Good tidings and well-wishes!
It’s no secret that Gary Larson’s excellent comic strip, ‘The Far Side’ is popular among scientists; after-all, it not only bases the majority of its jokes on the naturalism and life science, but it’s actually influenced these fields on several occasions. In 1989, Larson even received the honor of having a new species of insect named after him (Strigiphilus garylarsoni, a louse only found on owls). But from my paleontologically-biased perspective, his greatest scientific contribution came as a direct result of the following cartoon:
Ignoring the fact that he’s committed the mortal sin of placing dinosaurs and hominids in the same cartoon (unless you happen to be a part of the worryingly-large percentage of the American population that, to quote Louis Black, ‘watches “The Flintstones” like it’s a documentary’), this particular piece influenced dinosaur paleontologists because no one had previously given a name to the unique arrangement of tail spikes which characterize stegosaurids. Thus, the name ‘thagomizer’ stuck and is used today to describe the feature in scientific literature.
Now it appears that Larson may have been close to the mark again in this field, via another one of his paleo-themed pieces which depicted a pair of stereotypically-nerdy paleontologists sitting at a table in a research lab playing with a pair of Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops figures when their instructor barges in and shouts “Cummings! Schneider! You’ve got plenty of research to work on…and for the last time stop making those plastic models fight!”
Though paleontologists don’t commonly play with toys during research hours (most of us do so when we get home :)), many make use of anatomically-correct models in order to experiment with possible physical limitations and behavioral activities of the animals. A terrific example of this finally brings me to the point of this post: Andrew Farke, of ‘The Open Source Paleontologist’ fame, has recently posted the results of an experiment designed to find out if Triceratops and other ceratopsians (namely Centrosaurus) used their trademark horns for intraspecific conflict (fights between members of their own species. His first step towards creating this endeavour was building scientifically-accurate models of Triceratops to demonstrate that such behavior was at least anatomically possible. I won’t ruin the suspense, so check out the post for yourself to see the results .
May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!