Wednesday, 23 April 2014


Over the easter weekend, my family and I were treated to a fantastic dinoshow.
We learnt all about the difference between survivors and dyers of the great extinction, displayed a home made Iguanodon egg that had been preyed on by a Microraptor. We  had a demonstration of how well different shaped dinosaur teeth can bite into an apple,  a papiermache volcano that erupts 'mostly ash and rocks' and got to hold an  Archaeopteryx skull (seagull I think). All this was done ex tempore from an A4 plan, for the humble entrance price of 60p. The unbelievable thing is that Ewan, my amazing, passionate, fiercely imaginative nephew and the curator of the show, is not even six yet. I was taking notes!

Dinosaurs have long stoked fascination in tender hearts. I remember my older brother used to get balsa wood kits for constructing Stegosaurus skeletons. It used to be all about Tyrannosaurus rex and Pterodactyls in my day (whatever happened to Pterodactyls?! they were the dinosaur of the 80s). Then Jurassic Park made Velociraptors in the in thing. These days it seems to be all about Euphocephalus and Baryonyx, although the T. Rex remains popular with toddlers keen to practise their roar.

I'm not sure exactly what it is that accounts for the enduring appeal of dinosaurs, out of all the ancient life forms that have inhabited this earth. There are many geological eras that get my mind spinning. Imagine visiting the Carboniferous period, when there was such a plentiful level of oxygen atoms in the atmosphere that the air offered much greater friction than it does today. This enabled the evolution of gigantic winged insects like the Meganeura, a dragonfly with 65cm wings, which swooped through the thick soupy air with ease.

Or how about a trip back 2.3 billion years ago, to before the first great 'dying' as my nephew has learnt to call mass extinctions. Before the great oxidation event, when the oceans roiled with anaerobic bacteria.

If I could go back to any point in history, with the appropriate safety suit, I have no doubt when it would be to. Whenever I'm stressed and need to tune out, my special place, like that of many others, is a sandy beach. Its got lapping waves and gentle sunshine, a cloudless sky. But no footprints sully its shore. No fish jump in the surf. No coconut palms bend in my breeze. For my special place is the early Devonian, before the age of land animals, back when only plants populated our shores (An excellent book, that offers a wonderful tour of the eras I allude to here, and that I really must reread one day, is Emerald Planet by David Beerling.)


A stroll away from my beach, 410 million years ago, or thereabouts, would have taken me through pastures of Cooksonia, hallucinogenic plants just a few cm tall, with spongy trumpets dangling on spindly stems. Mossy bryophytes would carpet my way, perhaps a few feathery lycopods. Before the invention of the xylem, plants were height-limited by their inability to conduct water. Much more than  a few cm away from the ground and the cells would dry out, unable to transport liquid so high. Early devonian plants were generally no more than a metre high.
Still from a video at

In the late Devonian the first truly vascular plants evolved: horsetails, ferns and progymnosperms, and then the sky was the limit. Archaeopteris, a precursor to gymnosperms such as christmas trees, could grow as high as 30m. There was Prototaxites, an enormous fungus that stood more than 8 metres tall. They brought along arthropods: mites, scorpions and myriapods.

But before all that there would have been nothing to spoil the lush green view. There is something deeply relaxing and safe to me about a world upon which nothing creeps, nothing flies, nothing wriggles. No blood is ever shed, no life is ever digested, only the sunshine itself is devoured, only chlorophyll pumps, only the slow, innocent plants march across the lands. Nothing will jump out at me when I visit, no creature preys upon my kind. The plants are childlike, Dr Seussian.

Now, who brought the picnic?

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