For the first time in a generation, a paleontologist has assembled a general reference book that tracks the rise and fall of the world's ever-hip reptile — the dinosaur.
Scott Sampson, Utah's leading dinosaur expert and research curator of the University of Utah Museum of Natural History, began his national book tour Thursday night at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City.
He is highlighting the recent Utah connection to the saga he tells in "Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life," a pithy compilation weighing 2 pounds complete with anecdotes from the field by a scientist who has traveled the globe "digging up dinosaurs" and literally putting the pieces of dinosaurs and their story together.
"The main goal is to create the connection that we still haven't made between their world and our world today," Sampson said Thursday while sitting just outside the cluttered fossil preparation lab in the east wing of the museum. "They provide us with insights, and they have a lot of lessons to teach us from genetics to global warming."
Utah, in particular the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — "the last major dinosaur boneyard in the world" — is a 2 million-acre site that has already revealed 12 new species of dinosaurs "that changes our thinking that dinosaurs were slow, lumbering, dimwitted creatures to animals that could run at Jeep-chasing speeds, who lived in herds, were feathered and to discoveries that birds today and dinosaurs of 160 million years ago are closely linked."
Dinosaurs may continue to be the rock stars of science, despite their roles as terrifying villains in the movies and as popular sports team nicknames like the Ogden Raptors, for example. But humans "still haven't embraced the notion that the story of them is the story of us," Sampson said.
"The planet that we have today is the same planet they inhabited," Sampson said. "They were here way back then and went extinct — probably when a giant rock hit the current Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago — but we forget that they lived side by side with mammals and were here when flowering plants and many groups of insects evolved."
The big dinosaurs are gone, "but they left a huge fingerprint," he said. "Theirs was a hothouse world with a lot of volcanic activity in area around modern India. They were crowded onto a small piece of prehistoric real estate" in an era in which studying them has revealed areas of the Wasatch Front at the time would have been "beautiful beachfront property."
The past 25 years have been a bumper crop, exhilarating season of discovery for dinosaur paleontology. Sampson takes a meticulous long view and reconstitutes their story as the humble residents of the supercontinent Pangaea to the largest creatures ever to inhabit the planet.
Studying their remains not only shows their connection to life at that time but how they fit into the web of our modern life and the relationship to all organisms on good-old planet Earth, he said.
"With all the study of the natural world, we still have yet to internalize the core message of Darwin from 150 years ago, that everything on Earth is part of a unified story we don't grasp but need to," Sampson said. "It's human nature to feel dominant and separate from the natural world. We have to make that connection if we're ever going to have anything approaching sustainability of the planet."