Back Lots of the Lost: The Implausibility of the Cliched "Lost World"

Monday, May 4, 2009

Paul T. Riddell

Since the Victorian period, shortly after the discovery and scientific description of the first recognized examples of the class Dinosauria, individuals have speculated on the possibilities of areas where dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures may still exist. Back before aerial surveys and satellite photographs, the idea of lost continents brimming with tyrannosaurs and pterosaurs fevered the imaginations of fiction writers and readers. After serious exploration efforts turned up no signs of previously unknown saurians, speculation turned toward parallel evolution of dinosaurs on alien worlds, or in isolated patches of jungle unknown to humans. The "lost world" cliché soon became almost universal, demanding a Frank Frazetta canvas: mention "lost world" to nearly anyone and ask for the first images that pop up, and invariably the first response concerns cavemen (and rather shapely cavewomen) watching as a Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops duke it out in a landscape shadowed by giant volcanoes and fern trees.

The perception is popular, and certain lost worlds exist today. However, the prediluvian world of the Galapagos rift vents, with animals and bacteria probably related to the first organisms that left the confines of the vents and struck out for the wide, cold ocean just don't have the same appeal. If we don't get dinosaurs, then at least we need prehistoric mammals (usually saber-toothed cats and mammoths, although titanotheres and creodonts have their possibilities), or maybe some of the reptiles that predated the dinosaurs. They're not as impressive as T. rex, but being chased by a Lycaenops or a Dimetrodon still offers adventure and suspense. For those seeking the less familiar, the creatures of the mid-Devonian are passable, between giant four-meter-long sea scorpions and early amphibians on land and gigantic predatory fish like Dunklosteus in the oceans, and then there's always the singular (if diminutive) animals of the early Cambrian as preserved in the Burgess Shale.



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