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Oliver Morton

The Music of Science

Sympathy for the dino: a specimen that lived for 14 years and has been preserved for 72m

Oliver Morton | January/February 2015

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What you see depends on where you stand. If you are standing staring into the steak-knife display of teeth at the business end of a gorgosaurus, then what you see is death. Your death, if this was 72m years ago; its, if you are looking now.

Seeing what would otherwise evoke terror from a place of safety is fundamental to the feeling of the sublime, beauty’s more thoughtful and rewarding cousin. The awe we feel at the enormous is given an extra twist when its forbidding magnitude can be transcended by the powers of reason; that, too, is the sublime in action. On both counts dinosaurs do rather well, which doubtless accounts for much of their popularity.

This particular exhibit, installed at Manchester Museum in July 2014, elicits more than just an echo of terror. It brings forth pity, too. Gorgosaurus was a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex which, though smaller than its far more famous film-star cousin, was still considerably larger than any carnivore that walks the Earth today. It was an apex predator, a creature on which nothing else preyed. But that did not lead to a trouble-free life.

This one, an immature female, had been very much in the wars. She had some fused vertebrae, a withered arm, a bunch of damage to her ribs, a broken leg that had healed. On top of all this, she had a brain tumour. Indeed, scientists who have been studying the fossil suspect that the brain tumour may have been the primary problem; its position, revealed by the way it grew into the bones of the skull, suggests that it could have affected her walking.

It is remarkable that scientists can know such things, or at least make educated guesses about them, across a span of time that is as long in centuries as a typical human life is in hours. And what that knowledge does is remarkable, too. Like many people, I have looked at a fair few fossils, and I may have held more than most in my hands. But I had never had quite the same sense of the object of my gaze being an individual, a particular being which—who?—had undergone particular experiences, than I did when I learned the sorry story of the Manchester gorgosaurus.

Had she led a charmed life, this might not be so—a perfect skeleton would tell no story. It was the imperfections that brought specificity, and with it that connection and tinge of pity. A being that had grown up but never quite become an adult; that had fallen and hurt herself, and healed and fallen again; that had suffered and died: all of this as far away in time as a distant galaxy is in space, but minutely recorded in the bones here on 21st-century display. And recorded nowhere else. Absolutely all that remains of that creature’s life is this scarred skeleton. It has no other posterity.

We often think of fossils as being in some way ancestral relatives, if not of humans, then of some other aspect of nature, parts of some great unfolding story. But for the gorgosaurs, the tyrannosaurs and indeed all the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, this simply isn’t true. The most fecund of their matriarchs has left no deeper imprint than a hatchling that died fresh out of its shell. No species alive today can be traced back to any of the dinosaur species except those few from which birds descended.

Fair enough; what everyone knows about dinosaurs is that they became extinct. What is not as well appreciated—but which, for some reason, the peculiar individuality of this one specimen brought home with some force—is this: so did almost everything else. And almost all those extinct species lack descendants. What is more, even in the species which did contribute to life today—those ur-birds, for example—most individuals played no part in ensuring the continuation of their lineage. Most creatures make no contribution to the next generation, let alone to ultimate genetic posterity. From the point of view of the genes of creatures that are alive today, the overwhelming majority of all creatures that have ever lived are totally irrelevant. That dinosaur, dead in her 14th year, is a remarkable oddity in that her life and death can be known; but the rule of issueless irrelevance she represents is so nearly universal that its exceptions are all but miracles.

And yet. Look backwards down your own line of descent, and those miracles are all you will see. You are at the end of a chain of life the best part of 4 billion years old, and every link in it has some relevance today, through you. At no point did a tumour, or a broken leg, or a mouth full of sharp teeth bring life to an end anywhere along that chain before some little bit of it had escaped to start the next generation. In a world saturated in death, there is nothing in the past, as it is recorded in your genes, but life.

What you see depends on where you stand.

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