Quick Notes: “At the Water’s Edge” & “The Last Dinosaur”

17 05 2007

Last night I finally finished Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge (which, truth be told, I was able to purchase at a book sale for $2) and it was pretty much what I expected. The writing was good, although the book dragged a bit in places, and the inclusion of cladograms helped (although a few more illustrations throughout, especially when discussing the blood protein research at Rutgers, would have been good), but overall I can see why it is such a mainstay in the personal libraries of the science-savvy. The only major gripe I have about the book is that Icthyosaurs, Plesiosaurs, Mosasaurs, and crocodiles are tacked on the end in the conclusion, but if they were discussed in full detail it could have made for a much more massive work (and if you really want to know you can always pick up the more technical Ancient Marine Reptiles).

I just find it interesting how quickly the ancestry of whales changed from mesonychids to artiodactyls; I remember watching shows like “PaleoWorld” where the mesonychid hypothesis was put forward, and the AMNH in New York still marks mesonychids as the ancestors of whales in their displays, but when I e-mailed Hans Thewissen about fossil whales he quickly set the record straight for me. It could be argued that most people don’t even know what a mesonychid is and those that do likely know of the change, but hopefully as more evidence is obtained books will be updated or new texts will be put out (and I would love to see giant marine sloths introduced to the public as well). To Zimmer’s credit, he mentions both the mesonychid and artiodactyl hypotheses in his book so I am not blaming him for presenting incorrect information, but the systematic reassignment isn’t exactly big news in the public eye and requires someone who’s actively interested in the subject to go after the answers. All in all, I enjoyed Zimmer’s book and liked his approach and telling the story through introducing us to the scientists doing the work and would recommend it to those curious about life’s many forays into and out of the water.

I should probably note that while I was finishing Zimmer’s book I turned on a very crappy old movie entitled The Last Dinosaur (my copy of Jurassic Park seemed to be missing, I didn’t feel in the mood for either of the sequels). My wife, saint that she is, sat there with me and cracked jokes all the while, and she should certainly receive some sort of medal for her goodwill towards my habit of watching bad movies. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the film, our “hero” is a fat, aging hunter named (get this) Maston Thrust who is also the richest man in the world. After the crew of a “polar borer” sent under the polar cap gets munched by a T. rex, Thrust assembles a small team consisting of him, a tracker, a scientist, a member of the last crew who survived, and a photographer that he flirts with when he’s not screaming at the lot of them. Bad man-in-suit action abounds, and it is surely one of the crappiest movies ever made. Here’s a clip, teaching us that ceratopsians liked to hibernate entombed in rock and wake up angry;

Still, this film (along with the likes of The Land That Time Forgot, Alligator, Frogs, and Legend of the Dinosaurs) was on surprisingly often during my childhood, and during that time as long as dinosaurs were involved I was happy. Now that I think about it, there is scarcely a time during my formative years when dinosaurs were not on TV; all the terrible movies aside, there were documentaries for adults, documentaries geared towards kids, and cartoons (like Denver the Last Dinosaur, DinoSaucers and DinoRiders), and you can bet that no dinosaur programming was being actively broadcast I was watching a tape of them on the VCR. At least my parents didn’t have to worry about me causing too much trouble; I was more interested in dinosaurs than causing mischief.

Still, I could be a pain when it came to dinosaurs. Outside of the countless hours my parents stayed up taping documentaries that were on past my bedtime, during our first trip to Disney World (I believe I was 5) I could barely contain my excitement about visiting the dinosaurs at the “World of Energy.” In the past I had been scared by the roaring, anamatronic beasts towering over me at local museums, but the moment we parked at our Disney World resort I started to beg my parents to take me straight to the dinosaurs. Hell, I wouldn’t even let them unpack the car; I needed to see them. And my parents, patient folk that they were, carted me off to EPCOT to see the “World of Energy” (sponsored by Exxon) ride, which featured a brief animated movie about how fossils turn into coal. If you go today there’s a new, “hip” theme that places you inside the dreams of Ellen DeGeneres (with Bill Nye along for the ride), but I remember sitting there in the dark, passing beneath the towering mechanical necks of the Apatosaurus herd munching on swamp plants (which they still do to this day) all those years ago. These days Disney has a much more sophisticated and action-packed ride based upon its film Dinosaur (formerly the ride was known as Countdown to Extinction), but whenever I visit I still can’t resist stopping by the old World of Energy and visiting the monsters I so loved in my childhood.


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