Sunday, January 26, 2020

Tiny Dino Worlds: Create Your Own Prehistoric Habitats

A couple of years ago my graduate supervisor Karen Chin contacted me with a proposition: Christine Bayles Kortsch, an author in Boulder, was planning to create an educational book centered on creating terrariums with living plants and toy dinosaurs, and she was looking for some willing paleo-types to provide technical input. I'd never done anything like that before, and I was interested in learning about the process of publishing a book, so I said yes. Skip ahead to January 2020, and a surprise package has arrived at my door with complimentary copies of "Tiny Dino Worlds". It's my pleasure to write a few words about this book.

"Tiny Dino Worlds" is structured around ten themed chapters, arranged in geological order starting with Coelophysis in the Late Triassic, going through the Jurassic and Cretaceous, and wrapping up with a miniature dinosaur dig and mini-projects suitable for a dinosaur party. Each chapter touches on a different type of terrarium or diorama, using different plants selected as appropriate analogues for the specific prehistoric setting.

Here's the introduction to the Morrison chapter, showing the project on the left and some basic information about the formation on the right.

We selected projects throughout the Mesozoic and from a variety of settings, coming up with a mix of old favorites (couldn't do without the Morrison or Triceratops versus Tyrannosaurus, after all), less-familiar settings (dinosaur tracks in the Early Jurassic of North America, or the Lameta Formation, for example), and projects keyed to Karen's and my own expertise (coprolites and "mummy dinosaurs"). For each chapter, Karen and I contributed scientific information: describing what was going on and the various organisms that were around, providing smaller bits of "did you know?"-type information to be placed throughout, and so forth. One piece that was obviously my idea is the "did you know?" blurb for Thescelosaurus. We also managed to kill off the titanosaurs in Chapter 9, which I find entirely fitting these days.

There they go. The Lameta volcanism didn't *quite* look like this, but every child should know about building classic baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes.

The projects are intended primarily for children 4 to 10 years old, but you certainly don't have to be that age to try them. If you've got some small toy dinosaurs, which is probably not a wild assumption for the readers of this blog, you could certainly try your hand at a Morrison Formation box terrarium, for example. The projects are thoroughly photographed and explained. (For me, whose primary contribution was text, it was wonderful to see how the final physical book turned out. I'd seen pdf proofs, but they didn't substitute for the real thing.)

For example, here are illustrations for making tracks in salt dough.

One of the restrictions we put on ourselves was that we didn't want to force people to have to buy lots of toys of seldom-produced animals to produce the projects, so we tried to focus on dinosaurs that are either commonly represented as small toys, or which can be easily substituted at that scale. For example, Brachylophosaurus can be doubled by other flat-headed hadrosaurs, or titanosaurs by generic sauropods. This restriction did end up weighing against some ideas that didn't make it, such as a woodland/river setting for Amargasaurus and a chapter that would feature Therizinosaurus.

There are plenty of horror stories in the paleo community about consulting on educational projects, but I encountered none of that on this project.* Karen and I actively participated throughout in drafting and refining the scientific information. (In fact, we [okay, I] probably provided too much, but eventually we worked it down to something that wouldn't overwhelm the actual projects.) Karen has worked on educational books before, and was invaluable when there needed to be translation between Christine and myself. Near the end is a Q&A section where Karen and I respond to questions about the field of paleontology.

*Not a horror story, but for the documentary "Secrets of the Mummy Dinosaur", I spent a day being filmed in the CU-Boulder museum collections building doing various things, out of which I think about 10 seconds of me walking and a single line used in voice-over made it to the final product. My travel was reimbursed, so I didn't mind, plus there were much more interesting and important things to include.

If you're looking for some hands-on prehistoric projects to do with your kids, or if you want to try your hand at pterosaurs on the seaside or burying future dinosaur mummies, "Tiny Dino Worlds" will be shipping in early March. You can find more details and order the book at Roost Books and Penguin Random House.

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