by George Phillips, Mississippi Museum of Natural Science
“Jurassic Journey” – so reads the aptly themed title of the 2015 Quapaw Area Boy Scout Council’s Mohawk District Cub Scout Day Camp in Little Rock, Arkansas. With the summer release of the latest installment of the Jurassic Park movie franchise, Jurassic World, the steady flow of news items about dinosaur research (including the discoveries of new species, dinosaur blood/bone cells, additional feathered dinosaurs, etc.), and the undying fascination people have with the prehistoric world, it seemed natural for the Mohawk District day camp organizers to adopt a dinosaur theme for a fun-filled, week-long schedule that included a host of activities related to the natural sciences and exploration of the natural world.
Among the engaging activities designed by the Mohawk District summer camp team, the “Journey” included a series of presentations by George Phillips, a paleontologist from the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, who introduced the eager Cub Scouts to facts about dinosaurs that are little known in popular culture. George’s program highlighted some interesting misconceptions the general public has about dinosaurs and focused on the question, “What makes a dinosaur a dinosaur?” An introductory series of slides of a variety of living, extinct, and even mythical creatures each bore the question, “Is this a dinosaur?” – followed by a round of “Why or why not?” discussions.
Children and teens are bombarded by lots of information these days, but converting that seemingly endless data to actual knowledge about specific subjects isn’t always easy. There is an incredible amount of media attention directed to certain popular groups of dinosaurs (e.g., Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus), but there is a distinct lack of devotion to basic knowledge of why dinosaurs are different from all other vertebrate animals. For each session, early in the program, a narrow majority of each group of Cub Scouts invariably shouted “YES!” (…it is a dinosaur) when shown a paleo artist’s rendition of a woolly mammoth. This error is because most young people – and some adults – often equate the term “dinosaur” with anything prehistoric or extinct. Dinosaurs are distinguished from all other vertebrates by their distinctive anatomy, just one of the principal differences discussed in the program having to do with the shape and structural organization of their girdles and limbs.
Naturally evolving from this dinosaur-definition discussion was the relationship between carnivorous theropods and modern birds. With the discovery in recent decades of over thirty different types of theropods bearing feathers, coupled with the great similarity in skeletal anatomy between theropods and developing birds, it is now a foregone conclusion that birds are descended from a group of early theropod dinosaurs that exhibit very avian-like features. By the last several slides, the vast majority of budding young paleontologists got it right when shown a picture of a flamingo, a duck, and baby chicks—YES! Those are dinosaurs, too!