May 23, 2014

Backtrack to… Dinosaur Posture

Posted by Laura Guertin

Every once in awhile, I come across something (a tweet, an email, etc.) that reminds me of an article I read or conference presentation I heard that I want to go back and revisit.  Recently, my memory was triggered by this tweet:


After my initial reaction of awwww…. I started thinking back to how lucky I was to be able to visit (and blog about) the Smithsonian Institution – National Museum of Natural History’s dinosaur hall just days before it shut down for a 5-year renovation.  But what caught my eye in the image with this tweet from the American Museum of Natural History was the “before and after” of their own dinosaur hall renovation, with the older tail-dragging theropod mount on the left.  This reminded me of a conversation I had with Don Duggan-Haas (Paleontological Research Institution) earlier this year.

Don told me about a recent article he co-authored for the Journal of Geoscience Education titled “The Posture of Tyrannosaurus rex: Why Do Student Views Lag Behind the Science?”  The article is freely available as a PDF online, and I encourage those with a childhood (and adulthood) fascination of dinosaurs to check it out.  Although scientists have known since the early 1970’s that dinosaurs did not stand upright, drawings from 316 K-16 students had the T. rex with a high spine angle from horizontal (median value 46 degrees in pre-college students, 54 degrees in college students).  The modern, scientific interpretation has the T. rex with a spine angle of 0-10 degrees from horizontal.

I wonder what I would see if I asked my students… or my family… or the kids on my street… to draw a picture of T. rex, and then measured angle of the spine from a horizontal surface.  I think I would discover the same trend Ross et al. (2013) found and arrive at the same interpretation in the last sentence of their abstract: “We hypothesize that older-style images long embedded in pop culture could lead to cultural inertia, in which outdated scientific ideas are maintained in the public consciousness long after scientists have abandoned them.”  The dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets I see at the grocery store also confirm this finding.

I also wonder how many fingers each person would draw at the end of the T. rex arms –  2 fingers or 3 fingers?  I guess it might depend if they saw the dinosaur sequence (The Rite of Spring) in Disney’s Fantasia (1940) or the T. rex in Jurassic Park (1993).  Another topic for another post!


Robert M. Ross, Don Duggan-Haas, and Warren D. Allmon (2013) The Posture of Tyrannosaurus rex: Why Do Student Views Lag Behind the Science?. Journal of Geoscience Education: February 2013, Vol. 61, No. 1, pp. 145-160.  (link to abstract and full article)