but from paleontological exhibitions, permanent museum displays, young adult popular science books and palaeontology in the mainstream press there’s a disproportionate focus on dinosaurs.

With the explosion of social media and many palaeontologists writing their own blogs there’s more accessible paleontological content out there than ever before, however, when it comes to the wider public, museums still remain as the places where most people come face to face with palaeontology and as evidenced by the queues for the dinosaur gallery at the Natural History Museum London during the holidays and from the photos from museum visitors on social media, dinosaurs remain a firm favourite. In fact, in museums dinosaurs are synonymous with the whole of natural history- the ‘one with the dinosaurs in it’ is a common way to differentiate between the different museums in South Kensington (and at Oxford University museums).

However, a focus on dinosaurs in museums is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, for museums wanting to educate but also needing to attract visitors, dinosaurs are somewhat expected and more likely to draw the crowds. There’s a reason that the Natural History Museum London’s touring exhibitions are so dinosaur centric (four out of ten at the time of writing). Are some museums trapped into popularising dinosaurs?

Secondly, most museums lack the resources to keep their displays and exhibitions up to date with current dinosaur palaeontology. This was highlighted recently with the release of Jurassic World as vertebrate palaeontologists took to social media to point out the myriad of scientific inaccuracies in the blockbuster film, many of our natural history museums still have displays and artwork woefully out of date or inaccurate. It’s no wonder that so much of the reaction to popularising palaeontology is correcting inaccurate preconceptions (non-feathered dinosaurs, tail dragging, dinosaurs as birds) when many of the star attractions in museums are 19th Century articulated casts and skeletons in need of an expensive rearticulation or reinterpretation.


Figure 1:  Isitinterestingtous notjet theoretical animal made up of less interesting fossil organisms into the shape of one that people may recognise. Image collage sources for images. Acanthodes: J. Arthur Thomson, M.A., LL.D. Outlines of Zoology(New York, NY: D. Appleton & Company, 1916), Monoplacophoran: Paul Bunje, UCMP. Monoplacophoran anatomy by Ivy Livingstone, © BIODIDA Trochocystites: and rudists: Schumann & Steuber 1997; Kleine Senckenbergreihe 24: 117-122


Lastly, and the thrust of my presentation is that, obviously, non-avian dinosaurs are just one part of palaeontology; taxonomically, temporally and professionally. When it comes to the physical material held by museums, it’s also a tiny percentage of the paleontological material held. Other large fossil vertebrates can be just as awe-inspiring as the models, casts and skeletons of dinosaurs yet don’t tend to have entire galleries dedicated to them. Where invertebrate palaeontological displays exist they tend to be either arranged taxonomically or chronologically, with the best looking of a representative sample labelled little more than a scientific name and horizon.

What I would like to see is an injection of creativity and diversity around ‘the rest’ of palaeontology when it comes to museum display sand exhibitions to make more use of the 97% of collections and to try to break away from re-treading the tropes of dinosaur palaeontology on display. We have already developed a lot of these tools for supplementing museum material and making engaging exhibitions and displays that can be turned to popularising the rest of palaeontology:- virtual reality, animatronics, models, 3D reconstructions and cinematics.

Imagine walking into a palaeontological gallery to be faced with the large crushing jaws of Cameroceras or a herd of ‘taxidermy’ Synthetoceras next to original fossils and casts. Imagine a line-up of Leedsichthyis, Andrewsarchus, Shonisaurus and Prionosuchus next to the usual sauropods and cetaceans. Imagine dioramas of Tanystropheus, Helicoprion and Arthropleura. Of course, these examples are just the bombastic end of the diversity we find in the palaentological record- the biggest, weirdest and err wonderfullest for starters. 

I’d also like to see a diversity in modes of interpreting fossils in museums. Outside of dinosaur displays, taxonomy and chronology are still dominant modes of display that can be traced back to 19th Century arrangements of specimens, parodying the ‘comprehensive displays’ that would only be visited by learned gentlemen. How about displays on soft tissue anatomy, ecosystems, lansdcapes convergent evolution? I can imagine exhibitions called Butts, Flightless and When Continents Collide which would be unlike anything we’ve seen so far. Or alternatively, letting go a bit of dry interpretation and rigid adherence to evidence with content around speculative palaeontology (All Yesterdays: the exhibition) or embracing humour and popular culture as in my attempt to popularise the other 97% with the blog series underwhelming fossil fish of the month, making interest out of the fact that some species of extinct organisms will never be interesting to most people (or even palaeontologists).

Of course, this isn’t completely unexplored territory, many natural history museums are already experimenting with new modes of popularising palaeontology. The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences had a display of theoreticaldescendant animals; including ‘taxidermy’ specimens of the tapir-like rodent Cortichaeris gouldi, marsupial Trichopteryx dixoni and a model of arthropod Helicopodus biryani. At the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, models of theoretical ancestors concestor and shrewdinger are the focus of touchable displays on evolution (naming shrewdinger itself was an exercise in popularising palaeontology by the American Museum of Natural History).


Figure 2:  Speculative palaeontology from the future with Cortichaeris gouldi and the past with Concestor and Shrewdinger. With a nice Diictodon model thrown in for good measure. Images courtesy of the respective institutions.


This is not to say that dinosaurs should be blacklisted as gateways into an interest or inspiration into natural history but with today’s technology and modes of communication, there’s an opportunity to break the mould of what has been a long dominant way of popularising palaeontology through displays and exhibitions. Arguably, its static museum displays and the tropes of interpretation which perpetuate those unshakable misconceptions we all have to work so hard at addressing before we can engage with ‘new content’. Reinforcing long outdated ideas and underselling the broader picture of what makes palaeontology such an interesting area beyond what one group was up to in the Mesozoic.  





Richard Fallon, Popularisation and Palaeoart: Then and Now

Figure     1    :  Scelidosaurus harrisoni  by Joseph Smit, from  Extinct Monsters  (1892)

Figure 1: Scelidosaurus harrisoni by Joseph Smit, from Extinct Monsters (1892)


In the preface to the second edition of his Extinct Monsters (1892), Henry Neville Hutchinson wrote to thank readers for ‘the kind way’ they had received his ‘endeavour to popularise the results of modern Palæontology’. ‘There seem to be fashions in all things—even in sciences’, he continued, adding that ‘wonderful advances’ in physics and biology ‘may have tended to throw Palæontology somewhat into the shade. Let us hope that it will not remain there long’. Yet, considering that it was preceded by the infamous, litigious, and bountiful Bone Wars, and shortly followed by the hunt for gigantic sauropod dinosaurs that Paul D. Brinkman calls the Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, Extinct Monsters was hardly a shot in the dark.

However seriously we take the popular writer’s self-promoting preface, palaeontology has rarely been cast into the shade by historians of science. We’ve seen a tremendous deal of great work on the field’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pioneers, especially in Britain and France. Now, as Chris Manias noted at the beginning of this excellent and productive workshop, many scholars are working on continuing where the narratives of figures like Georges Cuvier, Mary Anning, Charles Lyell, and Richard Owen leave off, through their late-nineteenth-century successors and into the very different landscape of the twentieth century.

At Popularising Palaeontology, Germany and the United States took the historical spotlight. Funding, institutional politics, and the strategic machinations of palaeontologists in the brave new twentieth-century world were the order of the day. Unlike most of the subjects of these papers, Hutchinson wasn’t a professional or institutional palaeontologist. He published very few scientific papers in specialist periodicals. Rather, his main claim to palaeontological authority was his secondary research—wide-ranging, synthetic, and often based on personal relationships with leading palaeontologists and geologists. His other claim was that people actually read his work. Or, if nothing else, they looked at the pictures.

Back in 1892, thanks primarily to the work of O. C. Marsh, complete skeletal reconstructions of dinosaurs were, for the first time, available to artists. Hutchinson hired Joseph Smit, a highly-accomplished zoological chromolithographer, to provide Extinct Monsters with restorations, or palaeoart, that captured this new vision of dinosaurs as lithe, heterogeneous, and often bipedal animals. These were far removed from the lumbering reptilian beasts depicted earlier in the century, which were based on ingenious extrapolation from much more limited fossil material. Hutchinson’s book proudly paired woodcuts of skeletal reconstructions with Smit’s sensational restorations, showing the reader that these were not fanciful pictures but cutting-edge contributions to scientific thought, and endorsed by none other than the London Natural History Museum’s Keeper of Geology, Henry Woodward. In the text, Hutchinson honestly explained to readers the difficulties of this search for some form of palaeoartistic fidelity. The book was a great success: it popularised palaeontology.

Over the course of this workshop, Darren Naish, Mark Witton, and John Conway all discussed the power of art in expressing contemporary palaeontological ideas. Exciting images of extinct animals proliferate rapidly as memes—copied, plagiarised, altered. The same was true in Hutchinson’s day. Smit’s designs, lifted from Extinct Monsters and its sequels, reappeared in cartoons, newspapers, and novels in the following decades, removed from the cautious and didactic context of the popular science book. The memetic status of a palaeoart image doesn’t necessarily correspond to whether or not its artist was scrupulously working with the fossil material at hand, or critically consulting the most current research. An attractive but scientifically baseless restoration can, therefore, find itself duplicated in new and unrelated contexts. In addition, a particularly compelling and enduring restoration inspired by contemporary palaeontology, like the iconic Velociraptor of Jurassic Park (1993), can fire interest in new visions of prehistoric species, but then later to obstruct efforts to interest publics in more recent developments. In the world of palaeoart, quality control (a controverted concept in itself) is largely self-enforcing, and is therefore often not enforced. What level of responsibility do popularisers and artists have for their work? 

Hutchinson certainly possessed a keen sense of responsibility. He felt that access to science was being shut away from borderline figures like himself, and that, for the public, the situation was even worse. Experts in the field, according to Hutchinson, wrote only ‘“dry-as-dust descriptions” and ponderous reports’ with no hope of attracting wider audiences brought up on thrilling modern novels. In the 1910 edition of Extinct Monsters, he promised to deal with his material ‘in a light and superficial way’. It was, after all, only ‘the cream that the general public require’, rather than the ‘reservoir of milk below’. Many of the specialists whose works Hutchinson translated to more palatable prose found his tone somewhat impertinent. What gave him the right to take such a high tone? After all, he was simply a populariser.

It goes without saying that nobody in attendance at Popularising Palaeontology would have been comfortable with the idea of someone being ‘simply a populariser’. When Hutchinson died in 1927, his Geological Society obituary noted that he was ‘known, at least by name, to a far wider circle than that which most of us can reach’. If you read about palaeontology in English in the 1890s, 1900s, or 1910s, then the chances were high that you were learning from Hutchinson. His books lurked on library and drawing-room bookshelves for decades after—increasingly outdated in their science, but, like Jurassic Park, no less appealing for the passage of time. The diffusion concept of popularisation, where scientific facts are directly but slowly passed down to the unquestioning public, has long since gone extinct in academia. As Ian Malcom says to John Hammond: “the kind of control you’re attempting is…it’s simply not possible”. Understanding how popularisation works is essential to the history of science, and if contemporary popularisers of palaeontology are going to persuade their various publics that Velociraptor had feathers, then they, too, might have to dust off Hutchinson’s Extinct Monsters.



H. N. Hutchinson, Prehistoric Man and Beast (1896):

H. N. Hutchinson, Extinct Monsters (1893 edition):

H. N. Hutchinson, Extinct Monsters (1910 edition):


Elsa Panciroli, Cutting Out the Talking Platypus

You can’t say half of what you want to say in a public talk. Whether it’s at a huge international conference or among a small cosy research group, whether enthusing children or sharing your subject with keen-minded adults, there is always so much more to share than can ever fit into your allotted time.

There are a few approaches to this problem. Some speakers can’t bring themselves to part with a single slide. They get three-quarters of the way through their talk, then tear through the unwieldy number of slides still remaining while the session Chair stands behind them, tapping their wristwatch and impatiently clearing their throat. Another approach is to cram oodles of information onto each slide, hoping that even if you can’t say everything, the audience can at least see your copious thoughts, packed between the dense text and brain-boggling array of images.

For the rest of us, we admit defeat. You just can’t say everything you want. Embrace the burn: pick out the very best slides to illustrate the main themes, and then have a stiff drink to lament the creativity and knowledge you have no time to share. You can even allude to these “lost slides” during the presentation, or perhaps invite your audience to ask you about them afterwards.

I’d like to share with you my forgotten slides from Popularising Palaeontology: Historical & Current Perspectives.


The title slide from my talk at the workshop. But as with all presentations, some of the slides never made it to the final version.


My omitted slides involve a talking platypus. I know what you’re thinking: how on earth could such a thing not be of utmost importance for any talk, whatever the subject? In this case, despite it being my favourite part of the research I did for my presentation on the challenges of popularising mammals from the time of dinosaurs, these slides didn’t contribute enough towards the main narrative of the presentation.

While doing research, I was exploring the appearance of early mammals in the public consciousness. These creatures - scientifically perhaps the most important fossils to come from Mesozoic rocks - have long been overshadowed by the giant reptiles they lived alongside. I went spelunking for popular references to Mesozoic mammals in art and literature, and in doing so came across the wonderful, Dot and the Kangaroo.


Frank P. Mahony’s lovely illustration of a scene from Dot and the kangaroo (1899).


In this Australian children’s book, written by Ethel C. Pedley and published in 1899, a little girl named Dot wanders into the outback near her home, and gets lost. As children are wont to do in fiction, she befriends an animal: a kangaroo who has lost her joey. The kangaroo agrees to help Dot find her way home, and suggests they consult the platypus, who has been around so long it knows everything. The platypus, according to the highly strung creature in Pedley’s tale, existed “millions of years before the ignorant Humans”. While the same can be said of a great many animal lineages on earth, what Pedley is specifically referring to is a hangover from early Victorian misunderstandings about mammal evolution.

The first scientists to encounter mammals from the time of dinosaurs misidentified them as marsupials (animals with pouches, such as the kangaroo) and monotremes (the platypus and echidna). They considered life to have “progressed” up a ladder; with humankind wobbling on a throne at the top. In early evolutionary scientific models, mammals began as primitive egg-laying monotremes, then stepped up a rung to become marsupial, before reaching the perfection of the placental (giving birth to live young). This led to depictions of Mesozoic platypuses being gobbled by crocodiles beside fern-lined swamps.

The true course of evolution is more beautifully complex than this. Monotremes, marsupials and placentals all share an ancestor. These lineages have lived alongside one another for millions of years, rather than evolving from one another along some anthropogenically judged scale of “primitive” to “advanced”. While platypuses and echidnas share many characteristics with our Mesozoic ancestors (which provides clues to ancient mammal biology) they are as advanced along their own path of evolution to the present day, as we are along ours.


From H.R. Knipe’s Nebula to Man (1905). A depiction of Mesozoic platypuses being eaten by crocodiles.


While science moved on from this misunderstanding before the end of the 1800s, the misconception of monotremes somehow belonging to the time of dinosaurs and being more ancient than placental mammals, remained alive and well in popular culture for decades (arguably, vestiges of it still remain). The platypus in Pedley’s story rants at Dot about its multi-million year origins; “I can prove by a bone in my body that my ancestors were the Amphitherium, the Amphilestes, the Phascolotherium, and the Stereognathus!"

This speech stunned me. Where did Pedley dig up these names for creatures relatively unknown to the public? How amazing to see them in a child’s story, when our current culture is hell-bent on over-simplification for fears of frightening the villagers with fancy science-talk. As palaeontologists know well, children are not afraid of scientific nomenclature (though many adults are). Pedley lifted her monotreme’s ancestry from Charles Lyell’s Elements of Geology (1841). How wonderful to think that a generation of Australian kids might be familiar with the obscure early mammals I’m endeavouring to popularise over 100 years later.


One of the deleted slides from my presentation, containing a short film clip from the 1977 adaptation of Dot and the Kangaroo. (From 42mins 20secs into the film. Be warned, it ends with singing.)


By the 1970s, the feature-length animated adaptation of Dot and Kangaroo had already begun to whittle the number of names: “…my ancestors were the famous Amphitherium, the illustrious Phascolotherium, and the renowned Stereognathus!" It is maliciously delicious to hear the voice-actor strain over pronouncing these unfamiliar beasts.

I screen captured the platypus scene from the film for my slides, but admitted to myself later that including the story of Dot and the Kangaroo was an indulgence on my part. It excited me to hear the beautiful little mammals I study mentioned in literature and blurted out in a cartoon. However, the clip ate a large chunk of presentation time, without adding a great deal to my point.

While I shed it for the workshop, I can share this delightful morsel of Mesozoic mammal cultural history with you here. I hope it tickles you, as it did me.



(This blogpost is dedicated to the memory of all the slides that never made it into our talks. May they live on it our memories - and in uncut powerpoint files on our computers.)



Dot and the Kangaroo (feature-length animated film) -

Knipe, H.R. 1905 Nebula to man -

Lyell, Charles 1841 Elements of Geology -

Pedley, Ethel C. 1899 Dot and the Kangaroo -


Mark Witton, The popularity of dinosaurs - for better, for worse


The Popularising Palaeontology workshops held in August 2016 presented fascinating insights into the history and current state of palaeontological outreach. Our many talks and roundtable discussions touched varied topics but several central themes emerged, of which one was the prevalence of dinosaurs in virtually all palaeontological PR exercises. Whatever we discussed - the history of museums, the palaeoart industry, public interest in research or palaeontological influences on cinema - dinosaurs were almost always involved. Even if they weren’t a main focus, their influence there - catalysing certain events, influencing decisions, eclipsing other outreach topics. It would be wrong to say popularising palaeontology is totally synonymous with popularising dinosaurs, but for better and worse, these animals have a major role and influence over public outreach of palaeontological science.



The success of dinosaurs in outreach


Exactly why dinosaurs occupy such an important and influential space in popular culture remains largely mysterious. On paper, dinosaurs are a group of extinct reptiles which are not - superficially at least - so different from other long-dead sauropsids, and yet they have somehow gained global fame and many dedicated followers. My suspicion is that dinosaurs uniquely combine obviously amazing, ‘high impact’ anatomy - large size, fantastic skeletal structures such as horns, huge teeth and so on - with bauplans that are easily understood by the general public, without being so familiar that they’re pedestrian. For instance, everyone can appreciate Allosaurus as an active, large bodied predator even if just looking at its skeleton in a museum, but - as bird-like as it is in detail - the overall form is somewhat alien and intriguing. Other fossil groups, such as ancient carnivorans or whales, are impressive enough but perhaps also too familiar to inspire our imaginations in the same way. At the other end of the spectrum are extinct creatures which are just too unusual for widespread appreciation. Perhaps their anatomy is too strange or their life histories are too obscure and difficult to relate to familiar biology. This applies to many extinct invertebrates, as well as several types of weirder vertebrates. Dinosaur biology is thus near perfect for outreach material: they’re visually impressive, anatomically and biologically accessible, but different enough to warrant interest. Whether this is the actual basis for dinosaurian appeal or not, museum staff, educators and merchandisers have realised for over 150 years that dinosaurs are an excellent way to interest the public and make money, and given them prominent roles in outreach. Aiding any intuitive draw we have to dinosaurs is a lot of social inertia, and part of the enduring appeal of dinosaurs is a long history of ingraining them into popular culture.


Figure - Why are dinosaurs so popular?
The success of dinosaurs in the public eye almost certainly reflects many varied influences, but their unique anatomical qualities may play an important role. Does any other fossil group combine interesting, ‘high impact’ biology, in a format that the public can easily grasp, in the way that dinosaurs do?


For those of us interested in science education, dinosaurs are one of the most important and potent tools at our disposal. We see them as not only fascinating subjects in their own right but as a way to introduce ‘bigger picture’, perhaps fundamentally more important, scientific concepts to lay audiences. Dinosaurs are gateways to discussions of evolution, adaptation, anatomy, biological diversity, extinction, geological time and the changing nature of the planet. They provide, as charismatic and fantastic creatures, perfect characters to maintain interest in discussions of these sometimes complex concepts, and well-known Mesozoic dramas - the breakup of Pangea, formation of the Deccan Trapps, the Chicxulub Impact - offer rich backgrounds to stage our conversations. Dinosaurs are more than just awesome animals: they’re public ambassadors for science, facts and intelligent thinking.


We cannot ignore the economic value of dinosaurs, too - and not just to Hollywood movie makers and toy manufacturers. Dinosaurs provide academia and its satellite industries with vital income because of their easy marketability and merchandising potential. Public interest in dinosaur news, books and artwork keeps authors and palaeoartists in work, while the pull of dinosaur exhibitions in natural history museums not only keeps turnstiles spinning but brings essential revenue - in the form of gift shop purchases, entry fees and cafe visits - to these underfunded venues. I don’t know that anyone has ever attempted to work out the net worth of dinosaurs to education, but, globally, their appeal must bring millions of pounds into venues that perform outreach every year.



Too much of a good thing?


So hurrah for dinosaurs, then, and their role as not only fascinating subjects for research and art, but as bankable, relatable and demanded elements of modern culture. But the popularity of dinosaurs does have an impact on other aspects of palaeontological PR, and in some conversations at our workshop ‘dinosaur’ almost became a bit of dirty word. No-one will deny the positive aspects of dinosaur popularity, but their dominance in popularised palaeontology influences outreach strategies, merchandising and public expectation, and not always in a positive way.


Some of the problems caused by dinosaurs were outlined in detail during talks at our workshop. We heard that a large portion of natural history museum visitors are exclusively concerned with seeing dinosaur exhibits, challenging natural history museums to use the rest of their collections in a meaningful, impactful manner. This is despite many museum goers being unable to distinguish dinosaur remains from those of other animals without the aid of helpful signage. It seems that, for some museum visitors, dinosaurs act like a brand label, or justification for interest, rather than an excuse to visit a museum for a rounded educational experience.


We also heard that bringing attention to non-dinosaur groups can be extremely difficult, and the less dinosaur-like they are, the harder it is. Groups like pre-Cenozoic synapsids, extinct invertebrates, fossil fish and so on struggle for attention and require highly creative outreach tactics to receive any interest. One of the commonest strategies - used frequently for semi-technical books on fossil animals - is to make sure dinosaurs remain prominently mentioned even in those events or products which are focused on completely unrelated groups of animals. We just don’t trust most non-dinosaur clades to draw crowds or revenue on their own and have to spin them as being relevant to dinosaurs in some way. Tellingly, the only groups to escape frequent dinosaur namechecking are those which are already somewhat ‘dinosaur-like’. Giant fossil mammals, pterosaurs and Mesozoic marine reptiles share aspects of size and gross appearance with Mesozoic dinosaurs and might be seen as ‘honorary dinosaurs’ by the public, and perhaps mistakenly interpreted as the genuine article by many. Both dinosaur-targeted museum visits and our resistance to promote palaeontological topics without a dinosaurian safety net questions whether dinosaurs are a genuine ‘gateway’ to wider scientific education, and perhaps suggests a rather narrower interest in prehistoric life among the public.


Our group also raised the association between dinosaur outreach and very young demographics, and the challenge this presented to educators. The problem isn’t that many children are naturally interested in dinosaurs - if anything, this is something to celebrate and encourage - but the impact this association has on older audiences. Many adults assume that anything to do with dinosaurs, and by extension any prehistoric animal, is automatically related to children, and often very young children. This becomes an issue for to those attempting to perform outreach or market palaeontologically-informed products to older audiences, and particularly outside of online venues. Experience shows that ‘real world’ dinosaur events - regardless of venue, event type or advertising theme - will be primarily stocked by children and parents expecting child-friendly media. I’ve experienced this many times in my outreach career, such as bowing to pressure for colouring-in stations at a palaeoart gallery, being asked whether a public lecture (entitled ‘Palaeoart: the Never Ending Quest for Accuracy’) was suitable for toddlers, and being invited to run art stalls and events for older audiences at dinosaur-themed events to find few interested people over 10 years of age.


The general expectation that dinosaur-related events or products skew towards children presents a complex set of challenges. Firstly, it can lead to older audiences deciding a priori that they cannot take anything away from dinosaur outreach because the event - whatever it is - is ‘just for kids’. I’m sure many of us have seen how ‘switched off’ parents of young dinosaur fanatics are when visiting outreach events, even though the people their children are speaking to may be expert scientists, experienced fossil hunters or world-renowned palaeoartists. Secondly, mismatched expectations of outreach events can be frustrating for both outreachers and audiences: attendees may wonder why a dinosaur event is pitched above the level of their children, while outreachers may feel over-prepared or over-invested in their activity programme when confronted with only young audiences. Perhaps the most concerning issue is that many outreachers and merchandisers use young demographics as an excuse for low scientific standards and sensationalism, promoting outdated, erroneous and sometimes idiosyncratic views of palaeontology because their audience is too young and insufficiently educated to know otherwise, or ignoring scientific data where it might curb child appeal. I am sure most readers can think of numerous examples of products - many labelled as ‘educational’ - which show evidence of this, and it’s easy to see how this attitude may play a major role in perpetuating outdated and erroneous ideas about the past.


One of our final discussion touched on perhaps another issue faced by dinosaur outreach: the schism between public and palaeontological appreciation of what dinosaurs are. For palaeontologists, dinosaurs are a constantly - and sometimes rapidly - evolving set of hypotheses and ideas, and this is what we generally try to present to the world in our outreach. But certain dinosaur concepts outgrew palaeontologist-steered media long ago and now occupy their own place in popular culture, one almost entirely divorced from developments of dinosaur science and instead orbiting their portrayals in film, TV and popular literature. Most of these products - even those produced in the last few years - stick to now long-outdated 20th century interpretations of dinosaur biology and, divorced from guiding hands of scientists, solely emphasise marketable aspects such as their size, perceived ferociousness, and unusual anatomy. The result is a public largely familiar with dinosaurs in a scientifically-distanced, simplified and monstrous form rather than the animals reconstructed through biological and geological sciences, and with little appreciation for their evolutionary context, the scientific techniques used to understand them, or their relationship to wider, ‘core themes’ of scientific outreach. Recent studies partly vindicate this view in showing that the public are generally unaware of even the most basic aspects of dinosaur science, such as the near 50-year old revision from the classic ‘tail-dragging’ posture to an elevated tail and horizontal body attitude (Ross et al. 2013). This is despite museums, artwork, documentaries and some of the most successful blockbuster movies of all time showing the latter since at least the 1990s. This being the case (and with an added caveat that the study in question was relatively small), perhaps our issue with dinosaur education is more severe than we thought: are people really engaging with dinosaur media at all, or are our subjects of research, artwork, and hallowed gateways to other sciences little more than time-fillers and distractions?


Figure: Hollywood Dinosaurs
Despite the best efforts of many scientists, the public at large seem to associate dinosaurs with considerably outdated interpretations and monstrous creatures. Reviewing recent successful entries into one of the most widely-accessed sources of popular dinosaur culture - Hollywood movies - is this surprising? Perhaps the most visually progressive rendering in this set are the sparsely feathered dromaeosaurs from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (bottom right). However, the state of their integument still recalls dinosaur palaeoart from the mid-1990s, and not the extensive feather body covering shown by fossil evidence and now commonly restored over certain dinosaur species. Image sources, from top row down; King Kong (2005); Godzilla (2014); Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014); Toy Story (1996 - onwards); Jurassic World (2015); The Good Dinosaur (2015).]



So, are dinosaurs as useful as we think for outreach purposes?


The points raise a simple but significant question: how effective is dinosaur-based outreach, really? As noted above, many decisions about outreach are shaped around dinosaur science and resources are poured into promoting dinosaur science itself. But are we right to regard dinosaur outreach as highly as we do?


Trying to balance the positive and negative points raised above, my take is yes, dinosaurs are an effective means to bringing science to people… but probably only certain people. Specifically, they seem to work very well among those who are already tuned into palaeontology, natural history and general science, an audience composed mostly of adult enthusiasts and children. Beyond this, their effect seems to tail off quickly and they may actually be a barrier to effective outreach. Audiences with preconceived expectations of dinosaur-themed content may ignore anything dinosaur related, which is a concern with us giving dinosaurs such privileged consideration in educational material. Are we limiting our promotion of other topics that could engage these uninterested people? And is one of our challenges of popularising palaeontology making dinosaurs and related topics universally attractive, and not just subjects with appeal to specialist audiences or younger people?


Of course, your opinion on this matter may differ. But even so, I think most of us would agree that our wider education about dinosaurs and related matters could be more effective, or at least more nuanced and reflective of more topics, than it currently is. I am optimistic that a groundswell of suitable movements towards this goal may already be underway. Many modern curators, scientists and artists are attuned to matters of science communication and interested in identifying outreach issues, sharing best practise, evolving public engagement methods and reaching new audiences with new topics. The fact that this article is being written as output from a workshop dedicated to popularised palaeontology is evidence of these practises actually occurring, and it feels like the right questions are being discussed. How can we, and when should we, shift focus from dinosaurs? How do we make other forms of life/parts of museum collections of wider interest? How do we more effectively impart new science to publishers, movie makers and other non-educational bodies making palaeontologically-themed media? It’s also pleasing to see more discussions about the once largely backgrounded industry practises of palaeoartistry in both scientific and popular media. Realising the important role that palaeoart has for communicating science, many involved in its production are vocally distancing themselves from the ‘popularised’ image of dinosaurs to more nuanced, scientifically-validated and interesting portrayals of dinosaurs, as well as other forms of prehistoric life. We are still on the uphill part of this journey to revising our outreach approach, but it’s reassuring to know that a body of professionals are looking critically at dinosaur outreach and its wider impact.


Most of the discussions and innovation in dinosaur/palaeontolgical outreach are taking place online, and transferring these to ‘real-world’ outreach, where the necessity of resource investment makes change risky, may be our greatest upcoming challenge. Again, however, there are signs of this sort of thing happening, such as the famous (or infamous?) decision to replace the Natural History Museum’s famous Diplodocus cast with a blue whale skeleton. This logic of moving this famous attraction has been questioned by some, but I admire the museum for putting a very relevant and symbolically significant specimen in their most prominent location. In doing so, they’re making a clear statement about what they consider to be important, and what they want the public to engage with. Whether you agree with the controversial reorganisation of the natural history museum or not, the idea of outreachers taking initiative with their educational agenda is something I feel we should echo when popularising prehistoric animals. If our outreach is primarily reaching pre-interested audiences anyway, then why not have faith in their interest and tell them what we - as researchers, artists and curators - think is fascinating and exciting about our field, whether it’s related to dinosaurs or not? It would seem a diverse array of outreach topics is more likely to spread out from palaeo-primed audiences and into broader public interest than one largely revolving around a single, perhaps somewhat over-familiar topic. Perhaps cutting palaeontological outreach’s umbilical chord with dinosaurs would benefit us outreachers too, allowing us to freshen and rethink our approach to popularising neglected groups and focus on their own selling points, instead of using them to greater contextualise dinosaurs.


The risk of failure is what prevents many of us, and our employers, from straying too far from tried and tested means of outreach. And yes, if we’re talking paleontology with the public, dinosaurs are an obvious safety net. But we should take advantage of the fact that we’re more enabled than any previous generation of educators to cooperate, create and promote the subjects we feel are important with only a little inventive thinking and technological knowhow. Individuals can now develop significant outreach resources without the need for expensive designers and developers; online promotion can be essentially free; and the increasing accessibility of printing - both 2D and 3D materials - is lowering the financial risks tied into ‘real world’ outreach events. Any public enterprise involves a level of investment and risk, but resourceful thinking and shouldering the brunt of development ourselves can minimise these.


In closing, I want to stress that I’m not wailing on dinosaurs. As may be evident from my own output, I think they’re fantastically interesting animals with an important role to play in outreach. But for dinosaur outreach to be successful and support, not restrict, other outreach efforts we have to realise their limitations, as well as their strengths, as public ambassadors.





Ross, R., Duggan-Haas, D. and Allmon, W. (2013). The posture of Tyrannosaurus rex: Why do student views lag behind the science? Journal of Geoscience Education, 61, 145-160