Monday, December 14, 2015

The Hollywood Dinosaurs Part 1 - The Good Dinosaur

*Note this is a critical look at the movie reflecting the personal opinions of the author. If you do not like opinions, do not read.

A few months back, only the second post I ever wrote on this new blog, I talked about how promising Pixar's latest film The Good Dinosaur looked from the first few trailers. I was pretty hyped for the movie even when I first heard about it back around 2011, and a lot of signs were there from early on that this would be a great film. They had a solid story and animation team which was involved in other such Pixar classics as Up, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, and, as I mentioned in my last run-down, the one of the lead animators was Greg Dykstra, who is himself a paleontology fan who's even been on a few digs in South Dakota. The premise seemed interesting enough too from the first few trailers, and the animation looked downright stellar. There was also talk at the time of the first few trailers that the film even had a pack of feathered dromaeosaurids and was going to incorporate recent discoveries. There was so much for a paleo-nut like myself to be excited for!

But, as time went on things started getting a bit weird. As we started to learn more about Arlo and the story of the film, the less invested I was. It didn't help that we learned that the "feathered dromaeosaurids" mentioned in some interviews looked like they had their feathers hot glue-gunned onto their body, or that we learned that the T. rex for some reason gallop like horse. (The heck?)

Still, the rumors didn't deter me from going out to try it. So last week right before finals (when I probably should've been studying) I went to the theater and tried to watch the film with an open mind. The lights dimmed down, I had my drink in-hand, and I was excited to see the story play out.

And it was the worst Pixar movie I've ever seen.

Note that that still means it's millions of miles ahead of many other movies, and that I still somewhat enjoyed it, but still, getting the title of "worst Pixar movie" can't be a good thing, and a quick Google search seems to suggest I'm not alone on this. IGN is saying The Good Dinosaur might be "Pixar's first bomb," and Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a score similar to Jurassic World when it first came out, and substantially lower than almost all other Pixar works. What happened?


Well, to sum up the story in it's purest, The Good Dinosaur is a movie about a boy and his dog, only that the boy is an Apatosaurus named Arlo and the dog is a caveboy named Spot. Ok.... The Apatosaurus is born into a family of... farmers? But one day his dad gets killed in a flood (cause Disney hates parents), and shortly afterwards, Arlo is accidentally swept downriver into an unfamiliar landscape and has to learn how to survive and make it home with the help of his cave-dog-man Spot. Along the way they meet a crazy pet-collecting ceratopsian, a cult of pterosaurs which worship the storms they follow, and a pack of cowboy T. rex. (One of which is voiced by Sam Elliott.)

On paper this sounds like a really crazy, creative film, but in execution, it falls a bit flat. Most Pixar movies have an overarching narrative theme to them, or reasons behind their creative dives, and even small details might turn out to have high importance or meaning later on. In this film, it's creative, but it doesn't mean anything. There's no reason why Arlo is part of a family of farmers from a storytelling perspective, or why the ceratopsians collects pets, nor why the T. rex are cowboys. I'd be fine with that if this was any other movie, but this is Pixar. Pixar is great at constructing good overarching messages like that.

Moreover, most of the characters in this film aren't that great. Arlo is the stereotypical kid that needs to learn how to be brave and "earn his mark" (that's literally the term they use). His father, during the time that we see him, is the typical father that pushes him to face his fears. His mother and siblings are... just kinda there, and most of the side-characters he encounters on the way (with the exception of the T. rex family) are bland and forgettable. We don't even get to learn much about Spot in all the time we see him. We learn that he's been on his own for years ever since he lost his own family, but since his only real way of communicating is through barks and panting, it doesn't allow for much development. This also means there's some awkward developments in the story too. For example, Arlo first hates Spot's guts during the first part of the movie cause he blames him as the reason that his father died trying to save his life, and then literally after Spot shows Arlo where to find food, they suddenly become best buds.

Finally, it also doesn't help that the story in in the film is something we've seen a million times before in other, better works. When you get to the heart of it, this is also yet another "young dinosaur going on a journey" movie we've seen in other works, like Don Bluth's Land Before Time, Disney's Dinosaur, the Talking- sorry, Walking With Dinosaurs movie, etc. We really didn't need another movie like this. If it was just that it wouldn't have been too bad, but at the same time, I can recall exact scenes from this film which were almost identical to parts of those others. It definitely heavily borrowed a number of plot elements from other media, and not in a good way.

(Spoilers End)
When all is said and done, I guess it's still not a "bad" movie. The animation is undoubtedly the best the studio has ever put out, the story is passable, and it is creative, even if that creativity doesn't get to shine. It's just a bit disappointing considering all that I've heard about this film and got excited up until now, especially with Pixar having just put out one of the best-received films the company ever made just this year. Really a big shame if you ask me.

This isn't all I've got to say about this movie though. Oh no. In fact, I've been meaning to talk about the problems I, and I think many other paleontology enthusiasts like myself have noticed with dinosaur media in recent years. I hope to cover those topics in some new blog posts in the future, as well as possible ways to fix this loop we've been stuck in concerning dinosaur movies. Hopefully, you'll find the time to put up with me the whole way through.


P.S. I know this wasn't really an analytical look at the film from a paleontological prospective, like making fun of how the pterosaurs behaved or looked, but I thought that would be a bit difficult since we're talking about a movie where the Apatosaurus are farmers, the T. rex are cowboys, and the humans are like dogs. If you want to read something more of that nature, Brian Switek wrote some stuff up on and Gizmodo, and Jaime Headden wrote a semi-review, semi-analysis of the film on his blog. There's also a video by The Doodling Dino where he redesigns Arlo to better fit the scientific consensus of sauropods, alongside some talk about the movie. Hopefully you'll find something to your liking. :)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Paleonerd's Analysis - BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs Part 3

Well, I'm back with part three of my analysis of Walking With Dinosaurs. Was a lot of work getting here, but it was a lot of fun and I got some good research time out of it, so I regret nothing. I've gotten a lot of good feedback from the series, so I'm thinking of doing some similar reviews of documentaries like it in the future.  Perhaps this could be it's own series; I got a suggestion on Facebook of calling it "SaurianSins" or "PaleoSins", but I'll think about it. If you wanna see do more stuff like this though, make some suggestions in the comments below or on Facebook.

Anyways, on to the final act! Today I'll be looking at episodes 5 and 6 of the original Walking With Dinosaurs series: Spirits of the Ice Forest and Death of a Dynasty. As before, these notes are not just limited to me checking over the facts presented, but just observations on a variety of things in the series, good and bad (mostly bad). I will also not go into too much detail about all the animal models, as that would take WAY too much time and end up sounding repetitive. Without further ado, let's wrap this up!

Spirits of the Ice Forest

  • The documentary apparently takes place in Antarctica, even though all the animals are from Australia…
  • Takes place 106 million years ago, which is right in the middle of the Albian (100.5 - 113 mya). While many of the animals do come from a roughly that same time span, some like the Koolasuchus and Leaellynasaura actually come from older, Aptian-aged rocks.
  • Branagh says that there is a “giant continent” which is made up of South America, Australia, and Antarctica. If I remember correctly though, South America had split off from Antarctica by this time, and Australia should at least be nearing the point where it gets disconnected. EDIT: The separation of Australia and Antarctica was a Cenozoic event, so although it was splitting, a complete disconnection still had a long way to go.
  • Something that has bothered me about this series before, but especially so in this particular episode, is the fact that the show uses the exact same general model for all of their small herbivorous dinosaurs, just changing the skin around. The Leaellynasaura have the exact same model as the Othnielosaurus from Episode 2 and an unidentified “hypsilophodont” (probably Thescelosaurus) from Episode 6, even though all three are quite different animals.
  • Speaking of Leaellynasaura, this model is really, really dated. It’s seriously night-and-day from what our current perception of what this animal looks like. Not only that, but it’s also REALLY creepy. Especially the close-up shots of the puppets. Their eyes look dead, they have the creepiest faces, and weird cheek that are clearly plastic or rubber…
  • The Leaellynasaura communicate to each other by using high-frequency clicks. If you listen really closely to a few of them though, it’s clear they’re mechanical in nature, sounding almost exactly like grinding gears.
  • Koolasuchus is dubbed a “giant amphibian.” Considering that the term “amphibian” is now largely restricted to the group lissamphibia, and Koolasuchus is a chigutisaurid temnospondyl, this is bad terminology.
  • My knowledge on temnospondyls is kind of lacking, so forgive me if I get something wrong here, but from what I know the Koolasuchus in this episode is a bit awkward. We only know of partial remains of Koolasuchus (much of which hasn’t been described), but other chigutisaurids show that it probably wasn’t like a cryptobranchid salamander (which I think the documentary based it off). Chigutisaurids are more big-headed and short-tailed than what the documentary seems to show, and many actually have well-developed limbs as well as a specialized shoulder girdle, perhaps suggesting a method of aquatic locomotion largely involving the limbs. It also appears to lack the tabular horns characteristic of most chigutisaurids, instead having a more rounded skull profile when viewed from above.
  • Branagh mentions that competition with crocodylomorphs drove temnospondyls into extinction elsewhere in the world. While that particular statement could be debatable, as other events could’ve also driven their numbers down elsewhere, Koolasuchus in particular might’ve been driven extinct by crocodilians, as when Cretaceous temperatures rose later in the Albian we started finding crocodylomorphs in the same area, while Koolasuchus remains disappear.
  • The Leaellynasaura utilized surface nests which are formed out of decaying plant matter. We now know that many small polar dinosaurs from Australia utilized burrows, and given the environment this is taking place, this seems like a more sound strategy for this species.
  • Another reason surface nesting isn’t a sound strategy; the Leaellynasaura are small, defenseless herd of animals that are being incredibly loud and are in no way at all trying to conceal the presence of their nests. This has bad idea written all over it, and wouldn’t you know? A theropod attacks them.
  • Plus, to top it all off, now the predator should know where they are nesting. Theropods were more than smart enough to know to return to the site again after a failed ambush, because they know that their eggs are there and that the mothers will return. Now the predator will probably be stuck to the entire herd like glue for the rest of the nesting season.
  • Ok, said theropod mentioned above is referred to as a “polar allosaur”. This species is obviously based on the ankle bone found in Cape Patterson, Victoria, which for the longest time was referred to as a “polar allosaur”, “dwarf allosaur”, or even by the informal museum name “Allosaurus robustus”. This has now been entirely disproven, and the bones is now thought to belong to a member of the megaraptora (or possibly an abelisaur).
  • And here comes the Muttaburrasaurus herd. True these guys are found in northern Australia and are from roughly the same time, but we lack any evidence of them whatsoever from southern Australia/Antarctica. I guess this is just speculative behavior on the documentary’s part, but even so, its species displacement and putting them in an environment they aren’t known from.
  • The Leaellynasaura are responding to their mother’s calls while they’re still developing in the egg. Not while they’re close to hatching, Branagh clearly says that they’re still early in their embryo development. This makes no sense on a developmental standpoint.
  • Antarctic coatis! Wait, what?
  • This ring-tailed coati (Nasua nasua) is apparently playing a Steropodon. Never mind the fact that Steropodon is an early platypus and looks nothing at all like a coati, but it’s thought to be aquatic, so what’s it doing sniffing around for dinosaur eggs?
  • “But the Leaellynasaura has an unusual defense” – It’s kicking dirt. I’ll admit, that that is quite unusual, but not in the way that I think you’re presenting it.
  • POOR COATI! D: It’s clear in this scene that the film crew is throwing dirt in this coati’s face in order to get the shots they need. The heck people? No. That is not ok. Apologize to this coati right now. If any of you laughed at this scene, you apologize too. It did not ask to get dirt thrown in its face. It better not say “no animals were harmed during the making of this series” at the end.
  • The Leaellynasaura “chicks” look like tweety bird. And no, not adorable fluffy way, I mean like in the bald, scaly, creepy way.
  • This episode is big on live-action animals. They have a giant weta and tuatara playing out early anostostomatids and sphenodonts respectively. Although, using a tuatara is probably a debatable choice, given that modern tuatara are actually really different from their extinct relatives. I also don’t know of any anostostomatids or sphenodonts known from either South Australia or Antarctica, and although giant weta and tuatara are semi-adapted to deal with similar environments, they’re both rather specialized and we don’t know if they’re ancestors were the same.
  • Branagh goes on for a while about how the “polar allosaur” is the last holdover of “Jurassic Carnosaurs”. Not only is this debatable with classifications of Megaraptora having them jump in-and-out of Coelurosaurs and Carnosauria, but at the same this episode takes place there is a near-worldwide reign of carcharodontosaurids going on (which are Carnosaurs), and we have direct fossil evidence of them all the way up to the Maastrichtian. This species is far from the “last Carnosaur” (if it even is a Carnosaur).
  • Winter is coming. Sorry, had to do it.
  • The Leaellynasaura clan’s lead female is killed, who is apparently the herd leader and makes all the important decisions. In most animals, this should immediately call for the election of a subordinate individual to take over the role of “alpha”, whether it be her mate or a subordinate female. But no, they hold off on choosing a new lead individual, which seems like a huge cripple to their survival. However, despite this, the entire herd is somehow able to agree on complex survival decisions throughout the entire winter, including when it’s time to enter and exit torpor, all without a leader. This brings up the question of why they then rely on a leader individual to begin with, because they seem to have the behaviors programmed into them to survive like animal herds which live without “alpha” individuals.
  • Outside the strange world of Leaellynasaura politics, I actually really like the majority of the winter segment, and as did actually feel like these were animals living in a frozen, dark forest. Although, the forest still looks a bit too lush for a place that's locked in near-permanent darkness...
  • On the other hand, I have no idea how paleontologists thought for the longest time that these animals could survive such harsh winter conditions without the aid of any winter protection, like fat, fur, or feathers. These animals are essentially walking around naked in sub-zero temperatures. You go try that for 5 minutes and tell me how it goes. Thank goodness we have such nice, fluffy reconstructions up these days.
  • And now winter is over, and the clan is back to being active. However, we then get some idea on how leader individuals are decided. By their behaviors, it seems like the clan leader, which is a female, is chosen by a wining male, who then becomes her subordinate. This is weirdly complex… Do any other animals do this? I don’t know of any.
  • Also, it’s clear that when the new “alpha pair” mates, their reproductive organs do not line up. Reminds me of a certain meme… What was it again? Maybe I'll link it later.
  • Branagh mentions a “slight cooling of the world’s climate” is what ended up driving all these polar dinosaurs into extinction. This is not at all true though. As I mentioned above, the area actually warmed in the following few million years, allowing for crocodiles to exist there. Moreover, the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum (CTM) was fast approaching, and eventually would sent worldwide temperatures into hothouse mode for much of the rest of the Cretaceous.

Death of a Dynasty

  • Onto the last episode and there’s already bad signs with the Didelphodon. It looks like a cross between a domestic dog and a badger and has a rounded, almost pudgy body, which is not at all what we think it looked like. We now know from better remains that Didelphodon was actually pretty elongate and slender, had a long flexible tail, and might’ve even been semi-aquatic like an otter.
  • Given the above, it’s very unlikely that Didelphodon was “a specialist dinosaur nest raider,” as every flipping documentary showing Mesozoic mammals would lead you to believe.
  • As this T. rex shows, mammals make tasty snacks. I swear I can even see her licking her chops as she grabs it and crushes it up in her jaw.
  • Speaking of the rex, Walking with Dinosaurs has one of the worst T. rex designs ever. Not only is it shrink-wrapped to death, has incorrect body proportions, a really short tail, looks almost diseased, and for some strange reason has hooves (What!?), but it’s downright ugly to boot. The Jurassic Park T. rex is closer to the real animal than this one is, which is a real shame.
  • Time frame of this episode is Montana, 65.5 mya a few months prior to the Chicxulub impact event. However, the most recent dating techniques now put the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the impact, closer to 66 mya. Of course, this info just came out about a year ago, and the majority of people have yet to pick up on this news either…
  • Ok, Chile and New Zealand are NOT good environmental analogues of what we think the Maastrichtian of Montana looked like. We see nothing but deserts, volcanoes, ash fields, and the occasional grove of trees, but actual fossil evidence from Hell Creek clearly shows a flood plain with dense woodlands of redwoods, monkey puzzles, ferns, cycads, and palm trees. There’s also swampy environments and wet fern prairies which were filled with a variety of fish, crocodiles, champsosaurs, and turtles (the latter are actually the most common vertebrate fossils found in Hell Creek), all of which probably could not survive in the environment being shown.
  • Presumably the host of volcanic disasters being mentioned in the documentary are the Deccan Traps event, which coincided with the dinosaur extinction and might’ve been one of its primary drives. Although, the Deccan Traps was a largely Indian event, and thus these volcanic chains in Montana choking everything to death shouldn’t be present.
  • A male rex ventures into a sulfurous vent field releasing poisonous carbon monoxide. There is absolutely no evidence of geological features like this from Hell Creek.
  • The rex ends up going to this area because he somehow smells a dead animal over the streams of sulfur and volcanic gases. I know T. rex smell was good, but I doubt it was good enough to sniff out a tiny carcass out of all those volcanic gasses.
  • Speaking of the carcass, what even is it? From the angle that I see it, it looks almost like a rauisuchian, but that’s highly unlikely even for Walking with Dinosaurs to get something that big wrong. It’s more likely to be some kind of theropod, but I can’t even get close to guessing which.
  • There’s a Cretaceous-aged butterfly that they show in one “diversification of flowers” segment. Given that true butterflies first appear in the fossil record 54 million years ago, I have no idea why the creators decided to show one living in the Mesozoic.
  • Dromaeosaurus terrorizes the local herbivores, even though Dromaeosaurus is not known from Hell Creek, but rather the Dinosaur Provincial Park formation, which is almost 10 million years earlier.
  • Also, like the Utahraptor, this Dromaeosaurus looks butt-ugly and has a model that is is clearly based off of varanid lizards.
  • The Ankylosaurus model is really weird looking, and doesn’t appear to have its armor shaped or arranged properly at all, having far too many small back osteoderms and completely lacking the armored neck bands. The head is also shaped odd, and the nostrils are in the wrong spots.
  • The Ankylosaurus is quite large, with Branagh stating that it is over 30ft long and 7 tonnes. More recent estimates place the species’ length closer to 23ft long, though this is largely because of a quirk of Ankylosaurus, as this particular genus has a much shorter tail than most other ankylosaurids (see a previous post, which explains why). As such, the genus is still pretty massive, though still probably not 7 tonnes.
  • Acidic pollution from volcanoes is apparently destroying dinosaur eggs and preventing them from developing properly. One, I want fossil evidence for that claim. Two, these eggs are nowhere near a volcano, so I don't see how they were killed by one. Three, titanosaurs apparently didn’t get the memo. (Given, this is due to specializations in the latter's eggs.)
  • And now we see a whole herd of Torosaurus wandering about the wastelands. However, Torosaurus isn’t found in upper Hell Creek; it’s found in the lower parts of the formation and appears to be absent from the upper areas, suggesting it disappeared from the area long before the time this episode takes place.
  • Like the Stegosaurus from episode 2, the Torosaurus can somehow flush their entire frills full of blood within seconds, even though this seems highly unlikely given that they have to face the same problems the Stegosaurus would need to face (a keratin layer is thought to covers the display features of both).
  • Jeez, when two Torosaurus face off, one breaks the brow horn off the other. That’s pretty brutal, and I don’t think most modern herbivorous animals typically go that far when fighting with their horns/antlers. We also lack evidence for broken horns in all known ceratopsians (with the exception of a Triceratops individual, but that’s only because it had its horn bitten off by a T. rex), so this should be a super rare occurrence at best.
  • Triceratops makes a cameo in this documentary as a carcass that the male T. rex brought down off-screen. Most people were rather disappointed by the lack of Hell Creek’s most common dinosaur, but what most viewers didn’t know was that the creators planned this. You see, the casting team was lucky to get the same Triceratops actor who starred in the original Jurassic Park. The WWD team were all big fans of Mr. Trike’s amazing talent for lying completely still and doing nothing, and wanted to bring out his inner talent by giving him an even greater role as a dead pile of meat. Mr. Trike won Oscars for both amazing performances, but sadly, shortly after he signed a new major contract, he was murdered by a sick psychopath who posted images of his body on social media. Truly unfortunate that such amazing young talent was killed, and we never really got to see him reach his prime too...
  • Fun stuff aside, the documentary then starts to explore all the tropes of T. rex sexual dimorphism which was commonly stated throughout the 90s. (Females bigger and more aggressive than males, etc.) All features originally stated as evidence for T. rex sexual dimorphism has been almost completely disproven in recent years. The "robust" and "gracile" morphs of T. rex reported throughout Hell Creek is more likely to do with evolutionary trends in a population over time rather than sexual dimorphism.
  • Branagh says that the male rex had to bring down the Triceratops in order to court the female, because otherwise, she would attack him on-sight. Um, isn’t the female the one who’s been doing endless mating calls for days trying to attract a male? It's counter-productive if she’s the one trying to court a mate, but if she encounters said possible mate, she’ll immediately attack and try to kill him.
  • Anyways, the male is successful in courting, but apparently not in the love-making department, for when the two individuals mate later, the genital openings do not in any way line up, and it’s as bad as the Dinosaur Revolution mating segment (meme by Attila Kovács).
  • Anatotitan are now almost universally regarded as mature individuals of the species Edmontosaurus annectens, and so the former name is now dropped, which is a shame, as I quite enjoyed the name “Titan Duck”.
  • Branagh states something about all hadrosaurs being adapted for lowland swamps, and that because of the “disasters” going on, they are unable to adapt. This isn’t true at all though, and hadrosaurs are found on almost every continent and in every known late Cretaceous environment, from deserts, to woodland, to polar climates, to coastal swamps, and far more. Saying that they’re all adapted just for swamps is a gross over-generalization of Hadrosauria.
  • And now, we have what is possibly the worst model in the entire series: the Quetzalcoatlus. Not only is this model too large, has completely wrong proportions in every area, and is living the wrong type of lifestyle considering what we know of azhdarchid pterosaurs, but some idiot decided to give it teeth. This is a Jurassic Park 3-level mistake people!
  • Branagh says a throwaway line that pterosaurs are in worldwide decline and that there are only giants like Quetzalcoatlus left. This was based on the general lack of other pterosaur fossils from the latest Cretaceous, with only azhdarchids and a few members of Pteranodontia surviving to the end. However, this lack of other pterosaur groups might have more to do with a lack of fossil deposits with a bias towards small animals in the late Cretaceous, rather than an extinction event. Moreover, we now know of quite a few “small-ish” pterosaurs (man-sized or smaller) from the late Cretaceous, and there’s apparently an unpublished azhdarchid which has a wingspan of less than a meter from the Maastrichtian.
  • Branagh doesn’t say it outright, but in this episode, as well as the fourth, he makes strong suggestions towards the idea that pterosaurs were out-competed by birds. Even assuming pterosaur diversity might’ve dropped towards the end of the Cretaceous, every study which has explored this possibility has found absolutely no correlation between bird diversification and pterosaur decline. Moreover, birds were not invading any of the niches that some pterosaurs held millions of years before (except for maybe those held by some rhamphorhynchoids), which is what we would expect from competitive exclusion.
  • We see some clips of a “giant crocodile” that appears to be hunting the Quetzalcoatlus. This animal was based on Deinosuchus, which lived about 10 million years earlier, was a giant alligatoroid, rather than a crocodylid, and we have no evidence of from Hell Creek. However, there are rumors of unpublished remains of another very large alligatoroid from Hell Creek, so I guess that could be what these are based on.
  • After the female rex chases off her mate for being a bad bed partner, she makes a nest and lays her eggs in a rotting compost pile. However, Branagh then says that she’s going to remain by the nest for two months (!) without moving, eating, or drinking. Can a elephant-sized predatory animal go that long without eating? Some whales can do this in order to make it through their migrations, but they have layers of blubber and fat to survive off (which the shrink-wrapped rex is obviously lacking). This is probably based off the behaviors of some ratites and crocodilians, but both of those groups are much smaller than a rex, the latter has an ectothermic metabolism, and even they occasionally leave to at least get a drink.
  • Branagh says that it was a comet that killed the dinosaurs, not an asteroid like is more typically stated. This does reflect a recent study though.
  • Speaking of which, should the meteorite’s debris in the form of shooting stars be visible almost three to four months prior to the impact? I’m not an astronomer, but I don’t think the orbits of either the planet or asteroid would make them visible so early.
  • Two 2 meter long, turkey-sized Dromaeosaurus are taking on a whole herd of 8-9 meter, elephant-sized Torosaurus. This has bad idea written all over it.
  • The two dromaeosaurids manage to isolate a baby Torosaurus, which might seem like a smart idea on the predator’s part, but when they do, they just scream at it a few times and let it run away back to the adults. Why…?
  • Eh, I guess they manage to kill a baby anyways, but then Branagh uses it as an excuse to explain that “dinosaurs are dying and on their last legs” even further, even though this idea is seriously lacking in both true facts presented in the documentary, as well as actual scientific evidence.
  • Back to the Edmontosaurus, they reach a small grove of trees with freshwater and are about to be ambushed by the “Deinosuchus”, but then the group senses danger and starts to break up, followed by the appearance of the mama T. rex. This scene is actually pretty fast-paced and well played out, and the part where the rex catches the Edmontosaurus looks just like a true nature documentary. Just my own observations though.
  • The mother T. rex produced far too few offspring, especially based on what we know of fossilized theropod nests. Big theropod nests, like seen in Allosaurus and Torvosaurus have nests with nearly 50 eggs preserved, and a Lourinhanosaurus nest had well over 100 eggs (although there have some suggestions that it might be a communal clutch). We should expect similar large clutches from T. rex, not twelve eggs with only three viable chicks.
  • The baby T. rex don’t look like what we know of infant T. rex. These infants don’t have the right proportions, and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say they should be fluffy. They also behave a bit too much like modern predatory bird chicks, with larger offspring killing their younger offspring for the right to eat food.
  • Their mom also feeds them meat from the Edmontosaurus she killed earlier. Based on what we know of living archosaurs, dinosaur young could probably feed themselves soon after hatching without much help from their mother. Though, there are some interesting cases of mother crocodiles possibly feeding their young, so this might be possible.
  • Apparently the babies are over a meter high at only 4 weeks old!? Wow! That’s some fast growth considering they come out of football-sized eggs. That’s the same size as Jordan, a 2-year-old specimen housed at LANHM. I’m pretty sure even sauropods and whales don’t grow this fast.
  • Branagh then says that the babies are only going to have protection from mom for a mere two months before she then views them as food. In fact, crocodilians apparently recognize their young throughout ontogeny, and some mother crocs (and sometimes even fathers) have been known to recognize and protect their offspring (and the offspring of others) for over three years after they first emerge.
  • Didelphodon are growling and squealing at the chicks, as if spiting them. “You dinosaurs shall rue the day! You hear me! Rue it!” – Didelphodon, 66 million BC.
  • There’s a boa cameoing in this episode as the Cretaceous snake Dinilysia. Never mind the fact that Dinilysia is from South America and lived 20 million years earlier in the Santonian, but why go to the trouble when we already know of quite a few snakes from Hell Creek already? We even have possibly the earliest known true boid from Hell Creek, which would match this live-action boa’s description greatly.
  • Branagh says that snakes only recently evolved, which isn’t necessarily true, as we know of crown-group snake fossils from as far back as the Cenomanian, 30 million years earlier, and if we’re referring to the snake branch as a whole (Ophidia), the earliest proto-snakes are from Jurassic times.
  • Apparently the Dinilysia has heat-sensing pits on its snout. While this honestly could be true, given that facial pits developed multiple times independently in snakes. Still though, it just adds more reason for this snake to be classified as a boid, as the family actually developed facial pits multiple times independently throughout their evolution.
  • Ankylosaurus walks into the nest, startles the mother, and causes her to go on offensive mode to protect her offspring. Though, wouldn’t it be a better idea though just to usher the offspring away from the Ankylosaurus? It’s not like the babies are in danger: they’re standing far-off in a bush behind mom while she is facing the ankylosaur.
  • Boom. One-hit from the Ankylosaurus’ tail and mom’s femur is broken and she has massive internal injuries. Jurassic World could learn from this scene; ankylosaur tail clubs are not things to take lightly.
  • The mother dies from the injury a day later, leaving the poor babies to face the full-force of the extinction event by themselves. I still stand by my opinion that this one minute of footage is one of the most realistic versions of the extinction event ever, and does a better job of explaining the extinction event than many documentaries just focused on just the extinction part.
  • “…the giant dinosaurs were gone, never to return.” – Depends on what you mean by “giant”, but there were a lot of really big birds that appeared after this event.
  • And ending the series on a good note of saying that birds are dinosaurs, and not the normal opt-out that other documentaries try to do saying they are “related to dinosaurs”. Bravo.
And there we go, that was everything I noticed while watching the Walking With Dinosaurs series again. What do I say about the series as a whole? Ehhhhhhhhh, to be perfectly honest, it's really, really dated, as you should be able to tell from all the notes, and no amount of nostalgic feeling can change that. Almost everything that the series first presented in 1999 has changed, and that's mostly due to the speculative nature of the documentary itself. As I brought up in my first post, many paleontologists did not like the series when it first came out because it was way to speculative for it's own good, and the creators even admitted to making presentation and awe more important than scientific data. You can't really make a documentary series like this, present soo many life-history details about these animals, and expect it to hold up more than 15 years later.

That all being said, while the educational value of Walking With Dinosaurs has waned over the years, and it's certainly not something that I would consider recommending to someone who wants to learn about the Mesozoic, that doesn't mean it isn't worth looking at, at least among paleo-fans. Walking With Dinosaurs does a better job at telling you what people thought these animals were like at the time than it does teaching you what they were actually like, and in that way, it's actually a pretty good time capsule back to the dinosaur-craze of the 90s. In that respect, it might be best to view Walking With Dinosaurs in the same way as some people enjoy looking at old dinosaur movies or vintage paleontological artwork: nostalgia-inducing fun, but nothing more.

Nostalgia for people who loved the "Dinosaur Revolution" of the 70s threw late 90s, but of little value for newcomers.

And with that, I give you an adieu. There are plenty more paleontological shows and documentaries to look at in the future, as well as a ton of Walking With... spin offs that I might eventually cover, but for now I think I'll just get back into blogging. Oh, and that thing called "school", 'cause I got to do that too...

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Paleonerd's Analysis - BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs Part 2

Well then, amongst the paleo-media sensation which is Dakotaraptor, I just managed to finish  Part 2 of my analytical dive the series which is Walking With Dinosaurs. If you haven't read my analysis of the first two episodes, you can be sure to check them out here. For those of you which have, however, this next part will be covering the third and fourth episodes of the series, Cruel Sea and Giant of the Skies. Oh, and if you haven't heard about Dakotaraptor yet, go now! It's awesome! Seriously, I'll wait for you. Heck, maybe I'll even find the time to write a post on it.

Like last time, these notes are not just limited to me checking over the facts presented, but just observations on a variety of things in the series, good and bad (but mostly bad). I will also not go into too much detail about all the animal models, as that would take WAY too much time and probably end up sounding rather repetitive.
Cruel Sea
  • Only 15 seconds in and we’re already over-embellishing this Liopleurodon by giving a poor Eustreptospondylus the axe.
  • Also, how the heck did the Liopleurodon get that close to shore? I’m sure we all know that the moment an eighty foot long animal tried to do that, it’d be beached.
  • The idea for the above probably came from knowledge that orcas will skid to catch prey in shallow water, but even then orcas are much smaller than this Liopleurodon, and they preform it on sandy beaches, not rocky slopes.
  • Time frame is Oxfordshire during the Tithonian 149 mya. Most of the animals in this episode actually do manage to hail from Oxford, but a lot are actually from the older Oxfordian (157.3–163.5 mya). (Hint: note the names…)
  • Speaking of things too heavy to haul out on land, how the heck are the Cryptoclidus, which the documentary says weigh eight tons, hauling themselves around a beach?
  • Also, recent discoveries have shown that cryptocleidoid plesiosaurs had tail flukes, which was a surprise when first announced in 2010. Nobody knows how or if they worked in locomotion, but they still definitely had them.
  • The Rhamphorhynchus are skimming. Short answer: this probably didn’t happen. Long answer: read Mark’s post over on his blog.
  • Also, the Rhamphorhynchus have some really ugly models, even by the standards at which scientists often describe them as snagly-toothed ugly little bulldog-pterosaur things.
  • “Most sea reptiles return to the land to lay eggs” – Presumably they’re talking about other marine reptiles at the time with that statement, but that seems no longer true. In fact live birth is now known in almost every major group of Mesozoic marine reptiles (sea turtles are an exception), or can be inferred from their anatomy.
  • Speaking of which, I also wish they expanded on the possibility of parental care in ichthyosaurs. Sure it’s a bit speculative, but there’s a close correlation between live birth and parental care in reptiles (there are outliers from this trend though).
  • Bit glad that they mentioned that the sharks were honing in on the pregnant Ophthalmosaurus via hearing rather than the rather stereotypical explanation of smell.
  • Oh crap the Liopleurodon is back. What? No I’m not worrying about the Ophthalmosaurus, I’m worried about the number of inaccuracies and embellishments I need to sit through.
  • Wait, when the back half of the Ophthalmosaurus hits the seafloor, it no longer has the tail of the baby sticking out of its cloaca. Did it escape the jaws of the pliosaur?
  • Few people know the story of why the Liopleurodon in this episode is so big, so I’ll explain. Some early size estimates based on the scaling of a Liopleurodon skulls found that Liopleurodon might’ve reached something like 12 meters in length based on some of the larger Oxford skulls. These same models were then used in another study which scaled the skull’s teeth up to the same sizes observed in the bones of some cryptocleidoid plesiosaurs, thus producing some ridiculous 25 meter estimates, which was used in the documentary. Obvious to say, these methods of scaling were shown to not be very accurate. Later, more accurate modeling methods based on what was known from more complete pliosaurs (notably the Australian Kronosaurus) shrunk Liopleurodon down to a much more believable 6 meters in length that it is today.
  • Going with the idea that its 25 meters long, I should probably note that animals of this size DO NOT like to live so close to shore. Even orcas, which are only around 7 meters long, actively avoid shallow reef-like waters while hunting because it doesn’t provide enough space to launch hunts or ambushes. An animal of this size should be living in the open ocean far away from reefs.
  • Liopleurodon. At 150 tons, it is the largest and most powerful carnivore ever to live on the planet.” - Sounds like something I’d expect someone pandering to fanboys to say. Quickly! Someone write an awesomebro fanfic about the WWD Liopleurodon fighting the Jurassic World Mosasaurus! You’ll make millions!
  • “His size means he is probably over 100 years old.” – I object to that. Do we even have any studies on pliosaur/plesiosaur longevity? I don’t ever remember seeing one.
  • There’s a mention rather briefly about how Liopleurodon smells its prey using a water-movement system in the nostrils as “radars to hone in on prey”. Presumably this is a butchered explanation of the dual waterflow system in pliosaurs (and possibly other marine reptiles), in which water enters the mouth, flows through the nasal cavity, and exits the nostrils, allowing for a constantly active sense of smell.
  • The Ophthalmosaurus hide in underwater caves at night for protection against predators, despite the fact that, you know, they need to breathe.
  • The way that the Eustreptospondylus in this episode manages to swim should be some kind of meme. I’m not sure what the meme would be for, but it would be downright hilarious.
  • The Eustreptospondylus is presented as some kind of specialist sea-combing dinosaur. This speculation, as far as I know, is unique to the documentary as I cannot find any specific suggestions for this lifestyle prior to the show’s airing. I think it was presented because the only known specimen of this genus was found in the ocean near an island, but it could equally be parsimonious to say that the animal was simply washed out to sea from a larger island area. There are no particular traits in its anatomy suggesting a sea-combing lifestyle.
  • Two Eustreptospondylus squabble briefly over a “sea turtle” plastron. Given that modern type sea turtles first appeared during the Cretaceous, this plastron is probably meant to be from a Plesiochelys, which were a major component of Late Jurassic shallow water ecosystems, but not true sea turtles themselves.
  • There’s a brief scene where a young Rhamphorhynchus digs into some tree bark looking for beetle larvae. Interestingly, despite the obvious diet of seafood in older induviduals, “flapling” Rhamphorhynchus (and many other pterosaurs for that matter) show short, triangular snouts which might prove superbly adapted to feeding on small invertebrate prey. Sadly, the individual itself doesn’t look at all like what we know of “flapling” specimens, simply being a shrunken down juvenile. (Note that most Rhamphorhynchus specimens are of half-grown juveniles, with only a handful of true adults known.)
  • After a group of horseshoe crabs breed, a flock of Rhamphorhynchus settle down to feed on their eggs. Not sure if this is based off the behaviors known for migrating Calidris canutus, but it seems so.
  • Ok, this is weird. While the Rhamphorhynchus are feeding, a Eustreptospondylus tries to snag one while they’re preoccupied. If you follow the movement of its jaws closely, you can clearly see it grab two separate Rhamphorhynchus, let both of them go, and then finally settles on a third one it manages to pin beneath its foot. Um… why?
  • Also, these poor Rhamphorhynchus aren’t utilizing proper quadrupedal launch. Instead they’re just skipping across the ground on their hind legs flapping their forearms aimlessly. No wonder they’re so easy to grab while taking off.
  • Just noticed this now, but the Eustreptospondylus puppet model has its earhole in the wrong place. Dinosaurs had their ears behind their skulls, not on top of the temporal fenestra. Having it in the place shown here, it wouldn’t be able to hear at all because there’s a major jaw muscle in the way.
  • Back in the ocean, another female Liopleurodon shows up in the male’s territory, which leads the male to confront her in a fight. This is rather strange, as I’d expect the male to be more interested in mating. Didn’t we just clarify a little while ago that it was still the mating season for other marine reptiles? Why are the Liopleurodon acting different?
  • “Her flipper has been badly ripped...” – Looks fine to me. There isn’t even any visual trauma on it as she swims off.
  • After the big storm, the big male Liopleurodon becomes stranded on a beach. See, that’s what happens when you’re a 150 ton animal living in a shallow-water reef ecosystem. You’re basically asking to get stranded.
  • Also, the Liopleurodon looks at lot smaller than 80ft when lying out on the beach next to the Eustreptospondylus. It appears to be 50ft maximum, which might be in line with the largest unpublished pliosaur specimens.
  • “The greatest carnivore the Earth has ever seen.” – I can hear the fanboys panting. Stop it. Don't encourage them.
Giant of the Skies
  • “In life he was the most magnificent beast ever to take to the wing.” - Quetzalcoatlus is pretty magnificent too, and we knew it was more massive than Tropeognathus at the time this series was made. Then again, I guess that is all interpretative.
  • The model used by the documentary has minute pycnofibres on it, but most of the body still looks like bare skin. This doesn’t fit in with what we know (and knew at the time) about pterosaur body coverings.
  • Time frame is 127 mya, which would be the Barremian period of the early Cretaceous. However, half of the animals in this episode are actually from the Albian (100.5 - 113.0 mya), including the Tropeognathus, and one is even from the Cenomanian (93.9–100.5 mya).
  • Also, Branagh states that the continents by the early Cretaceous had only just started to break up outside of the typical Laurasia-Gondwana distribution. While that might be true for some parts of Gondwana (notably the tentative dates behind the separation of South American and Africa), the rest of the world should have already been breaking up since at least the middle Jurassic. Heck, the last episode was all about the broken island chains that would eventually become Europe.
  • It’s now Tropeognathus mesembrinus, not Ornithocheirus, as this species was found to be distinct enough to warrant its own genus.
  • Size is WAY too exaggerated on the Tropeognathus. Even for the time, I’m pretty sure the 12 meter estimated wingspans were heavily doubted by the scientific community. Most modern estimates put it around 6-7 meters, which is roughly the same size as other giant flying oceanic avemetatarsalians (Pteranodon, Pelagornis, etc.). Brings up an interesting question as to why they all group around this size…
  • The Tropeognathus holds a human-like, bipedal stance for a few moments while it’s landing. David Peters, anyone?
  • The specific species of “Tapejara” used in the episode, T. navigans was reclassified to the genus Tupandactylus in 2007. Also, they are completely disproportionate, and based on what we now know about tapejarid pterosaurs, this group were probably inland-dwelling omnivores, not oceanic piscivores.
  • “…but on the land they are cumbersome” - That’s true for some specialist oceanic species featured in the show, like Tropeognathus and possibly Rhamphorhynchus, but almost every other pterosaur featured on the show were competent walkers, and possibly even runners in the case of many azhdarchoids like the Tupandactylus.
  • They show different-sized crests for males and females, which predicted the actual discovery of sexual dimorphism in pterosaur crests.
  • “What he is about to undertake, is the most astounding journey in the animal kingdom.” First of all, how the hell do you know that Kenneth Branagh? Second, have you ever heard of a little bird called Sterna paradisaea? Flying from Brazil to Europe across an Atlantic (which is only half the size it is today) cannot compare to what tiny little Sterna paradisaea do twice every year.
  • The “Iguanodon” the Tropeognathus encounters in North America were reclassified to the genus Dakotadon. Also, Dakotadon are from South Dakota, while Branagh claims that the Tropeognathus had only just reached the southern tip of North America. That’s like seeing wild American plains bison (Bison bison bison) in Central American rainforests…
  • The Polacanthus accompanying the herd is even more lost. Polacanthus fossils are only known from Britain, not North America. I guess this could possibly be a Gastonia (which the WWD model somewhat resembles), but even then it’s the same problem that the Dakotadon have.
  • Tropeognathus, an oceanic pterosaur which probably spent months flying out over the sea at any given time and would probably need to encounter storms regularly, can’t fly in rain. People really need to stop underestimating what pterosaurs were capable of. So glad we have such great pterosaur experts now setting our views of these animals straight.
  • “[Iguanodon] are among the most successful dinosaurs on the planet, populating every continent…” – Then, everything changed when the taxon splitters attacked…
  • Branagh says that Iguanodon were the first large herbivorous animals capable of advanced chewing. If he is referring to the Iguanodontia as a whole and not just Iguanodon, I guess that’s somewhat true, but many other groups of dinosaurs could also masticate and developed advanced chewing techniques at around the same time. (Ankylosaurs come to mind, for example.)
  • There’s a short segment about how flowers "originated" in the Cretaceous. Depends a bit on what you mean by "originated". True flowering plant fossils are known from the Early Cretaceous, 130 mya, but what looks like angiosperm pollen has been found from as far back as the Triassic, and some molecular clocks suggest the ancestors of true angiosperms split off from other plant groups 300 mya. Still, if they're going by "true flowers", then I guess this is true as well.
  • We get a cool look at what we thought at the time to be the parasitic flea-like creature called Saurophthyrus. Saurophthyrus and other insects like it were once thought to be specialist pterosaur parasites, using their elongate blood-sucking mouthparts to feed on the blood-filled wing membranes of pterosaurs. More recent studies have been more skeptical of them being “pterosaur specialists,” as their mouthparts don’t seem any more specialized to specifically pterosaurs than they do various other Mesozoic animals.
  • The pterosaurs be-a-skimming. As I mentioned above with Rhamphorhynchus, this needs to stop.
  • The pliosaur in this episode is officially listed as being Plesiopleurodon, despite being just re-used stock footage of the Liopleurodon from last episode. Either way, Plesiopleurodon is known from the Cenomanian of North America 98 mya, not the Barremian 127 mya, so both are equally distant in time (give or take 20 to 30 million years) from the age this is supposed to be set.
  • While bringing up the pliosaur, Branagh also mentions that there’s dangers to flying low over the ocean, as if the pliosaur is actually going to jump up and eat our Tropeognathus. This, of course, goes back to early paleoart showing marine reptiles jumping out of the water to try and catch pterosaurs, but it’s always been a stupid idea IMO. How is massive marine predator going to manage to jump out of the water at a small, fast-moving animal in flight when, by the time it’s in view and you’re ready to strike, it’s already passed by? Moreover, how worth it is it to do this to eat something that weighs, at the absolute most, only about 50 kg? This concept has always sounded incredibly stupid to me.
  • Ok, this “European species” of Iguanodon seems to confidently be Iguanodon bernissartensis, and not one of the countless European iguanodonts that was lumped into its genus at the time. The model itself also looks great, and actually manages to stay pretty accurate to this day. Unlike the next critter...
  • And now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for… *Drumroll* UTAHraptor in EUROPE!
  • Is it just me, or are the Utahraptor models are really ugly? Not only are they shrink-wrapped and look anorexic, but they have a lot of features in the skull and neck which remind me of varanid lizards. (Not that varanids aren’t beautiful animals, just that it’s a bad reference.) Oh, and they have their ears in the temporal fenestra too. Is this a problem with all the models that I'm just now noticing?
  • “…long fingers help [the female Utahraptor] to latch onto swift-moving, larger prey…” Dromaeosaur fingers were pretty immobile and stiff, actually, which likely helped keep their wings strait. However, juveniles had more flexible fingers than adults, which with a growing body of evidence suggests that they might have been partially arboreal while young.
  • After the Utahraptor is unsuccessful at jumping on the Iguanodon, the Iguanodon stops running, turns around, and seems to be taunting it for a moment. A lot of large herbivorous mammals actually do similar things, so I wonder if that’s what they were going for.
  • Branagh says that dromaeosaurids were not fast runners, but rather had the short, stalky legs of a sprinting and wrestling animal. Finally! A documentary that gets this trait common to dromaeosaurinae correct.
  • I’ve noticed that the Utahraptor, despite having no wing feathers, are actually managing to hold their forelimbs consistently in a bird-like pose, even while running. Props on them for getting this right, as even recent documentaries incorporating feathers have a tendency to have the hands droop or be held in odd positions.
  • “These though are birds, flying dinosaurs that share the same ancestors as the carnivorous raptors. Instead of scales, they have evolved feathers…” If only they knew... Oh wait, they already did…
  • He mentions something about feathered wings being more resistant to damage than membranous wings. Not sure exactly how true this is, but bats can manage to fly around with huge holes in their wings and are still competent in the air, so I don't think a few bumps or scrapes would really effect a pterosaur's wings.
  • When the old male finally makes it to the mating grounds we see that the female Tropeognathus have sexually dimorphic jaw crests. There have been proposed cases of sexual dimorphism in the crests of ornithocheirid pterosaurs, but it has not been studied in detail or confirmed, despite the large number of fossils perfectly available for such a study. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge…)
Whew, that was a lot of note-taking. A lot of stuff certainly has changed in the time since the series aired, but with these last two episodes at least, I was still able to find some admirable things about them. Will definitely be fun to look at the last two episodes soon. I remember the fifth episode in particular to having always been my favorite growing up, so I'm definitely psyched to get to that one soon.


P.S. If you don't know what Dakotaraptor is by the end of this post, shame on you. Go look it up right now.