Dinosaur Dream Time

time and date: an afternoon, the late cretaceous period; some eighty million years ago.

locality: a small valley, in what is now called flaming cliffs, in central asia.

The landscape is, on first inspection, familiar. A meandering stream empties into a pool of stagnant water. A cluster of small shrubs, alive with perennialflowers, dots a nearby hill. In the distance are a line of pink dunes that form the apron of a set of cliffs. The water surface is broken from time to time with the smooth profile ofa turtle's back and, with lessfrequency, a crocodile's snout. Away from the water's edge, bees and wasps industriously work the shrubs andflowers. The grass rustles with the movement of small birds and tiny shrewlike mammals. There are lizards everywhere: small spindly-legged lizards with long tails and sharp teeth, blunt-nosed lizards with large crests over their eyebrows, and

(Overleaf) Velociraptor attack on a group of Protoceratops (Ed Heck)


massive wrinkled-skinned creatures looking very much like Komodo dragons. One of the big lizards breaks an oscillating trail toward the nearest dune as its sprawling body follows itsflicking tongue.

A herd of four-legged Protoceratops drifts ponderously in the shadows of the dune fields. The size of large sheep, their bodies are stout and square, like those of small, compact rhinos. Their oversized heads are appointed with a prominent snout ending in a hooklike beak andjaws and a distinctive shield that rises from the top and the back of the skull roof. There are thirty in the herd, migrating toward a drinking pool below a steep sand dune. Two of the larger individuals prance in circles, suddenly turn toward each other, and collide. There is the sound of scraping bone as the combatants butt heads. Amidst a choked chorus of snorting and howlingfrom the herd, the dust rises as the two large males carry on the battle.

But the scuffle between the shield-headed Protoceratops is only the prelude to real disaster.

The oasis in the dunes is a sanctuary, a place where thefrilled creatures can congregate around a pool of water away from the heat and the aridity of the sand. They are not the only denizens seeking sustenance. Foraging clans of spike-tailed armored ankylosaurs hang close to various groves of trees. Several small-headed ostrichlike creatures speed across the flats near the pond. Beyond this lush vale, the beige and pink dunes stretch endlessly in the distance, broken in the north only by the shadows of blue mountains. The oasis in the sand is voluptuous with life, a seemingly safe haven from the rigors of the desert.

Distracted by the commotion of the battling Protoceratops, the guards of the herd leave their posts. A line of black figures stand unnoticed at the top of the dunes, etched by the sun behind, completely absorbed by the riot of noise and writhing beak-headed bodies below. Taut and erect, they are perched on thin muscular hind limbs, theirforelimbs setfree off the ground. Their eyes betray an extraordinary single-minded concentration. The dragonlike heads of these Ve-lociraptor are propped on serpentine necks that bendfrom their trunks in a short S-curve. Their one-inch recurved teeth, sharp enough to tear a floating piece of silk, make them formidable predators to virtually all but the largest and most imposing creatures. Traveling in a pack of five, they are unparalleled killers.

The predators had been attracted by the noise of the protos. Suddenly they explode into motion, their huge leaps carrying them in an instant to the foot of the dune. They form a wedge flanking the largest pack member and cut a blurring swath through the herd, moving so fast that thefrilled creatures barely have a moment to react. One ofthe hunters lands almost accidentally on top of afrilled creature. It rakes a long, cavernous incision with the enormous claws on its hind foot, virtually disembowelling its victim, but it does not stop. With the others, it converges on a hapless parent and young at the edge of the herd.

There is little struggle. Thefrilled Protoceratops snaps its beak at the largest of the pack, but its flank is exposed to the slicing hind claw of another attacker. The victim is soon a carcass of blood, muscle, and bowels, ripped and shredded from five directions. The other frilled protos stampede out into the dunes, helplessly bleating cries of panic. The Velociraptor hiss and snap viciously at each other as they divide their feast.

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