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

The fascination with the concept of areas where animals extinct elsewhere survive and thrive began in the 1700s, when theologians and naturalists started discovering fossils of animals otherwise unknown. Thomas Jefferson, best known for his political contributions to the early United States, was an avid scientist at a time when the word didn't exist: as well as making contributions to statecraft and technology, he spent considerable time on the study of wildlife in America. At a salt lick near his Monticello estate in Virginia, Jefferson discovered the bones of mastodons (close relatives of the modern elephant), and the bones and claws of a completely unknown animal in a nearby cave, which he assumed belonged to a giant lion. Although the great French naturalist George Cuvier argued at that time that many animals known from fossil records were in fact extinct, Jefferson rejected the idea of extinction, and favored the idea that the beasts has simply retreated to areas inaccessible to man. When sending Lewis and Clark on their expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson included directions to document all plants, animals, and minerals of note, and instructed them to keep an eye open for mastodons and his giant lions. (The bones of his "lion" in fact belonged to a giant extinct ground sloth from the Pleistocene; the beast is known today as Megalonyx jeffersoni.)

The concept of dinosaurs surviving to the present day started shortly after their formal description, as people worldwide latched onto the popular descriptions of fossil beasts collected in England and the United States. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World is most famous for jump-starting the popular idea of prehistoric oases, but it wasn't the first: among others, an obscure short story called "The Monster of Lake La Metrie" developed around the idea of a surviving plesiosaur in a lake in the American West. Jules Verne experimented with lost worlds in Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Edgar Rice Burroughs took the concept of lost worlds further with his books The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and At The Earth's Core. To the former two books, Burroughs added the then-popular idea of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, where all evolution was a steady climb to the perfection of modern man. In books, movies, and film, the idea of vast swamps and valleys where an enterprising explorer could still come across dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles became somewhat of a cliché over the years, but an immensely popular cliché.

Well, the possibilities are fascinating, but the realities are a completely different matter. As man keeps exploring the planet, the likelihood of finding prehistoric beasts on land becomes less and less likely, but the existence of a lost world isn't impossible. Improbable, yes, and definitely implausible.

For the purposes of this discussion, we're considering only dinosaurs, as considering the logistics of any number of other prehistoric animals would make this essay overly complex. More importantly, we're going to talk about dinosaurs surviving to the present day in previously uncharted areas of Earth. This means dinosaurs that grew in isolation in their original habitat, which was isolated from the outside world due to natural forces. Robert Sawyer's Quintaglio series of novels contains a world where dinosaurs never became extinct, and in fact developed intelligence. However, their presence involves the deus ex machina of an alien intelligence transporting them to that world: while lost worlds of this sort are possible, as are prehistoric ecosystems created via DNA manipulation as presented in the book and film Jurassic Park, they lie beyond the scope of this essay.

The first assumption that must be made is that any dinosaurs survived the great K-T extinction of 65 million years ago. (The "K-T" stands for "Cretaceous-Tertiary" after the geologic periods separated by the event; the "K" is used to distinguish this period from the Cambrian Period of 600 million years ago, which itself ended with a massive extinction incident.) While circumstantial evidence argues that some individuals may have survived for a time past the main extinction date, no incontrovertible dinosaur fossils of any type have been found after that period. If any dinosaurs survived, they apparently weren't able to sustain a sufficient gene pool necessary to repopulate, thus leaving the planet free for mammals to take over.

Now, some survivors might elude extinction and survive in pockets where conditions never changed. Most known survivors are plants, though. The stinking cedar of the Appalachians survives in isolated areas, having previously covered good portions of the eastern United States during the Pleistocene, and the town of Aquarena Springs, Texas is world-famous for preserving the flora of the surrounding area circa the last ice age, before most of Texas dried out about 10,000 years ago. The most famous botanical survivor is the ginkgo: almost all ginkgos were gone by the K-T extinction except a small population in China, and Chinese monks cultivated the tree for centuries before introducing it to the West. Today, the ginkgo does very well in cool, wet environments such as the Pacific Northwest of North America and New England, thus demonstrating that most extinctions are not a sign of evolutionary failure but a sign of swiftly changing conditions.

In discussions of cryptozoology, the study of animals previously unknown to science, much is made of the modern coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae. All other known coelacanths died out at the same time as the dinosaurs, but Latimeria lives today off the Comoro Islands and off Indonesia in the Indian Ocean. (The second population of coelacanths was only discovered at the end of 1997; both groups rarely have contact with man.) Since its rediscovery, Latimeria is often used as an argument for the continued existence of dinosaurs or other prehistoric creatures. Latimeria is a trap, though: while all shallow-water coelacanths died during the K-T extinction, almost all marine fossil deposits on land were formed in relatively shallow water, and Latimeria and its predecessors left no traces of themselves in those sediments. Bones and other remains of Latimeria's ancestors are probably readily available to any paleontologist able to excavate the ocean bed, but not many bones may be available. Due to the mechanics of plate tectonics, where seafloor is subducted under continental plates and new seafloor formed as the continents moved about, the oldest areas of modern seafloor are approximately 150 million years old, with many areas being considerably younger, and Latimeria isn't all that common in the first place due to its rather exacting habitat requirements, so the odds of finding deep-sea coelacanth bones are exceedingly remote.

Another consideration presented by the coelacanth lies with the ocean itself. Water covers seventy percent of Earth's surface, and its average depth offers more hiding spaces for unknown species than a comparable area of land. Since all known dinosaurs were terrestrial (and all known Mesozoic sea reptiles were residents of relatively shallow oceans), all hunts for them have to be undertaken on the surface. This limits searches to the continents and islands, and only areas that existed 65 million years ago or more.

That timeline removes the possibility of many survivors, as many of the best (or the most sterotypical) habitats amenable to dinosaurs haven't been around that long. Dr. Louis Jacobs, author of The Search for the African Dinosaurs (1993), points out that most of the jungles in Africa are far too young to have been homes to dinosaurs, and the idea of "darkest" Africa being a throwback to the Mesozoic is a myth. If dinosaurs live in the Congo today, they had to have migrated there from somewhere else, and again, no definitive dinosaur bones or other remains have been discovered past the K-T boundary. (The same argument may be used against the existence of prehistoric creatures in Loch Ness or Lake Champlain: considering that both lakes were covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age, and that glaciers were in fact responsible for helping to carve out the distinctive shape of both bodies of water, any large animal living in either location today would have had to have entered from elsewhere within the last 10,000 years.)

Continued . . .
--Paul T. Riddell is a Michigan-born, Texas-raised essayist and columnist with a disturbing fascination with palaeontology and evolutionary theory. Most of his previous works, science-related and otherwise, are available at "The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness" at http://www.hpoo.com.

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