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Digging the Past May 2, 2013

I have to admit (though perhaps a little sheepishly) that I have never quite outgrown my love of dinosaurs.  There is something about the “terrible lizards” which has fascinated me since childhood.  I find their lives, the mystery of their extinction, and the processes through which scientists attempt to recreate the ancient world in which they lived to be simply enthralling.

My parents did their part to feed the mania.  From books and movies to plastic toys and an unforgettable trip to Dinosaur National Monument in Vernal, UT, I had everything that a dinosaur-crazed grade-schooler could ever want.  I could name every known species and identify their bones, explain what they ate, and how they raised their young.  And I treasured the dream of someday uncovering a new species, myself.

To this day, I secretly savor the desire to go on a dig and perhaps it is for this reason that I grew so excited when I first heard that our local museum was to serve as host to “Sue”, a T-Rex uncovered by paleontologist Sue Hendrickson in 1990.  The most complete skeleton uncovered to date, Sue came with another surprise: soft tissue.  Current evolutionary theory is unable to account for the mysterious appearance of something which should have decayed a few thousand years ago, so the discovery left scientists puzzled… and lovers of fantasy works like Michael Crichton’s “Jurrasic Park” on the edge of their seats.

The idea of reviving an extinct species has its appeal.  We have, after all, seen the ecological devastation caused by modern extinctions.  We’ve watched the predator/prey balance shift everywhere from the tundra to the rainforests – been silent witnesses as unchecked populations clear the vegetation required for other species to survive.  Yet reintroduction may, in and of itself, pose a similarly unfortunate shift.

It’s for this reason, that I couldn’t resist the urge to pick up a copy of the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Magazine.  The cover article, “Reviving Extinct Species” does an excellent job of outlining everything from scientific questions like, “Is an animal recreated from mere DNA an actual copy of the original extinct species” (yes, there’s some question about this) to the ethical concerns of reviving something which our world may no longer be capable of supporting.  The article was, indeed, thought provoking.

But back to Sue.  I’d been through the entire museum twice, taking time to look at the bones of other dinosaurs that had been brought in for the occasion, and now found myself seated on the bench across from the cast of her giant skeleton.  It was early afternoon and the school field-trips had departed, leaving the large atrium hanging in silence.  I watched as glowing red light faded in and out, enhancing the fierceness of her razor sharp teeth and, for a moment, I almost thought I could see her move – her large, muscular limbs coming to life, her tail sweeping behind her as her footsteps shook the ground.  And for one brief, horrifying moment, de-extinction seemed like a wonderful idea!


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