Talking dinosaurs in pop culture.
Last weekend was the fifth annual Salt Lake Comic Con, and if you follow AiPT!’s Twitter feed, you saw the various pictures and videos I posted from it. However, there was one aspect of the con that I want to go into in a little more detail. I was asked to do what a large percentage of con-goers never get to do — I was asked to be on a panel.
The panel was titled “Feathering Utahraptors: The Real Stars of Jurassic Park,” and it started out as the brainchild of Amber Dahl, a longtime panelist and moderator for Salt Lake Comic Con. She is a paleontology volunteer down in a museum in Utah called Thanksgiving Point. She noticed that at these cons we get a lot of “experts” pontificating about various aspects of geek culture (including dinosaurs at one previous con), but there are rarely the scientific experts there to discuss them. So she wanted to invite some people who actually work on the bones themselves to talk about dinosaurs.
That’s where “Utahraptor” comes in. You see, initially the panel was supposed to be us paleo peeps discussing dinosaurs and what’s so cool about them. But down in Thanksgiving Point, there’s a block of rock so interesting that it’s part of a GoFundMe campaign, one which aims to dig out the Utahraptor skeletons hiding within, as the animals became trapped and later fossilized when the quicksand around them hardened into a rock.
Utahraptor is interesting because it’s essentially what Steven Spielberg put into the original Jurassic Park, despite calling it Velociraptor. The Velociraptor is a much smaller animal, only about 3 feet tall in real life, however the Utahraptor towers over the Velociraptor at over 6 feet tall, very much like the raptor in Jurassic Park. The discover of Utahraptor actually occurred at the time they were working on the movie by now Utah State Paleontologist, Jim Kirkland, who was also on the panel. There was even the joke that Spielberg only created the dinosaur to give the scientists something to look for. And so it was decided that in order to help promote The Utahraptor Project, the panel would shift focus to Utahraptor’s connection with Jurassic Park.
The chief preparator of the block, Scott Madsen, was also involved with the panel, as well as BJ Nichols, who is a paleo volunteer but also, more importantly, a very talented graphic artist (who is a wiz with presentations). BJ suggested for Amber to contact me about joining the panel because not only am I a paleontologist, but I am also a member of the geek community, having attended every Salt Lake Comic Con and their associated FanX, as well as some other conventions.
I hesitated, though, because I haven’t worked on the Utahraptor block. I’ve never even seen it (despite it being located less than an hour away from me; I really need to go see it). But I was assured by Amber that they needed someone like me, who can bridge the gap between the paleo people with no con experience the con people with a little bit of paleo experience. So I became the middle ground, as my “expertise” is in how dinosaurs are presented in pop culture. I have given a few scientific talks about dinosaurs in movies and TV shows, and how the evolving science has changed their depictions.
As we got closer to con night, Amber had to pass the baton of moderator due to time constraints to her friend and fellow Dino geek, Luke Hunsaker, who took over corralling this herd of cats. I’m starting to get nervous about the panel though. This is my first opportunity at being a panelist and I want things to go well. If I do a good job, then there is a possibility I’ll be invited back. If not, then I don’t know. Could I be banned from all comic cons in the foreseeable future? Probably not, but lets not jinx it.
We reach the day of the panel and everyone seems like they are ready to do this. Luke has his questions laid out. Scott is all set for his part. Scott’s normally a rather quiet person, but he knows a TON about the Utahraptor block itself, so he joins in the conversation when it finally rolls around to that. Next there’s me, sporting my AiPT! shirt, of course. Amber on my left with her light-up Star Wars Mickey ears, which I know she positioned ever so perfectly to be right in my line of sight for the view screen. Jim Kirkland sat next to her and BJ was on the end, handling the AV aspects of the talk.
We left the majority of the scientific dinosaur questions to Kirkland, who is by far the most knowledgeable on the panel on the subject. I know some stuff, but I wouldn’t even try and guess at half the things Kirkland knows. I stuck to the pop culture references, and Amber joined in with her perspective as a dinosaur fangirl being able to work on these things in real life. As we got near the end, Luke asked the audience to come up to the microphone if anyone had any questions. No one did, so we kept going. He asked a second time, still no one. After the third time a whole crowd of people descended on the microphone so many that we couldn’t get through all of the questions.
But overall, things with the panel ended up really great, I think. The audience enjoyed it and I got to pop in with several of my “nobody really cares about this really neat bit of trivia but they’re going to hear it anyway” factoids. The greatest thing about BJ being on the panel was that he arranged to have the whole thing recorded, so check it out for more of the real science, and the pop culture science!