Published on September 15th, 2022 | by David Marshall


Episode 144: Russell’s Dinosauroid

The end-Cretaceous mass extinction was caused by a large asteroid that struck the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Within an instant, the course of history was altered and the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. As we piece together the timeline of the event, assisted by such amazing sites as Tanis, we can’t help but think “what if the asteroid had missed and this extinction never happened?”.

Dr Dale Russell of the Canadian Museum of Nature decided to explore this question further than most. He, along with model-maker Ron Séguin, produced a speculative model of what the Late Cretaceous dinosaur, Stenonychosaurus, might have evolved into had the extinction event not happened. This ‘dinosauroid’ has proven to be very controversial to say the least.

In this episode, we’re joined by Dr Will Tattersdill, a literary critic and expert in science fiction from the University of Birmingham, UK. He gives us unique insights into the dinosauroid, as we explore its concept, reception and legacy. We weigh up the value of the model as piece of palaeoart, as an academic statement, and as a conversation starter.

This episode is based on Naish and Tattersdill 2021, utilising material from this Tet Zoo article.

A common theme within science fiction is the anachronistic placement of an animal or person in a time they don’t belong. Whether someone is transported by a time machine, or a prehistoric animal survives to the present day, the appeal of exploring such stories can’t be denied.

Dr Dale Russell was a vertebrate palaeontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature. His work focussed on dinosaurs and he is known for naming genera such as Daspletosaurus and Dromiceiomimus. He is perhaps best known for his dinosauroid model and thoughts about speculative evolution. ©Canadian Museum of Nature.
The dinosauroid was born out of Russell’s interest in the relationship between vertebrate body and brain sizes. Extrapolating an increasing trend in coelurosaur brain sizes, he began to consider whether human-like intelligence would have been an inevitable outcome had they not gone extinct. Image via TetZoo.
The dinosauroid model was produced by Russell and Séguin in Syllogeus; an internal journal of the Canadian Museum of Nature. The article was detailing the construction of a museum model of Stenonychosaurus inequalis, but in the second half, it explored an alternate history of what Stenonychosaurus might have evolved into had it not gone extinct. ©Ron Séguin.
The anatomy of the dinosauroid raises an awful lot of questions. Is a human-like body inevitable? How would such human-like features evolve from a reptilian ancestor? The model drew “much friendly abuse” from Russell’s academic peers since its publication. ©Darren Naish.
Despite all the criticism, the model still achieved its objective of inspiring conversation. What do you think of it?
Is the model plausible? Does its value lie in the conversations it starts? Does it divert attention away from real science? Image via TetZoo.

The Dinosauroid (named Herman) now hangs out in the Canadian Museum of Nature, although not on public display.

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