My three-year-old, Max, only talks about dinosaurs.
He sleeps with dinosaur toys. He refuses to watch anything other than dinosaur cartoons. Lately, he stomps around the house, growling and chomping at my legs. I play dead and let him pretend to gnaw my carcass because I’m a supportive dad.
I suspect he wants to be a dinosaur. As a parent, I guess I’m supposed to encourage his life choices. But it’s hard when the little guy hugs his stuffed triceratops toy and tells me in no uncertain terms: “Three Horns is my dad”.
Sure, I’m not as strong as a tyrannosaurus or as tall as a brontosaurus or have as many horns as triceratops, but at least I’m not extinct.
What’s the deal with dinosaurs anyway? Why are kids so nuts about these dead giant lizards? And before I get letters from angry five-year-olds — yes, I know they are more closely related to birds than lizards!
Then from out of the blue, like an asteroid crashing into my newsfeed, I read that the world’s most preserved triceratops specimen was acquired by the Melbourne Museum. My nemesis. My son’s cretaceous stepdad.
So, on a gloomy morning, I took Max to meet “Horridus”. Perhaps I wanted to face my son’s obsession to understand it. Perhaps I wanted to get it out of his system — or out of mine.
Meeting a real dinosaur
Clutching his toy triceratops, Max stomped his way through the Triceratops: Fate of the Dinosaurs exhibition. Animated dinos jumped around the walls in a prehistoric rainforest to immerse us into Horridus’ world.
In a dark corridor, a giant T-Rex (the mortal enemy of the triceratops) lumbered on the screen alongside us and ran down the wall. My son squealed in delight and chased. I followed.
We turned the corner into a cavernous space and towering over us was … Triceratops Horridus. This was not some plaster-cast replica of a fossil. It was an actual 67-million-year-old fossilized skeleton with the inimitable giant crown-like head and signature three horns.
“It’s extremely special because it’s the most complete Triceratops Horridus that has ever been discovered,” Hazel Richards told me.
She’s the curatorial research assistant in palaeontology who was responsible for figuring out how to reassemble this 1,000kg jigsaw puzzle in a posture that is both majestic and biologically accurate — the dino’s best selfie pose for the Instagramassic Era.
When she first laid eyes on the completed skeleton, she said it took her breath away.
“I had been looking at 3D scans on a computer for a year before I saw the real thing, so I thought it would be underwhelming,” she said.
“I had explored every nook and cranny of this skeleton virtually, but walking around the corner and seeing it mounted was just… chills!”
On our visit, she seemed pleased that the exhibit had the approval of a fellow palaeontologist (my son). Max held up his triceratops toy to the real triceratops looming above him. He looked so tiny in comparison, but he wasn’t intimidated at all.
Why do we love dinosaurs?
I told Hazel Richards about Max’s obsession with these monsters, and she reassures me that there’s nothing wrong with my son (although coming from a dino expert, she would say that).
“It’s a really common thing that people are really enchanted by dinosaurs,” she explains, citing her childhood interest in dinosaurs, centaurs and mythical beasts.
“They walked under the same sun, they hatched, lived, breathed and died.
“They were monsters, but they were animals essentially.”
Dinosaurs live in our imagination
“Everyone has their own relationship and memories with dinosaurs,” Hazel said, and I found myself agreeing.
Honestly, I thought taking my son to see Horridus was just a trivial treat for him, but I’ve since re-visited the exhibit again … by myself.
The second time I gazed upon Horridus, it rekindled a distant memory that I was once also a dino-freak who knew every species by name. It feels about 65 million years ago, when I was a kid in a cinema. I saw a sick triceratops in a dinosaur theme park, lying on its side. Sam Neill lay across it, his arms spread out, listening to the lungs, as the immense chest moved up and down. I remember wanting to embrace it, too.
A week later, I asked my science teacher if we could really clone dinosaurs. He told the class “No.” It would be impossible to find a fully intact DNA fragment and certainly not encased in amber.
“But they spliced it with frog DNA!” I protested.
He laughed and said the movie is science fiction. I remember being bitterly disappointed.
I never really thought much about dinosaurs after that. Soon my interests turned to card tricks or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or something else. Time just moves on. Our interests and obsessions evolve or become extinct.
What dinosaurs can teach us (yes, really)
“Nobody is immune to the effect of change in the natural world,” says Hazel Richards, marveling at how creatures as powerful as a Triceratops can become extinct.
“These things that seem invulnerable are just as vulnerable as a species of fish, or a butterfly or you and I.
“I think if anyone walks away from the exhibition thinking more about that and thinking about our place in the world and not taking things for granted, then mission achieved.”
Just ponder it. How mind-bogglingly unlikely it is that this Triceratops fossil survived virtually intact across the millennia … let alone being discovered in Montana by a guy named Craig because a bit of its pelvis happened to be sticking out of the ground … to end up standing once more in this gallery in Melbourne.
For me, dinosaurs are humbling because they ruled the Earth long before we lived, loved, started wars and had food delivered via apps.
The Earth doesn’t belong to us, even if we feel like it does.
The Earth doesn’t belong to us humans, much like Max’s interests don’t belong to me. And Max’s dominating interests might come and go too. But for now, I know I’m not his dominant interest. That’s also humble and that’s okay.
After our visit to the Museum, Max and I went home and I put on Jurassic Park.
Or at least the first half. When it got too scary, I had to stop it, and he made me put on Bluey instead.
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