A brontosaurus: we are willing to forgive this colossal dinosaur its tiny head | Helen Sullivan

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It is a fact about people that we all love a brontosaurus. The long curved neck, the small head, the massive ribs. We don’t mind a brachiosaurus either. We don’t mind that its head is out of proportion with its body; we don’t hold this against it as we do with the T Rex’s puny arms.

We love to think of the brontosaurus with its head so far away from its tail, and of the brachiosaurus with its head so far above us, we who are at that moment dressed in animal skins. We forget that people were not there and then we remember and it doesn’t matter. Look up and you will see the small head, soaring, saurusing above you, having just plucked a fern from the ground. The head is backlit by the prehistoric dinosaur sun. You can just make out the silhouette fern sticking out of its mouth, the jaws moving. Now look in front of you, and there are the elephant feet, there is the enormous shadow.

A 1921 cartoon called Gertie on Tour imagines the thoughts of a brontosaurus as she navigates the modern world. She is disturbed that toads are so much smaller than they were “in her day”, she dreams of being the “life of the party”, and we see her dancing in a field filled with brontosaurus. She dances by lifting one front foot and then the other, swaying her head and tail in opposite directions. Gertie was the first main character imagined specifically for a cartoon film. Of course she was.

To make Gertie the Dinosaur, the first Gertie film, the animator, Winsor McCay, had to hand draw every frame from scratch – including all the backgrounds. He drew 10,000 drawings. The story of how he named her is very sweet: He heard – according to a Disney animator who knew McCay – a gay couple talking in a hallway, “and one of them said, “Oh, Bertie, wait a minute!” in a very sweet voice. He thought it was a good name, but wanted it to be a girl’s name instead of a boy’s, so he called it “Gertie”.”

He named her after someone he could tell was very loved, because McCay loved Gertie – he had spent so much time creating copies of her. In Jurassic Park, the first CGI dinosaur to be made was a brachiosaurus – where Gertie is elephant-like, brachiosaurus is her smaller, taller, giraffe-like cousin; it is also the first dinosaur the paleontologist’s safety team see roaming around in the park – eating leaves, hooting, and emerging from glittering water. The Jurassic Park brachiosaurus, in the words of an obituary for a lifesize brachiosaurus model that once stood at the Chicago Museum, “centered brachiosaurus in the public consciousness as the first believable dinosaur many had seen”.

To think of a dinosaur is to think of the copies. The dinosaur T-shirt, the dinosaur bike helmet, tiny dinosaur figurines, enormous plush dinosaurs, dinosaur heads whose jaws move with springs, dinosaur picture books and TV shows and movies. The copy we loved when I was small was a brachiosaurus, solid and heavy despite being plastic, with rough dusty green skin. She seemed as if she had been made for adults; she lived on my mother’s mantelpiece above our heater, she was dignified and very real, even if she wasn’t really alive.

Perhaps one of the reasons we introduce children to dinosaurs long before they can understand evolution is that it teaches them to imagine the past and to love imagining it, to care about it enough to bring it to life – to keep it alive. To draw the pages and to flip them and to make the dinosaur move.

  • Helen Sullivan is a Guardian journalist. Her first book, a memoir called Freak of Nature, will be published in 2024. She will be appearing in conversation with science journalist Ed Yong in Melbourne on 14 October for the Wheeler Centre’s Spring Fling

  • Have an animal, insect or other subject you feel is worthy of appearing in this very serious column? Email helen.sullivan@theguardian.com

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