Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 41 / 12 October 2017
 

Pterosaur psyndrome!

Fine Arts


What if pterosaurs still thrived on Earth, and visited the Bay Area? Photo: AMNH/Getty Images
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The desire for dinosaurs in the digital age is easily met. You can get them in print or plastic, full-color, full-size, animatronic, video or videogame, 3D-immersive. But are any of these real dinosaurs? And what do I mean by "real?" Are these the dinosaurs of my dreams, of my childhood? Or have dinosaurs been kidnapped by scientists and rendered inaccessible to my childish mind? Unable to pierce the arcane mysteries of the lab, have I any hope of communing with my erstwhile love? This ontological tizzy was sparked by a visit to "Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs," at Cal Academy of Sciences through Jan. 7, 2018.

I think I can say without fear of contradiction by science Nazis: Silent-p pterosaurs were flying reptiles, not dinosaurs, who thrived globally during the dinosaurs' heyday, from 220 to 65 million years ago, when they all went suddenly extinct. Their memory lingers on in fossils, relics turned to stone via mineralization over millennia. These fragile, incomplete, random traces are collected, preserved, and analyzed by paleontologists elucidating a coherent story of the planet's prehistory. Everything authoritatively said about pterosaurs is consensus-based speculation by these experts, eager to thrust their arcane obsessions upon you.

Pterosaur simulacra on display at Cal Academy hover uneasily at various degrees of separation from the fossils left behind by actual animals. One real pterosaur fossil, a cross-section of bone, once hollow but now filled with crystals, is not proudly labeled as such but encased in a dark column near the exit door. Next in line to true relics are plastic casts of fossils, hard to see behind highly reflective Plexiglas. Next come lovely skeletons, extrapolated from various specimens and guesswork, hanging out of reach beneath blinding lights. Next are full-scale painted models, suspended above the cluttered hall, as speculative as they are brightly colored.

The dsungaripterus was a distinctive-looking pterosaur (artist's conception). Photo: AMNH/Courtesy CAS

Physical objects are paired with signs capriciously glued to the floor, printed on fabric panels, placed vertically beside casts or horizontally before them, thigh-high and ill-lit. Evoking a high-school science fair, these mosaics of text, diagrams, and photographs vie for your attention like a series of well-meaning interruptions. What do you know and when do you need to know it? After an hour or two foraging scientific tidbits like hors d'oeuvres, you still might not be able to articulate a definitive sentence about pterosaurs. Too many media, shiny surfaces, and factoids can defeat the brain's attempts to assimilate and synthesize.

Ironically, electronic media promise more depth. Three short videos suggest the wealth of experience represented by fossil remains. Co-curators Mark Norell and Alexander Kellner, with consultant Michael Habib, enthuse about the first avian vertebrates (before birds or bats) and the largest animals ever to fly. The physics of flight and the wonders of fossilization are given their due. The hog's share of the hall, however, is filled by three big-screen flight simulators whose motion-sensors let your inner or outer child chase bugs through the primeval forest, or hit the water in search of fish. Fossils cannot compete with that level of trickery.

"Pterosaurs" was produced in 2014 by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, perhaps the world's greatest dinosaur collection. This travelling show was designed for a space twice the size of Cal Academy's temporary exhibit hall. Even minus some of the show's modules, it's a cramped jumble under badly focused, low-hanging track lights that glare and create shadows. Absent any apparent organizing principle, freestanding thematic chunks jostle in non-hierarchical simultaneity. Consequently, the complexity of these still mysterious creatures induces not awe but ontological chaos.

My excitement at seeing "Pterosaurs" was exceeded only by my distress at not being able to absorb all the prehistoric secrets teasingly referenced. I was in the presence of a construct triply alien: extinct species serving a scientific agenda suborned by spectacle. However cute the displays, scientists are always trying to prove something. The miracle of flight hovered near, but there were cladistic hoops to jump through. Darwin was the 500-pound pterosaur in the room, his theory of evolution still being argued. The tension between relic, replica, reconstruction, and reality made my head swim. They do serve good lemonade on the terrace.

 






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