When I was a kid, dinosaurs were believed to be, basically, giant, mostly slow moving lizards who lived in hot swampy jungles. The dinosaurs that appeared in fiction and films reflected that understanding. Some versions moved faster than others. Sometimes humans encountered these creatures by going back in time but, in the versions I’m currently considering, people discovered them in lost worlds – places on Earth where the beasts had been isolated and somehow avoided the changes that time and evolution forced on the rest of the planet.
The Valley of Gwangi. Maple White Land. The Center of the Earth. The Savage Land. Pellucidar. Pal-ul-don. Caprona. The Land Unknown. Skull Island. Loch Ness. When I was kid, there was a lot of debate about why the dinosaurs had gone extinct. Maybe mammals ate too many of their eggs. Maybe they were too dumb. Maybe the world got too cold. For whatever reason, they ceased to exist. Except. Somehow there were places in the world where dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles still fought and survived.
Decades later, in 2015, the understanding of dinosaurs has evolved and improved. We know that they were warm blooded and lived in many types of environments. Many of them had feathers. Most of the creatures that we think of as dinosaurs (or pterosaurs or marine reptiles) were no more “reptiles” than mammals are reptiles. Snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles and alligators – those are reptiles. Dinosaurs (and pterosaurs and, probably, marine reptiles) were something else.
About 60 million years ago an asteroid collided with the Earth in what is now the Gulf of Mexico. That’s the current scientific consensus.The aftermath of that collision wiped out most of the “higher” species of life including dinosaurs, pterosaurs and marine “reptiles”. The creatures that went extinct, had they somehow survived in little Lost Worlds, would have been strange and foreign beasts to Verne and O’Brien, Burroughs and Harryhausen, Doyle and all the other authors and film makers who conjured up still extant versions of prehistoric lands.
I still love the lost worlds that I read about in books and saw in movies. I’m delighted by all the new information that has been discovered about dinosaurs since I was a kid. It’s a little weird to think of a tyrannosaur as (sort of) a giant flightless bird (or a pigeon as small type of dinosaur) but I can roll with that. I understand that the likelihood of entire ecosystems surviving unchanged for tens of millions of years is … ridiculous. Yes, there are some species that have adapted to the changing world with changing much themselves. But those are individual species. There are no lone islands, inaccessible plateaus or valleys that sport ecosystems where time has stood still. Isolation tends to make ecosystems weirder and more unique rather than keep them in their pre-isolated state.
But I’m a nerd and I want my Lost Worlds. And fiction is malleable in ways the real world is not. How can one explain the existence of these Lost Worlds when actual dinosaurs were not slow moving reptiles and, even if they were, they couldn’t have survived unchanged for 60 million years?
That’s easy. Dinosaurs, my beloved new feathery beasts, are long gone. That asteroid did them in. The creatures in the Lost Worlds really are (sometimes, except when in pursuit of a novel human morsel) slow moving reptiles … who evolved in isolation along parallel paths as the original dinosaurs so that, while they resemble the originals, they are their own things.
The Valley of Gwangi. Maple White Land. The Center of the Earth. The Savage Land. Pellucidar. Pal-ul-don. Caprona. The Land Unknown. Skull Island. Loch Ness. There’s no need to repopulate them with feathered foreigners. They were never lands that time forgot. Time ran at a different speed there and created places that we mistook for something ancient.