Seeing a Brachiosaurus in real life was one of the most moving moments of my life.
On why I love giant dinosaurs (and giraffes), and how they reflect on the state of the world today.
I few years ago I saw a dinosaur and I cried. I was really excited to go and see what is one of my favourite species of dinosaur for the first time in real life, the Brachiosaurus in Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde (Natural History Museum), which is the tallest dinosaur mount in the world!
More accurately it’s actually a Giraffatitan, a different genus in the Brachiosauridae family, although it was only reclassified as a different species as recently as 2009. Because that species is actually taller, it’s fair to say that while I think of myself as a Brachiosaurus lover, my heart belongs to Giraffatitan. Either way, they’re related species and both amazing!
For a long time, Brachiosaurus (specifically what we now know as Giraffatitan) was thought to be the largest of all dinosaurs. Several even bigger dinosaurs have been discovered in the last few decades, but that hardly diminishes from the glory of this enormous creature.
I’m the kind of person that isn’t wedded to seeing things in real life, I’m mostly quite content to know many amazing things exist and see wonderful photos of them—I know the demands of billions of humans means seeing the most rare and spectacular things is a privilege that could damage many special places and species. Plus being someone that doesn’t fly anymore rather limits my ability to see many things anyway. But gosh I am glad I did get the chance to see this most wonderous of creatures, and I was not anticipating just how much it would move me.
Now part of this is a bit of pop culture nostalgia, seeing in real life what to me is one of the most moving moments in all cinema, the reveal of the Brachiosaurs in Jurassic Park. That is the first scene in which we clearly see a living dinosaur in that film, and the choice of this spectacular giant cements why bringing dinosaurs back to life is such an incredible thing to strive for in that reality.
Jurassic Park is my very favourite movie, and although I’ve watched it more times than is reasonable, I was glad to get the opportunity to see it on the big screen again a few years ago for an anniversary release. That moment with the brachiosaurus drew me to tears then too, as seeing such an enormous majestic creature alive, almost at full scale, is simply astonishing. My love for that cinematic moment is just one part of why seeing the real thing really affected me though.
In Berlin the Giraffatitan is displayed in a hall alongside two other sauropods (that’s the long-necked dinosaurs), the also astonishing Diplodocus (one of several copies of the same skeleton, which I’ve seen in person several times in various place
s), and the smaller Dicraeosaurus. There are also several other types of dinosaurs there, including a Kentrosaurus, a relative of another of my favourite dinosaurs, the delightful Stegosaurus. Together they give the impression of having walked into a flourishing (albeit skeletal) ecosystem of giant creatures.
Seeing this animal in reality, made tangible just how spectacular the natural world was in the time of the dinosaurs, and indeed what it still could almost be if we let it be today.
This is a species that is about twelve meters tall; that’s a four-story house. Ie, twice as tall as the little house I’m sat in writing this! Indeed taller than the vast majority of all the buildings in the (admittedly not very tall) city I live in!
Can you imagine walking outside to see a herd of these animals striding over the landscape, taller than most things humans build, taller than most trees in even? The largest land animals in the world today don’t even come close (in the water only a handful of whale species are even comparable).
Africa is the last echo of a world that was once filled with giant animals across every continent. Even though the dinosaurs are long extinct, the age of the mammals that followed also filled the world with giants: Mammoths, rhinos, big cats and more once ranged across Eurasian and the Americas; South America was home to giant sloths and armadillos; towering flightless birds could be found all around the world too. These were all creatures that for a time also shared the world with humanity when we popped up much more recently. But alas, it seems as humans left Africa they began a path of destruction into the natural world that we continue relentlessly to this day.
Most of the large animals in the world now are either extinct or on the way to being so.
Parts of Africa are among the few places where you can still see big animals in what feels like abundance (although surely much less so than the populations should be if humanity didn’t continually persecute them). One of my last far-flung trips before I gave up flying was to go to Kenya, where I had the great joy of seeing among many large animals the beautiful namesake of Giraffatitan, and one of my favourite living animals, the Giraffe. I even visited the Giraffe sanctuary in Nairobi and got to see them very close indeed!
Giraffes get up to about five or six meters tall, not quite brachiosaurus scale (but are basically the same shape), but are truly incredible animals to encounter. They tower over all the other large animals in the savannah. Sadly like most bigger animals across the world, giraffe numbers have been plummeting in recent years. They are one of the most spectacular animals alive today, and one you can hardly miss if you’re out in the wild where they live. But like so many other species they are a victim to humans expanding into every part of the world, and exploiting every resource we can find, with little care for the effect that has on every other species.
A few days ago the World Wildlife Fund published its regular Living Planet Report, which year on year delivers ever more alarming evidence that humans are in the midst of causing the first mass extinction done by choice. The headline this year is that 69% of wildlife on Earth has vanished since 1970! Did you notice fewer insects in the air, fewer birds tweeting, or if in the savannah, fewer giraffe roaming? Well that’s because they’re gone, and they’re still declining fast.
When I cried upon seeing the brachiosaurs, it was partly because it connected me to a bit of pop culture I hold dear. More so it was simply because it is one of most incredible living things that ever existed, and helped me imagine an astonishing other world I could never experience. But layered on top of that it’s because it symbolises what we are losing today.
I could see that incredible animal of that past and it is almost exactly the same animal (if a little smaller) as the one we have today. An animal I have seen alive and so beautiful, but one I know, along with the ecosystem around it, along with every ecosystem on the planet, is perilously close to going as extinct as the brachiosaurs, and all because we are driving it towards that end.
Will future generations of humanity inherit a world where the only place they can see and be moved by the wonder of a giraffe is in a museum, alongside the equally extinct dinosaurs? I really hope not.