Dinosaur fate as science communication

Dinosaurs are a stroke of luck for paleontology – and probably for science as a whole. For almost two centuries, first as an artistic motif and later as pop culture, they have been a source of fascination fueled by ever new discoveries and ever more precise depictions. Dinosaurs are an anchor of the natural sciences in the minds of all age groups, firing the imagination and arousing curiosity and interest in research.

154 million years... An unimaginable length of time. How different our world may have looked so long ago [...]

Geologist and paleontologist Dr. Oliver Wings knows that they are not just yesterday's news: "By studying our planet's past, we are able to make predictions about how things will develop in the future. In his book "Europasaurus: Life on Jurassic Islands", which he developed together with the artist Joschua Knüppe, he draws attention particularly to the facet of coexistence in ecosystems. The bilingual, German-English volume, the development of which was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation as an exemplary science communication project, bears the addition "Graphic Novel" on the cover.

A picture book, then, one in which the text initially recedes into the background. "154 million years... An unimaginable length of time. How different our world may have looked so long ago [...]", the preface sets the mood for a story about dwarfed "giant" dinosaurs that once lived on an island in what is now the Harz region in Germany – a story that summarizes everything researchers have so far found out about the Europasaurus dinosaurs, their contemporaries and their environment.

However, the scientist and the artist are not so interested in scientific illustrations, but more in bringing their objects of research to life: How did the animals move? What was it like living in their environment? Who ate whom? The scientific quality reflected in the illustrations is high, but at a certain point imagination and cautious speculation must inevitably complement the findings from the fossil evidence. It can be reconstructed where muscles attached to bones. But did the creatures have scales or feathers? What colors were predominant? Every visualization – as with all reconstructions of extinct species – involves some degree of interpretation.
 

The diversity of fauna and flora and detailed information on the ecosystem can be found again in an extensive factual section that provides the scientific evidence for all the scenes depicted in the book: What was found, what can be read from it, what did the habitat look like in concrete terms, at which points does one have to abstract or interpret? It is a fascinating and instructive insight into paleontology and its reconstruction attempts with which the book concludes – one that makes you want to visit a museum. So, it doesn't matter too much that some might have expected more narrative from a graphic novel.

The book "Europasaurus" can be seen as a hybrid between picture book, exhibition, dino park, wide-screen action, animal film and popular textbook. The fact that it fits between two book covers is remarkable, for all these formats can be easily tucked under the arm, shown to friends, taken to the sofa to browse, and compared with other dinosaur representations or scientific material – whether by children or adults. This sets a weighty dinosaur anchor in everyday life, while the research ship sets off on an almost infinitely long chain to ever new voyages of discovery through the depths of time.
 

book cover

References

"Europasaurus – Life on Jurassic Islands" by Oliver Wings und Joschua Knüppe, published by Dr. Friedrich Pfeil, 2020

More about the Europasaurus

The Volkswagen Foundation funded Dr. Oliver Wings' research on the finds from Langenberg under the title "The Europasaurus Project: The Upper Jurassic Island Fauna of Oker, Lower Saxony" from 2011 to 2016. Oliver Wings is now curator of the Geosciences and Geiseltal Collections at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. For the development of the graphic novel together with paleo-artist Joschua Knüppe (Academy of Art in Münster) and Henning Ahlers, the Foundation also provided additional funding for science communication.

Most of the Europasaurus fossils found in the quarry near Goslar are stored in the Münchehagen Dinopark and are available to reseachers. In addition to over 230 lifelike dinosaur reconstructions, a small Europasaurus herd can also be seen there. In the Live Lab & Research Centre Münchehagen, the fossilized bones of Europasaurus and other dinosaurs are uncovered before the visitors' eyes.

Three animated episodes from the graphic novel about the Europasaurus and a book review can be found in the University of Halle-Wittenberg’s online magazine "campus halensis"

At the Landesmuseum Hannover, the exhibition KinoSaurier will be on display until 29 August 2021, parts of which can also be experienced virtually.