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Everything you know about dinosaurs is wrong: Tour guide sets you straight

Courtesy of Brian Switek

Dinosaur enthusiast Brian Switek surveys Utah's landscape during a road trip — and surveys the state of dinosaur lore in "My Beloved Brontosaurus."

When it comes to dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters, even the experts can get things wrong — as dino-fanatic Brian Switek explains in his tour guide to the paleontological frontier.

The righting of wrongness begins with the title of Switek's book: "My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road With Old Bones, New Science and Our Favorite Dinosaurs." As most 9-year-olds could probably tell you, there's officially no such thing as a Brontosaurus. That name for the quintessential long-tailed, long-necked sauropod went out of fashion when scientists figured out that the Jurassic giant had already been dubbed Apatosaurus.

Nevertheless, the brontosaur serves as a totem for Switek, a prolific science writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Smithsonian, Slate, Scientific American and now most frequently on National Geographic's Phenomena blog network (as Laelaps). His earlier book, "Written in Stone," laid out the broad sweep of stories told by the fossil record — and in "My Beloved Brontosaurus," he focuses in on the what, where and when of the dinosaurs' heyday in the Mesozoic Era.

As you page through the book, you'll learn that not all dinosaurs have gone extinct. (Birds are dinosaurs.) You'll find out that the dinosaurs didn't start out as the rulers of the reptiles. (Crocodilians came first.) You'll delve into the back-and-forth debates that have occupied paleontologists for decades. (Was T. rex a hunter or a scavenger? Almost certainly both.) And you'll also get some great tips for future road trips in the American West.

Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook edition of "My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs" by author Brian Switek, read by the author.

Misconceptions and marvels
Switek talked about dinosaurs and tour directions during an interview last week. Here's an edited version of the Q&A that will whet your appetite for "My Beloved Brontosaurus":

Q: So many myths about dinosaurs are exploded in your book, but is there one big misconception that you want to set people straight about?

A: There’s one misconception that has a flip side to it, and that’s that dinosaurs are totally extinct. Birds are living dinosaurs. We figured that out about 20 years ago. So whenever we talk about the age of dinosaurs millions of years ago, and how all the dinosaurs are gone, that’s demonstrably not true. At least one lineage is still with us today.

The flip side of that is that dinosaurs became dominant as soon as they appeared — that the dawn of the dinosaurs sparked an immediate rise to ascendancy. The fact is that dinosaurs started out relatively small. They were relatively marginal. They really weren’t all that important until the extinction at the end of the Triassic period, about 200 million years ago, wiped away all the weird crocodile relatives that were the dominant land animals at the time. So the dinosaurian reign was made possible by, and then winnowed back by, extinction. It’s these wonderful extinction bookends that explain not only their origin, but their ultimate destination, bringing us to the birds that live today.

Q: Another issue is the appeal of dinosaurs: For some kids, dino-mania is almost a rite of passage. I love the idea that the book jacket for “My Beloved Brontosaurus” is also a fold-out dinosaur poster — what dinosaur fan wouldn’t love that? What is it about dinosaurs that makes them so appealing, particularly to kids?

A: I think they’re appealing because they demand answers of us. People have been wondering about dinosaurs, pondering what they were and what they were like, even before there was a name for them. I don’t just mean European naturalists. I mean Native Americans, people in ancient Greece and Rome, people in ancient China and India. People in all those cultures found dinosaur bones. They knew that these were the remains of once-living animals, and they created stories of monsters and heroes, myths and legends about creatures from distant times. So we were wondering about the dinosaurs before we even knew what they were.

That continues now, because there’s nothing quite like the dinosaurs. Yes, birds are living dinosaurs – but there’s so much more. There’s nothing like Apatosaurus, or Triceratops, or Tyrannosaurus rex around right now. When you look at their bones, questions immediately come to mind: What did they look like? What did they sound like? How quickly did they move? What did their environment look like? To me, it’s impossible to hear the dinosaur story without wondering about these questions.

Answering these questions puts our own existence in context. You can say all this happened 66 million years ago – but wait a second: What was America like back then? How did it all change? That brings up some very powerful truths about extinction, evolution and survival.  It’s these clues from our own distant past and our planet’s distant past that act as milestones by which we can understand our own existence.

J. Brougham / AMNH file

Experts say Tyrannosaurus rex may have had a downy layer of feathers, and probably had a coloration that was more varied than the stereotypical green.

Q: Another way that the book could be read is as a travelogue. It’s almost structured as a series of road trips that you’ve taken to explore all these fantastic fossils. And in fact, that’s what you’re doing along with your book tour. If there’s one dream trip that dinosaur fanatics should take, where would you tell them to go?

A: This is sort of a plug for my home state of Utah: There’s a byway system called the Dinosaur Diamond that runs through a good part of the state and includes the Dinosaur National Monument, where 150 million-year-old fossils are preserved in place; and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, a place where over 46 individual allosaurs and other dinosaurs have been found. You can head up to Salt Lake City, where the Natural History Museum of Utah opened this last year. As you drive along those highways, there are various dinosaur trackways, lots of attractions, lots of dinosaur celebrities. So if anyone’s looking for a weeklong trip in the American West, that’s the best pre-planned tour there is for a dino fan.

Q: in terms of the frontiers for dinosaur research, there’s been talk about Jack Horner’s "Chickenosaurus" project, and there are always new perspectives on how dinosaurs lived and died. What do you see as the next big thing for dinosaur research?

A: Researchers are finding ways to draw out clues about how dinosaurs actually lived, through new technologies that can be applied to a variety of animals. So we’re looking at the development of better CT scanning technology. Improved CT technology is helping paleontologists get down to a degree of resolution they’ve never had before — and they’re finding clues about bone structure to a degree that was just not possible before.

What’s really exciting to me is the study of dinosaur color. It’s a field that’s moving forward by comparing fossil feathers to modern ones. Paleontologists are starting to reconstruct what colors the dinosaurs actually were. They might be able to identify the evolutionary advantages of colors, degrees of coloration, and maybe some aspects of sexual dimorphism. Everything we’re learning about dinosaur biology is filling in the picture of how they lived in a much more meaningful way.

Q: You mentioned that dinosaurs are appealing to us in part because they tell us how extinction works, and how our own distant past might have unfolded. That suggests that the study of dinosaurs can hold lessons for the 21st century. How can the dinosaur experience best be applied to our own human experience?

A: Dinosaurs shaped our evolution. People often say that the rise of mammals was made possible by the disappearance of all those non-avian dinosaurs. That's true, but it's not just that. Mammals lived alongside the dinosaurs — things like Stegosaurus and Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. By keeping our furry little ancestors in the shadows, the dinosaurs set the stage for the later evolution of primates.

Yes, those dinosaurs disappeared. But beyond that, we know that we’re changing the global climate in drastic ways. We know we’re distributing invasive species around the world. By looking back at the fossil record, and seeing how dinosaurs reacted to drastic changes, we can begin to outline how organisms today and in the future are going to react to the same sorts of changes. Dinosaurs might hold clues about our future. The past isn't just a static monument to what once was. The fossil record also carries lessons about what will be. 

For much, much more about dinosaur wrongness and rightness, check out the latest 'Virtually Speaking Science' podcast with Switek and University of Maryland paleontologist Tom Holtz. You can download a variety of VSS podcasts from BlogTalkRadio or iTunes.

More 'Virtually Speaking Science' podcasts:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

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