A dinosaur mural to remember ( 2013.10.1[Tue.])

 

the age of reptiles  In April of this year, I was attending a conference in Boston. After the long flight there, I arrived at the hotel I had reserved only to be told it was overbooked (!) and that I would have to transfer to a different site. To top it off, the next morning I had to wait for a taxi for an hour in freezing rain and ended up bringing a cold I had caught back to Japan.

  But I had some good luck as well. I only had to work there that first day, so I hopped on an Amtrak train and went to Yale, where I had been invited to teach some very bright students. Compared to the rotten time I had in Boston, New Haven was quite nice. The Yale campus resembles Oxford, and the surrounding town was much quieter and more comfortable than Boston in the aftermath of the marathon bombing.

  For me, Yale means the Peabody Museum of Natural History, which is known to anyone with the slightest interest in paleontology. The museum was established by Othniel Charles Marsh, whose ferocious battles over fossils with Edward Drinker Cope are legendary. There are not so many fossils on exhibit, and the museum itself is rather smallish. But it is deservedly famous for the 30 meter fresco by Rudolph F. Zallinger called “The Age of Reptiles” (see fig.), which took three years to complete in time for its unveiling in 1947.

  The mural is enormous, and I was surprised and almost staggered on stumbling upon it, thinking “So this is the original!” I suppose many people have seen reproductions of the painting, which, from right to left depicts in loving detail the transitions of terrestrial flora and fauna from the Cretaceous to late Carboniferous periods. 

  The human eye tends to track time from left to right, so the progression may seem backwards at first, but it is due to the fact that the entrance to the hall is on the right; thus, visitors can walk along with the march of time as they proceed through the museum. At the right edge, a giant amphibian resembling an Eryops lolls on the banks of a marsh, next to the carnivorous synapsid, Dimetrodon, with its majestic dorsal fin, emerging like a ship setting sail onto land in the Permian, and a resting Edaphosaurus as well. Next, representing the Triassic, we find a Plateosaurus, ancestor of the Sauropoda. Next, the Jurassic, with an allosaur and Stegosaurus, joined by the primordial bird Archaeopteryx taking flight from its perch on a sago palm. But the definitive dinosaur for this period is none other than the mighty Brontosaurus, extensing its long neck from the waters of the swamp.

  But now the brontosaurus is no more. I don’t mean it has gone extinct, but rather that the scientific term is no longer recognized. The fictional animal depicted here is actually a chimera – a Camarasaurus head grafted onto an Apatosaurus body

  But in Japan at least, Brontosaurus is still a revered name, and its literal meaning ‘thunder lizard’ is still in frequent use. Other familiar dinosaur names also have colorful etymologies – Tyrannosaurus means ‘tyrant lizard’ and Stegosaurus ‘covered lizard.’ So for people my age and older, the name Brontosaurus is immortal, an iconic dinosaur for the ages. And I think that legacy traces directly back to this work of art.

  “The Age of Reptiles” was often use in textbooks in the post-war era, and even in pictorial atlases printed in the early 1960s. Of course, many cheaply made picture books produced for children (or indeed for anyone) did not reproduce the exact image as painted by Zallinger. The book I pored through every day without fail as a kindergartener had a copy of the painting done by a Japanese illustrator, which on looking back, I realize was no more than a crude facsimile. In any case, for better or worse that was my first exposure to the world of dinosaurs, and I remember penciling in a “fire-breathing Godzilla” in my copy. Yes, “The Age of Reptiles” is the mold in which I was forged.

  As I gazed at the mural, I recalled that two evolutionary biologists, Günter Wagner and Kurt Schwenk, both of whom had served as guides for me had chatted about how both had spent much of their childhood staring at picture books.

  I was shown around other parts of Yale’s venerable ivied campus. The Beinecke Library holds a rich collection of rare books, and I was able to view an original edition of Audubon’s “The Birds of America,” undoubtedly one of the most highly valued works of natural history.

  While I was having a miserable time in Boston, members of my lab were having a wonderful holding a joint press conference. In today’s era of globalization, scientists have to act more like businessmen, even in a coastal city still reeling from the shock of a terrorist attack. I wonder what the future holds for this country that taught me so much... For me at least, it still has much left for me to see.