Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Copyright © 2016 by Chet Gottfried.


Playing With Dinosaurs

By Chet Gottfried

LET’S PRETEND, FOR WHATEVER reason, you wish to write a story, a novel, or develop an amusement park or a playground filled with glorious aliens. What kind of aliens? Well, how about dinosaurs instead, because dinosaurs are magnificent. Here’s another helpful fact that might convince you: dinosaurs are extinct, allowing for free and versatile narratives.

However, as with all absolute statements, qualifiers do exist. With the topic in hand, all dinosaurs are not extinct. Birds are dinosaurs, albeit a modern descendant of dinosaurs. As a matter of fact, given the opportunity, avian biology every so often attempts to return to the dramatic dinosaur form.

For example, take Phorusrhacos longissimus (also known as Phororhacos), a bird standing 2.5 meters high that had a massive skull (sixty centimeters long) and diminutive, if any, wings. Remind you of anyone? Sure! It’s the splitting image of a Tyrannosaurus, if half-size. Such raptors are known as “terror birds,” and lived during the Eocene, at the time when mammals were attempting to work their way out of a niche existence.

The easiest way to think of dinosaurs is as big birds that haven’t become extinct through hunting, herbicides, industrial debris, or urban sprawl.

Here’s another fact: dinosaurs were terrestrial. They lived on land (even if the smaller ones took the occasional glide). The flying prehistoric creatures (pteranodons and pterodactyls) and swimming ones (plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs) are not considered to be dinosaurs, and so they’d be covered in a different article. That is, the flyers and swimmers won’t be considered dinosaurs until a distinctive feature is found in common, whether they lived on land, in the air, or in water. Yes, there’s a real need for time machines.

Under the Skin

Traditionally, dinosaurs are divided into two main categories according to the shape of their pelvis: ornithischian (bird-hipped, such as triceratops and duck-billed dinosaurs) and saurischian (lizard-hipped, such as diplodocus and allosaurus). Handy, yes, but practical, no. In terms of feathered dinosaurs, such a division is useless. For many years, paleontologists have known that many lizard-hipped dinos had feathers. It has only fairly recently been discovered that bird-hipped dinosaurs also had feathers. Some, anyway. And so the lizard-hipped dinosaurs possess the lineage that gave rise to modern birds. (Is there any justice in the world?)

After the initial burst of dinosaur enthusiasm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scientific interest in dinosaurs faded away (to the immense disappointment of people such as myself). Beginning in the late 1970s or thereabouts, interest re-blossomed with the publications of “Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs” by Adrian Desmond in 1976 (a book generally considered as overstating the case) and “The Dinosaur Heresies” by Robert Bakker in 1986.

Dinosaurs entered the fast track. Instead of being dismissed as global failures, dinosaurs became vibrant, lively creatures.

How lively? That’s difficult to say. At present, debate continues about whether dinosaurs were cold-blooded or warm-blooded. As more features come to the fore, such as feathers, I suspect the answer will be warm-blooded.

Being warm-blooded is a mammalian characteristic, as well as that of birds. There are many positives about “warm blood,” but it isn’t everything. Take eyesight, for example. Ever watch a squirrel look every which place for a nut placed in front of it? A blue jay will swoop in at a moment’s notice and grab that nut. You may explain, “bird eyesight is known to be superior.” However, consider a turtle, more or less having remained physically the same since the age of dinosaurs. The slightest crunch or sighting from thirty meters away will have twenty turtles diving off a log in a second. “Cold-blooded” reptiles may not have the best circulation system in the world, but their senses are top-notch.

Whether you choose to populate your story (or park) with warm-blooded or cold-blooded dinosaurs, they are an impressive species. And they are hardly as stupid as once was generally accepted. A scientific paper from this year found that birds pack twice as many neurons in their heads as in a mammalian brain. So what did it matter that dinosaurs had “small brains?” Once again, the familiar adage rings true: size doesn’t matter.

A Rose Is a Rose Is a Brontosaurus

When selecting which dinosaurs to have on hand, you may want to give a little thought as to nomenclature. One option is to make up your own names, ending each with “saurus,” or providing a little variety with “tops.” (E.g., Indominus rex from “Jurassic World.”) The alternative of going with real names can be tricky, because paleontologists keep changing them. Yes, the same mindset that had Pluto being transformed from a planet to a planetoid applies to dinosaurs. For years, Allosaurus (meaning “different lizard”) was a great name for a popular dinosaur. Then a clever paleontologist decided that an earlier discovery had precedence and recommended Antrodemus, as unfortunate a name as one could find. Years later, the powers-that-be came to their senses, and Allosaurus was restored to its rightful place in the hierarchy.

The same holds true for Brontosaurus (meaning “thunder lizard”), one of the best known dinosaur names of all time. Saying Brontosaurus aloud conveys strength and power, everything that a huge sauropod deserves. Again, some paleontologist with too much time on his hands decided an earlier discovery was the same beast, and so Brontosaurus became Apatosaurus, which sounds like a very old Irish jig and nothing like a huge dinosaur. Science writer and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould argued elegantly in an essay against the name change (published in a collection having the essay title, “Bully for the Brontosaurus,” 1991). Did the powers-that-be listen? Nope. The point is that whenever anyone needs a boost up the social ladder, it is far easier to change a name than actually do anything like work. Publishers are happy, too. It gives them reason for new textbooks, a very profitable business.

For Brontosaurus, justice came this year in a paper in which Brontosaurus was reestablished as a separate species. There hasn’t been one hundred percent acceptance for resurrecting the Brontosaurus, but I suspect eventually the return will be widely adopted.


After deciding on the names and species of your dinosaurs, next comes behavior. No one has too much trouble with carnivores. They tend to eat what’s in front of them. But if you’ve seen too many dinosaur movies, you’d suspect that dinosaurs enjoy nothing more than a human (with or without clothes), which is neither here nor there. Any carnivore would enjoy a steak, as well (especially because humans were never available on the dino menu). Questions that do arise are whether the smaller carnivores, such as the dromaeosaurids (fierce, feathered, and movie stars), hunted in packs. It’s all a question of taste, so to say. For the larger carnivores, such as Tyrannosaurus, the debate generally centers on whether it was an inept, oversize hulk that depended on carrion, or whether it was a fleet and dynamic killer of anything that looked at it the wrong way.

For the Tyrannosaurus, one could compare the habits of modern-day hunters (apart from anyone using a rifle or spear or the like). A carnivore prefers to hunt what is easiest and swiftest to kill while not sustaining any damage to itself. A juicy, young duck-billed calf would be a better target than a bull Triceratops. Such decisions should be straightforward.

What isn’t particularly straightforward is what to do with any sauropod, whether a Brontosaurus (benchmark shape), Diplodocus (long and slender), Brachiosaurus (weighty), or Argentinosaurus (presently among the most imposing yet discovered, some forty meters of dinosaur). Let’s face it: there aren’t any modern equivalents, and the body morph has troubled paleontologists ever since the first one was described: extended neck, amazing tail, massive body, and long legs. What do you do with it?

The initial solution was to put a Brontosaurus into the middle of a swamp. Right. Makes great sense. I wonder whether any paleontologists have tried standing in a swamp? Swamps generally have a muddy, yucky, and silty bottom. Have your Brontosaurus go walking through that, and it would be slipping and sliding all over the place—if not stuck in the mud itself.

If any of those scientists considered the hippopotamus, they would have grasped the fact that water-dwelling animals have short legs, among other considerations.

A few scientists did manage to work out that sufficiently deep water to accommodate its bulk up through the top of its neck would collapse a Brontosaurus’ lungs, which is rather ingenious thinking. But as I said, the long legs should have been a giveaway.

Once it was generally agreed that Brontosauruses (and other sauropods) favored strolling about the countryside, the next question was, “but what about that neck?” Many of the earliest artist conception drawings showed a Brontosaurus with its neck close to the vertical, although museum articulations of skeletons had the neck on a lateral line (coincidentally the most efficient way to handle low ceilings).

For many years thereafter, paleontologists thought the long neck was lateral, hanging in the air, because the Brontosaurus was browsing, chomping whatever was on the ground. They reasoned that the Brontosaurus wouldn’t have to move from any one spot because it could sweep up everything, not unlike a canister vacuum cleaner.

Not having to walk much for your meal is a fine idea, except it sort of goes against having long legs, which Brontosaurus kept over many millions of years. There are other factors, too. How did a long-necked dinosaur swalbrontosauruslow while munching vegetation on the ground? The swallowed vegetation would have to travel a long way upward in order to reach the Brontosaurus’ stomach. The process of food being pushed down into the stomach is known as peristalsis. But going upward is always a drag, literally, which you might try for yourself by attempting to eat while upside-down. For that matter, eating while lying in bed has caused more than one coughing fit among humans.

[Right, Charles R. Knight’s classic 1897 painting of a Brontosaurus, slow, bulky, in a swamp.]

There is a further problem with the “lateral neck.” It is one hell of a tiring position. Fencing (as with a sword) can be exhausting, especially in positions where the arm is fully extended for any length of time. And that’s only for intervals of some minutes. Imagine keeping that position all day long. If you have any doubts about that, pick up a book, whether a dictionary or one of my novels, and hold it out with your arm fully extended. How long can you keep it there? And the neck of a Brontosaurus is many times longer than any human arm.

A study from a few years back pushed the Brontosaurus neck into a more upward position. The paper cited various muscles and connectors and so forth. An alternative approach is to examine existing long-necked animals, such as swans or geese. Yes, they hold their necks laterally at times (especially in attack or defensive modes), but for the most part, when on land or water, necks are upward and generally upward in an s-shape, because it helps support weight. I’d expect a Brontosaurus to follow suit. And so a Brontosaurus’ food source would come from higher places, requiring that longer neck. There were plenty of short-necked dinosaurs well suited for grazing close to the ground.

There is one other reason to assume that a Brontosaurus kept its neck closer to a vertical position: it is way easier to see where you put your feet, something anyone who has hiked in open country or who has tripped over a curb would appreciate.

And what about sex. How did these enormous animals procreate? That is entirely an open field (so to say), although the basics are covered in an article recently published on the Smithsonian website: “Males and females have a single opening—called the cloaca—that is a dual-use organ for sex and excretion. Male birds and crocodylians have a penis that emerges from the cloaca to deliver sperm.”

That’s how it was done. But the question remains: how does a dinosaur couple get past all the horns or plates or whatever, not to mention the lovestruck female being humped by something weighing twenty tons? Maybe they found a convenient lake nearby? Water is excellent for buoying tonnage, so maybe dinosaurs preferred the prehistoric equivalent of a waterbed?

The important point is that there’s plenty of room for artistic license when it comes to describing dinosaur behavior. Think not only magnificent colors and displays (not to mention grunts and groans, howls and whoops) but a dynamic like the world hasn’t seen for sixty-five million years, give or take a few.

Please keep in mind that if your dinosaurs are dating, flowers didn’t arrive on the scene until the Cretaceous, so for earlier Jurassic dinosaurs, the males would have to think of a different kind of offering.


In the end it all comes down to playing nice and letting your dinosaurs have a good time, as well as having a little consideration for the following generations. And remember to put your dinosaurs safely away before you go to bed, and look out for wayward asteroids.

Annotated Bibliography

Allosaurus. A general piece that contains an explanation about the Allosaurus’ name reversals. The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry (mentioned in the article) is an interesting place that involves a little bit of off-road driving but is well worth a stop. It’s in Utah’s “dinosaur triangle” (lots of places to see dinosaurs).

Brontosaurus. A general piece that also contains an explanation about the Brontosaurus’ name reversals.

David Hone’s Archosaur Musings. A timely and readable blog by a paleontologist on all matters of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.

Dino Art. The blog is no longer active but has an excellent variety of dinosaur illustrations, from the serious to the humorous.

DinoDatabase. An alphabetic listing of a variety of dinosaur specs (including height, length, and weight). The database includes various dinosaur facts and is a handy resource (although I’m not sure how often it is updated).

Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs. A blog of everything to do with dinosaurs and their times, which has a ton of links, some of which are very technical and others which are lots of fun.

Phororhacos by Zdenek Burian, 1967. This link is to Burian’s amazing illustration. Zdenek Burian was a prehistoric animal illustrator, and his Phororhacos (taken from the book “The Age of Monsters”) shows a truly avian Tyrannosaurus.

Scientific American: “Bird Brains Have as Many Neurons as Some Primates.” For the doubters among you.

Two T-Rexes Mating. This boning dinosaur skeleton exhibit is proof that American museums are too prudish.

Smithsonian: “Everything You Wanted to Know About Dinosaur Sex.” Despite the title, safe viewing for one and all. END

Chet Gottfried is an active member of SFWA. ReAnimus Press has recently published three of his novels. His stories have appeared in “Space and Time Magazine,” “Jim Baen’s Universe,” and elsewhere. He is a frequent contributor to “Perihelion.”





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