For our nightly lessons last night, The Girl and I lay in bed together reading about dinosaurs. I loved reading about them myself at that age, but we’ve learned so much since then; vast new regions of the world have opened up for fossil exploration, and new technology has allowed us to gain some idea of the animals' skin and muscles, not just their bones.
As a result, the grey-green and stupidly lumbering beasts of my childhood have been replaced by much more interesting animals; darting predators with tiger stripes, giants covered in feathers, and winged reptiles the height of giraffes. We found one that waited in water to lunge at prey like a crocodile, others that leapt and glided through trees to catch insects or mammals.
The Girl enjoyed play-acting the dinosaurs' roles with me -- waiting in water to lunge like a crocodile, leaping from tree to tree after small prey,and so on. She knows that each job -- apex predator, insectivore and so on -- was an important niche in a system and I explained that niches remain more or less constant over time. Every system of plants and animals will need someone to clean up carcasses, someone to be the large herbivore, and someone to a keystone species. In Ireland those roles were filled by placental mammals, in Australia by marsupials, in New Zealand by birds, and ages ago by dinosaurs, yet the roles remain much the same.
Then, reading through the newer discoveries, we found the best dinosaur name ever --- Irritator. It sounds like the least threatening comic-book villain ever, but it was a kind of spinosaur predator and that’s its real Latin name. A brief web search told me that illegal fossil-hunters had artificially plastered extra bits onto the skull of their discovery, and palaeontologists who acquired the fossil named it after the feeling they experienced trying to undo the damage and find the real dinosaur underneath.
“Oooh – can I act out this dinosaur, Daddy?”
Sure, I said.
She got behind me and began poking me in the shoulder. “Daddy? Daddy? Daddy, can I have a drink of water? Can I read over your shoulder? Do I have to go to bed? Can’t I stay up a little longer? Can I have a fizzy drink? Do I have to eat vegetables? Are we there yet? Daddy? Daddy?”
You can do that very well when you want to, I laughed.
“I've had a lot of practice over the years,” she said smartly.
Photo: Triceratops at the London Museum of Natural History, with The Girl last year.