The other day my four-year-old niece Tara came home from a long hard day at her day care facility in Boston and announced to her parents: “I’m going to be a palaeontologist!” One of the things this statement suggests, besides a rather ambitious day care syllabus, is that fossil-hunting is not the dead profession you thought it was. Kids are of course always thrilled by the idea of digging around in mud, but it’s heartening to know that although the world spends much of its time being infatuated with new things, it retains some interest in the old things, which is important because apparently there was some useful stuff before the iPod, though nobody can seem to remember what.
Tara must be excited about the fearsome pliosaur whose discovery they recently announced, and by ‘they’ I mean a couple of lunatics who really did become palaeontologists. (Disclaimer, which I feel I had better add given the current political culture: I mean this in a jocular fashion, so please don’t firebomb my house for hurting the sentiments of palaeontologists. I admire palaeontologists. My niece is going to be a palaeontologist. The Ross Geller character from Friends is a palaeontologist, and I like him even though everyone in the show thinks he’s a snore).
A pliosaur is a prehistoric marine predator. This particular 150 million-year-old specimen was dug out of a Norwegian snowdrift, and its 20,000 bone fragments were painstakingly put together over many months. It turns out that it’s a whacking great thing, with a head the size of a crocodile; vertebrae the size of dinner plates; teeth the size of cucumbers; and jaws in which you could fit a small car, with snapping power that would make Tyrannosaurus rex look like a toothless old lady (and total the small car).
This horrible beast is called Predator X, presumably because there doesn’t exist a word mean enough to describe it and also perhaps because it will work very nice as the title for the future video game/movie. They’ve found enormous pliosaurs before in the same area (one of them was called The Monster) but this one—50 feet long and weighing 45 tonnes—takes the Jurassic cake. It roamed the oceans propelled by two powerful sets of flippers, thinking about the movie Jaws and wishing that humans would evolve, already.
Personally, I find giant, gruesome slavering monsters that try to kill and/or eat you—think Godzilla, King Kong, Jaws, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Alien or Species—much less frightening than the very small organisms that bump you off without ever being seen, like the tiny, deadly irukandji jellyfish, or any number of viruses from smallpox to the flavour of the month, swine flu. What also gives me the willies are the suave, bloodless fiends whose urbanity lulls you into almost ignoring the fact that they’re looking forward to flaying the skin off you even as they pour your wine (think Dracula, or Anthony Hopkins in—well, just Anthony Hopkins himself, really).
But by far the most frightening thing, in the world of horrible monsters, is the malignant (or soul-sapped) child. Remember the two little girls in The Shining? Regan in The Exorcist? The girl in The Ring? Damien in Damien: Omen II? The many cold, evil children in that movie about a villageful of cold, evil children?
Forget Friday the Thirteenth, Independence Day, and Jurassic Park. Take it from me, there’s nothing scarier than a beautiful little child with evil intent. I’ve seen that look on Tara’s face sometimes when I’ve told her she can’t have a seventh piece of chocolate. So if she asks my view on her prospects as a palaeontologist, I’m going to say, Fantastic—knock yourself out.