Why are kids obsessed with dinosaurs?
It tells us an important story about being human.
A has decided that the T. Rex toy we bought him from the Natural History Museum in London ("That'd be £15") is his son. I tell him I'm confused because until now I thought he was a lion, interested in raising lion cubs. A, who turned five this year, ignores me and declares that from now on, he will only go to bed after putting his son to sleep first. He squeezes my battery-operated grandchild's famously small arms, and it (or should I say he?) lets out an approving screech.
The pale-green thing with a disproportionately large head and eyes that glow a sinister yellow is the latest addition to A's vast dino library, which also includes a burgeoning catalogue of books, movies, and TV shows. As I type this, I can hear the jingle of Disney's Gigantosaurus –"Gigantosaurus/is really enormous" – playing in the living room. No other species, extant or extinct, has such a sprawling presence in our household.
I have no idea exactly how and when A developed his passion for dinos – it's as if he could always nonchalantly hold forth on the difference between a Stegosaurus ("plates on the back") and a Spinosaurus ("curved spine"), or why the Parasaurolophus had a hollow crest ("it worked like a horn"). While he still mutates into Simba the Lion when an adult's instruction displeases him, dinos have a special claim over his affections, as his latest fatherhood fantasy shows. (Bonus: It has allowed us to have an interesting conversation about adoption.)
Why do you like dinosaurs so much, A?
"I like dinosaurs because... well, when I learnt about them I just really liked them," he says in a tone that sounds like, "Duh, what kind of question is that even."
Umm okay. So what's your favourite kind?
"I like roaring dinosaurs. But my favourite are hadrosaurs even though they don't roar."
I see. And what about T. Rex?
"I like T. Rex because it's thumpy and leaves big footprints."
A's dinophilia is amazing, but it's also entirely ordinary. "As a near-universal rule, kids love dinosaurs," writes the journalist Kate Morgan. "[I]f you weren’t obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid, you almost definitely know someone who was.
"These kids can rattle off the scientific names of dozens, if not hundreds, of dinosaurs. They can tell you what these creatures ate, what they looked like, and where they lived. They know the difference between the Mesozoic era and the Cretaceous period. The level of dinosaur expertise a kid can have is seriously astounding, particularly when you consider that the average adult can name maybe ten dinosaurs at best."
This nonpareil popularity of dinos fuels a thriving global dino industry, churning out everything from T-shirts to theme parks. Enter China. In the southwestern Chinese city of Zigong, oil explorers discovered one of the world's largest deposits of Jurassic era dino fossils in the 1970s. (The Jurassic era extended between 200 million years and 145 million years ago.) Zigong now makes a fortune manufacturing and exporting 80% of the world's animatronic dinos. A five-metre-long Tyrannosaurus sells for up to 50,000 yuan, or about US$7,000.
Over in the UK, the dinosaur toy sector grew 23% in the year to May 2022 and was worth £51.6 million. A Diplodocus skeleton from 150 million years ago belonging to the National History Museum toured the country and raked in an additional £36 million for the British economy. (For comparison, Nessie, as the Scots call their beloved Loch Ness monster, is estimated to bring in £41 million annually.)
Just how did an animal that vanished 65 million years attain such superstardom? Does the awe in which children hold dinos serve an evolutionary purpose? What story about being human is it telling us?
Many a parent and social scientist has grappled with this mystery, but cracking it satisfactorily has proved trickier than spotting a Triceratops fossil in Montana.
"Yup, do let us know if you find an answer to this," a friend tells me when I share that I too want to get in the hunt. "It's 24/7 dinos at home."