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How the Dinosaurs Lost the Earth and other Lessons in Conflict

August 16, 2015

It’s a little known fact that the mammals were responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

If you believe your teachers, scientists or those dusty plaques next to the fossils at the natural history museum, you will hear that it was, in fact, a fatal combination of climate change and comet strike which the large creatures were unable to adapt to.

Not so.  I am here to tell you that the culprit was a tiny, furry critter that bore a resemblance to the modern shrew, and was little larger than your thumb. If you grant me your attention for a short while I shall tell you the tale which starts, oddly enough, with a tail.

Apatosaurus was not a morning dinosaur.  He never liked to start the day at the start of the day preferring, if at all possible, to start it when it had well and truly begun and sometimes, when it was on the way out again.  Partly this was because he was the length of two double-decker busses and it was never the easiest manoeuvre to climb out of bed, and partly it was because he was a lazy old sod.

This morning, however, he was awoken just before the sun peaked over the horizon by a flash in the sky.  He looked up, eyes glazed over with sleep dust, but could not make out the cause.  Was that a new, particularly bright star on the horizon?  Truth be told, it was hard to say since Apatosaurus rarely saw the sun rise, let alone observe the twinkling starts that preceded it.  Well, he was awake now.  Grumpily, and slowly, he rose to his feet and swung his neck in low arcs from left to right, looking for a nice breakfast bush to tuck into.

Instead, he swung his head straight into the tail of a passing Stegosaurus, getting a tail-spike square in the nostril.  Already grumpy at his early start, the Apatosaurus roared with anger.

“What the blazes do you think you’re doing?” He bellowed at the Stegosaurus (and I can tell you, when an Apatosaurus bellows, you jolly well know about it).

Unlike the Apatosaurus, The Stegosaurus was a morning dinosaur.  On this particular morning, he was making his way to the river for his morning drink, enjoying the fresh air and morning mists that covered the land just before the break of dawn.  Cheerfully, he smiled at Apatosaurus.

“Didn’t you see me walking here?” he said, “This is a clearly marked footpath, and I believe that as I am already on it, I have the right of way.”

“Right of way?” Bellowed the Apatosaurus (he was a bellowing kind of guy) “poppycock!  You were travelling way too fast!  You may have been on the path, but everyone knows that you have to give way to the dinosaur on the right-hand-side, especially if that dinosaur is already annoyed, and several times your size!”

“Now hang on a minute, sir, the right-of-way rule only applies if you’re giving way at a rock on a two-lane path and four paths cross, not three. Besides, size has nothing to do with it – I do hope you’re not trying to bully me?”

Well, now, that was it for the Apatosaurus.  Not normally quick to violence, as with any dinosaur no matter how nice most of the time, the wrong situation in the wrong mood with the right kind of escalation can make monsters of them all.  He lost his temper and, quick as a flash, swung his head round again to deliver an almighty head-butt to the smaller Stegosaurus.

The Stegosaurus saw this coming.  He ducked under the mighty blow, and lifted his tail high in the air which, as I’m sure you will remember from history class, has four vicious, meter-long spikes at the end.  One of these spikes impaled itself in the Apatosaurus’ eye as it passed, and continued deep into its brain.  The huge creature shivered briefly, then dropped down stone-dead – leaving his eye embedded on one of the Stegosaurus’s spikes, and making the ground tremble with the impact.

The Stegosaurus looked down with pity at the enormous corpse in front of him.

“Sorry old chap” he said, “that got out of control rather quickly, nothing personal you understand.”

He flexed the dustbin lid sized plates running down his back, angling them towards the sun to warm his blood and continued the journey to the nearby bank. He gave his tail a quick shake to try and dislodge the eyeball, but it was stuck fast.  Shrugging to himself, he set off again – pausing briefly to glance at a particularly bright star just above the horizon.

“Strange” he thought to himself “I don’t remember that one, but then my brain is the size of a walnut so perhaps it is just me”.

The going was slow – the Stegosaurus was as big as a van, and was not built for haste.  He waddled from side to side as he walked,  pausing from time to time to take mouthfuls of grass as he saw them whilst his enormous tail, and its hitchhiking eyeball, swished around behind him.

He had not travelled far in this manner before he noticed the Triceratops, standing on a small little hill beside the path, watching him carefully.

“Good morning!” cried the Stegosaurus, with a cheery sweep of its tail “And how are you on this fine, sunny day!”

“Get off my land.” Said the Triceratops.

The Stegosaurus gave him a friendly smile, and replied: “I’m terribly sorry Triceratops, I don’t wish to argue but I believe that I am on a public footpath leading down to that river, where I intend to take my morning drink.  Were I to be on your land I would happily remove myself, but I do not believe this to be the case.”

The Triceratops, standing atop a small hillock beside the path, pointedly stubbed his front hoof into the earth beneath his feet – once, twice, three times.

“This here” he snarled “is my property, and your path cuts through it.  Be warned, Stegosaurus, you are trespassing on my land I am within my legal rights to defend myself, and run you through.” With that, he lowered his head and exposed the three horns that sat there, each as long as a man, and the hard shield behind protecting his back.

The Stegosaurus had no wish to enter into a tussle with the Triceratops – the brute was bigger, stronger and grumpier. He could easily take a detour around the small hillock by the path, and access a riverbank a few hundred yards downstream instead.  But this path led to his favourite bank, where the water was shallow and clear and besides (Stegosaurs are notoriously stubborn dinosaurs), why should he back down?

“Run me through?  For wandering across the edge of your land?” he said, “don’t you think that’s a little extreme?” (which was, of course, an ironic thing to say, given he had just speared an Apatosaurus in the brain who crossed the road without looking not twenty minutes earlier.)

“Extreme?” replied the Triceratops with a snort.  I don’t know who you are or what you’re capable of – and after all, I’d rather be judged by twelve dinosaurs than carried by SIX!”

The Stegosaurus paused to consider what this could mean for a few minutes, before deciding it was something made for brains larger than his to comprehend.

“I’m very sorry, Triceratops, I mean you no harm, but I shall take this path to my favourite riverbank and whilst I could take a small detour for my morning drink, I believe I am in my rights to do be here and shall not be hindrance by you.”

The Triceratops, standing on his little hillock, glared at the Stegosaurus. Indicating Stegosaurus’s tail with a nod of his head, he said:

“What’s that, Stegosaurus?  Are you carrying a concealed weapon back there?”

“Huh?” replied the Stegosaurus, glancing back “oh those?  They come everywhere with me, I don’t really have a choice about it you know.  Or the eyeball as it happens, which now seems to go where the tail goes.  Besides, they’re hardly what I’d call concealed, Triceratops” and with that he gave them a gentle swish, making the eyeball wobble.

“A threat!”  Cried the Triceratops. “I have informed you that this is my property, which you are trespassing and which I have a right to defend.  I now have reason to fear for my life, since you have brought deadly weapons on to my property without a reasonable justification.  I have issued a clear warning, which you have not responded to.  I am left with little choice but to defend myself.”

And with that, Triceratops charged down the little hillock and before Stegosaurus had the chance to respond, plunged his horns deep into his chest.  After a few minutes of goring and head-shaking, Triceratops lifted his head stood over Stegosaurus’s ravaged corpse, blood running down his beak and dripping from his horns.

He snorted, shook the blood from his eyes, and almost as an afterthought used the spine frills round his neck to saw off the Stegosaur’s tail, the Apatosaurus eyeball still attached, and wrapped it around his neck as a warning to others.  Admiring himself in a nearby puddle, he trotted back up to the top of his hillock to admire the view.  Was that a new star on the horizon?  It seemed to have a small tail poking from one side.  Curious.  But no mind.

He stood a while, gazing over his property, keenly searching for intruders and threats, but his recent exertion had caused him to work up something of a thirst. Didn’t Stegosaurus mention something about a river nearby? He trotted down the hillock, gingerly stepping over the still-twitching corpse of the former Stegosaurus, and made his way towards the riverbank.

Before long the barren ground of small hillocks and rocks, tufted with grass which he called home gave way to patches of trees and scrubby bushland.  The river was not far, he could hear the waters babble on their way to the sea.  As the sun rose higher in the sky the air became warmer, and the breeze died away to a stifling stillness.

It was this stillness which caused Triceratops to pause when he spied a nearby copse of trees shiver and shake as if hit by a blast of wind.  There was no wind.

“What-ho!” he called out into the treeline: “Who’s there?  I know you’re in there, I’m no fool so you may as well come out and introduce yourself!”

The trees rustled some more and, slowly, a leathery snout rose above the leafy tops cautiously sniffing the air.  Then, following the snout, a head appeared lined with rows of sharp, serrated teeth.  Two piercing eyes focussed down on the Triceratops beneath them.

“Well hello there, Triceratops, well met on this fine sunny day.  And where, might I ask, are you headed to?”

The Triceratops gulped, and craned his neck to meet the eye of the Tyrannosaur staring down at him.

“Well met indeed, Tyrannosaur!” He said. “I am sorry to have disturbed you, I am simply taking a walk down to the riverbed to fetch myself a drink of water.”

“Indeed,” said the Tyrannosaur, “a fine way to spend what is proving to become a very warm and pleasant day.  Might I trouble you to also tell me from where you have come?  Forgive my curiosity.”

“Why, nowhere in particular, good sir! I have simply been enjoying the view from my hillock this morning, looking out across the plains, when a terrible thirst took hold of me, which could only be sated by a nice soothing drink down by the river.  Why do you ask?”

“Oh, it almost seems silly to say, and it’s probably nothing” replied the Tyrannosaur, idly scratching an itch on his chest with one of his tiny arms “but I couldn’t help noticing that you are covered from nose to shoulder in dried blood, and that you are wearing the tail of a Stegosaurus around your neck – a tail which, if I am not mistaken, has the eyeball of an Apatosaurus impaled upon it.”

“Oh, that?  It’s nothing my good sir, nothing at all.  As you know, I am a vegetarian and a pacifist, and was merely defending my property from an intruder using reasonable force, as is my legal right, since my intruder entered my property bearing dangerous weaponry clearly intended for no good.”

The Triceratops said all this whilst squinting up at the Tyrannosaur, and slowly backing away from the inquisitive head poking out of the treetops, drool glinting in the sun as it seeped between those long, sharp teeth.  The angle caused his trophy to slip and the bloody tail, eyeball and all, hit the floor with a wet slap.  There was no other sound. “Now that that has been cleared up, I shan’t disturb you any further, and will be on my way.  Good day, sir.”

But the Triceratops had not the time move far before, with a shake of tree trunks and with two great strides, the Tyrannosaur moved to block the path.  He turned his head slowly to look down upon the blood-stained Triceratops, suddenly looking very small in the larger dinosaur’s shadow.

“I’m afraid I cannot let you pass, my dear boy” he sneered. “I can see you are knowledgeable in the laws of our land, so you will understand my own concern in seeing you walk towards me, on public ground, soaked in the blood and gore of another dinosaur?”

The Triceratops backed up a bit, so he could look up to see the eyes of the Tyrannosaur.

“It is true that I could use a shower, Tyrannosaur, but I have explained to you the reason of my fearsome appearance and surely a creature as majestic and powerful as yourself cannot fear one as slow and cumbersome as I?”

The Tyrannosaur cocked his head to one side, narrowed his big, yellow eyes, and licked his lips.

“I wish I could be that confident of my own safety, I really do” he said quietly “but such is my fear that I have no choice but to protect myself by eating you.”

“Wait, wait!” cried the Triceratops “If you really fear me such, why not use those long, long legs of yours to run away?  Look how heavy I am, look at my squat, little legs I could never catch you – surely I pose you no threat?”

“Ah yes, but I must again remind you of the laws of our land, my dear Triceratops, those that allowed you to eviscerate Stegosaurus with such impunity? As you know, they protect each dinosaur in his home but they also ensure that each has the right to not retreat in the face of adversity, but defend themselves where they stand.  I wish there was some other way, but it is my legal right to confront you when in fear of my life, rather than to try and escape.  I wish there was something I could do but, well, the law is the law.”

And with that, Tyrannosaur lunged at Triceratops, caught his head and bony shield in his jaws, snapped his neck with a single twist and proceeded to feast on his insides.  Before long all that remained of Triceratops was a large, bony cavity where there was once a proud ribcage and satisfied, Tyrannosaur curled up for a nap.

And so it was that, as he was sleeping, a tiny shrew-like creature, out for a walk to gather berries and seeds, stumbled across the path and saw the tail of the Stegosaurus with an Apatosaurus eyeball dangling from it, the Triceratops with its chest cavity eaten bare and the snoring, contented Tyrannosaur with chunks of Triceratops flesh still hanging from its exposed teeth.

The shrew knew the law.  He stood there for a while, observing the scene, and tried to consider what a reasonable use of force could mean when applied to a shrew the length of a human thumb defending himself against a Tyrannosaurus Rex the length of six humans end to end, who had just eaten a Triceratops who had murdered a Stegosaurus who had mutilated an Apatosaurus.

Eventually, it appeared to reach a decision.

It is a little-known fact that mammals had evolved to the pinnacles of technology we see around us today, even back then at their dawn – they just didn’t make a big deal out of it.  The shrew whipped out a tiny, tiny mobile phone and jabbed in a few numbers. He pointed it at a passing, equally tiny, satellite.  The satellite received its command.  Slowly, it turned until it was pointed at a passing comet.  The laser changed the course of the comet, ever so slightly, pulling it into earth’s orbit.

The shrew put on a tiny helmet, burrowed a few feet into the ground, and stuck its fingers in its ears.  Within a few hours, the Earth’s gravity had done its work and the comets trajectory was such that it crashed into the atmosphere, becoming a savage fireball vaporising everything in its path.

And so, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Triceratops, Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus, along with his dinosaur kin, lost the arms race.  The mammals technology was wiped out by the blast, of course, but it only took them a couple of hundred million years to get back in business again and now, all this time later, it’s hardly as if anything happened at all.

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