The 6th-8th grade was a special time in my development as a budding scientist. No, I would never say Junior High was my favorite time or that I was popular (ha, it is to laugh). However, it was during this time that I began to devour my first “young adult” and adult books on dinosaurs and zoology. Among them were two by Dougal Dixon, Time Exposure and After Man: A Zoology of the Future. I loved the latter book – for those who don’t know, it is the “journal” of scientist from the future Earth 50 million years from now. As a kid, that book was amazing to me, because it linked together evolution, natural selection, and plate tectonics in ways that were inspiring and downright weird. For example, bats that had become terrifying terrestrial carnivores or rabbit descendants taking the place of modern ungulates! It was one of the first books that taught me that evolution was not directed but subject to the vagaries of the environment and the anatomical baggage of past generations. This had been an unexpected Christmas gift from my Aunt Ramona and Uncle Joel — and it has made that kind of lasting impression!
But I had a serious issue as a 13-year-old with Dr. Dixon’s Tyrannosaurus in the other book, Time Exposure. He called it a scavenger! This could not stand. And so, back in the days before internet or e-mails, I typed up a message to him on my mom’s old typewriter informing him of why Tyrannosaurus must, of course, be a top predator. My evidence? Legs built for fast speed, a heavy head with big teeth, and who had ever seen lions taking the kill away from jackals? (I laugh at this last bit now a lot.) My mom (bless her heart) dutifully sent this letter out to a scientist in the UK (postage? $$$) and I waited for a reply.
And a very nice reply did I receive from the desk of a Dougal Dixon a few weeks later. Whereas he disagreed with some of my headstrong assertions about the lifestyle of Tyrannosaurus, he sent a kind and encouraging letter that meant probably more than he will ever know to me and my career. On the rare occasion I have now crossed paths with him at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings, I have always let him know how much that simple, kind gesture meant to me.
Then this Spring, I was contacted by Highlights Magazine for Children, a magazine I used to get and to which I drew dinosaur pictures for back in the day. They were doing an illustration of the dinosaur I helped to discover and describe, Aardonyx, in, of all things, Dougal Dixon’s Dinosaurs! They showed me a preliminary illustration and the anatomical “bits” they were going to label. I was flattered and a bit emotional, to be quite honest. Here, I was being asked to comment on a dinosaur I helped discover for a page in a kid’s magazine by one of the paleontologists who had encouraged me all those years ago. The circle was complete.
In the past month, the publisher contacted me with the final illustration as it appeared in this summer’s (2013) Highlights for Children Magazine:
This serves as a reminder to me that the power of being a scientist who studies dinosaurs and other prehistoric life is that our work directly touches and inspires children to think about science and to wonder about the world beyond their own backyards. So this was my belated Christmas gift this year. And a belated post!
Thanks and gratitude go out to Adam Yates for involving me in the research that led to the discovery of Aardonyx, to Celeste Yates for the beautiful preparation of the beast that allowed us to describe it and now Highlights for Children to illustrate it. And of course, thanks and gratitude to Dougal Dixon.
Happy holidays and peace to all.