Living History: The True Story of the Mormon Crickets
My favorite Mormon pioneer story is the one where dinosaurs arrive just in time to eat the grasshoppers that are threatening the pioneers' crops. The Saints are saved and, in gratitude, erect a monument to the dinosaurs. It is still there to this day, just as you enter the South Gate of Temple Square.
"Hang on one Mormon moment!" you say. You've heard this story since you were knee high, and in all those hundreds of tellings you've never heard anything so preposterous. It was Mormon crickets the dinosaurs ate, not grasshoppers. Everybody knows that!
We all hate it when cherished preconceptions are thrown down and trampled by know-it-alls with no regard for custom or sensibility. It's annoying, like those people who point out that buffalo are actually bison.
However, given the current state of scientific understanding, my version of the crickets and gulls story above is accurate. The "Mormon Cricket" is actually a grasshopper, though I tip my hat to the poetry in a Mormon settler who first described it as "a cross between a spider and a buffalo" (I'm sure he meant bison).
As for the dinosaur part of the story, you can probably see one right now just by looking out the window.
That sparrow on the sill is a close cousin to the velociraptors portrayed in the movie "Jurassic Park." Over the last decade it has been established that birds are a surviving strain of dinosaur. You can definitely see the kinship in the nasty disposition of the local magpies, who seem to channel something big and mean that once strode the earth unchallenged.
I have had enormous fun reading a couple of new books about ancient life from the University of Utah paleontologist, Brian Switek. It's partly because, well, I'm a dinosaur nerd, but also because Switek is an entertaining writer. He is a freelance science writer with an impressive resume (National Geographic, Scientific American, Smithsonian) and was featured just Â days ago on NPR's Science Friday: "These Dinosaurs Should Appear in Jurassic Park 4."
I know plenty of people who came to Utah for the skiing and stayed. Switek is the first I know of who came for the dinosaurs.Â
Switek grew up in New Jersey with the same dinosaurs that I did in California. As children we learned that dinosaurs were slow and stupid. They endured a solitary existence and slouched under the misery of it all. We loved them anyway.
The conventional wisdom about dinosaurs has changed over the years, and Switek's book, My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and our Favorite Dinosaurs, is a look at just how radical the change has been. Previously cherished notions of dinosaur appearance and behavior have been demolished and leave the dino-loving public racing to catch up.
For instance, we now know that dinosaurs were quick and agile. There is also compelling evidence that some were social and roamed in packs and herds.
One hundred million year-old behavior is hard to suss out of rocks, but the bones of dinosaurs sitting on nests, or dinosaur trackways which include footprints left by juveniles as well as adults, hint at complicated dino lifestyles.
And their looks have undergone a major makeover. Think Lady Gaga lots of splashy ornamentation and color. And feathers. Lots of feathers. It's no secret that some dinosaurs, like archaeopteryx, were feathered, but the real surprise is that they all may have had feathers, from long-necked sauropods to the giant two-legged killers. It's possible that T-rex was covered with a fluffy down.
Recent techniques may unlock the door to that most persistent mystery: What color were they?
Preliminary results indicate varied color and pattern displays, much like those of modern birds.
Who knows, there may even have been some that resembled seagulls.
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Material for this column came from Brian Switek's "My Beloved Brontosaurus and Written in Stone: Evolution the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature."