Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dinosaur Revolution: End Game

The last episode of Dinosaur Revolution (for now) is End Game. Like the second episode, this episode focuses on a single storyline instead of multiple largely unrelated shorts. Obligatory spoiler warning!

This episode is the obligatory Maastrichtian North America story (set just a little while before the K-Pg, naturally) for this series. Although the first half of the story is about the tyrannosaurid Tyrannosaurus (again, naturally), there is one maniraptor taxon in the story, Troodon, which even gets the spotlight shifted to it during the second half of the episode after the K-Pg extinction happens (where it is depicted as being one of the last non-neornithine dinosaur species to die out).

I was very pleased with the portrayal of the Troodon. Dinosaur Revolution gets everything March of the Dinosaurs got right and more. The Troodon models are very good, very likely the best I've ever seen on screen. Paternal care, brooding, and (probably for the first time ever on TV) omnivory are shown. Also, no ridiculous hadrosaur hunting here either, they are instead shown feeding on insects, stealing eggs, and chasing juvenile pachycephalosaurs.

There's one running theme (that is present throughout the series) that bothers me, however. The familial structure of almost every single theropod taxon in the entire series is the same. Nearly all the theropods go around in mated pairs, and those that have young commonly have just one with them, even though most dinosaur clutches we know of have many eggs. This actually isn't a huge problem here because the show does depict many of the theropods as starting out with an entire clutch of eggs, most of which simply don't survive (which is fairly realistic). The monogamous pairs, however, are more curious. There's nothing (as far as I'm aware) inherently improbable about monogamous Mesozoic theropods, but there's no good evidence for such, while on the other hand there is some evidence (such as clutch size) that at least some Mesozoic theropods (such as Troodon) may have been polygamous. Not to mention many of the theropods have very pronounced sexual dimorphism, even though in modern animals extreme sexual dimorphism is generally an indicator of polygamy. In these cases it appears to me that this was for the sake of anthropomorphism and character identification. At the very least it would have been nice to see some variation in the reproductive behaviors of the theropods.

Regardless, I found that the dinosaurs in this episode in particular were on average the least anthropomorphic out of all the episodes, which was certainly a plus. In this respect (along with the general accuracy), I enjoyed this episode the most. In terms of story, however, I still prefer the second episode or even some of the shorts (notably the Protoceratops story from the third episode). I felt that the story of this episode crammed too much in and then it all had to be cut short to make room for the obligatory K-Pg extinction and its aftermath (and presumably the tacked on talking head segments). A main antagonist is set up before the opening sequence, but then he gets defeated and killed just a bit more than ten minutes into the episode. We see a juvenile Tyrannosaurus be the sole survivor of its brood and even make it past the extinction event... then he just falls off a cliff and dies anyway. We never really get to know any of the dinosaurs as characters that well, as nearly everyone dies halfway through the episode. The ending is very sad though, although its full impact and profundity is tarnished a bit by the suddenly comparatively poor CGI in the very last scenes. Also, I thought this episode suffered the most when it comes to the talking head segments, as a lot of the previews shown during those segments gave away upcoming plot points.

Still a good ending to the series though, and worth a watch. If or when this gets released in its original format, that will probably fix the spoiler and pacing problems somewhat.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I am on TV Tropes!

I don't mean that I read or edit TV Tropes, of course. You probably all know that already.

I mean that this blog actually has a TV Tropes page now, courtesy of Spinosegnosaurus77! Thanks a bunch!

I'll have to get around to creating some new pages for other works myself when I have more free time. If my not-very-good comic that I've only been drawing for less than two years and fail to update more than 80% of the time can get a page, anyone can, and I can think of many works out there that deserve it more than mine does.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dinosaur Revolution: Survival Tactics

Special thanks to Vrahno for locating a download link to the formerly elusive third episode of Dinosaur Revolution. Spoilers ahead.

Like the first episode (and unlike the second and last), "Survival Tactics" is a collection of short stories instead of being one long story. Unlike the first episode, there doesn't appear to be much of a running theme for this one, although they tried to shoehorn one in (namely the very vague and broad theme of "survival tactics"). Which doesn't come across as a surprise, as these these stories were originally intended to be presented chronologically, not thematically. More screwing around by the network I assume.

Compared to the first two episodes, this episode is quite maniraptor (specifically deinonychosaur) heavy. Three (out of six) stories feature maniraptors, and two of those have them in starring roles.

The first of those stories (in fact, the first story in the entire episode) is about the large deinonychosaur Utahraptor. We have two flocks of Utahraptor attacking a juvenile Cedarosaurus but ending up fighting each other. A crocodylomorph also joins in the fun when it tries to drag the juvenile Cedarosaurus into the water, only to get chased off by the Utahraptor. It gets its revenge when a herd of adult Cedarosaurus come back to (literally) kick some theropod butt and one of the Utahraptor is knocked into the water. Okay, so the Utahraptor got the worst out of that deal, but I appreciate the subversion of the "invincible 'raptor' pack" trope. All too often deinonychosaurs are shown killing impossibly huge prey, so seeing Utahraptor of all deinonychosaurs getting beat up was a treat. The fact that they're shown targeting the juvenile is also realistic behavior that deserves to be portrayed in documentaries more. The plumage the Utahraptor have isn't bad, certainly better than most other deinonychosaur depictions that have been on TV. (All the aviremigians in Dinosaur Revolution have remiges, for instance. It's about time!) Some things to keep an eye out for in this segment are references to Raptor Red and the accompanying illustration for the description of Brontomerus. (Speaking of Brontomerus, a quick note about theropod-sauropod encounters in this show. Let's just say that out of the many theropod-sauropod interactions, I can only think of two where the sauropod gets off worse, while I can think of a good number that would probably make SV-POW proud.) Not a bad start to the episode.

The second story also stars a maniraptor, but this time the much smaller unenlagiine Rahonavis. I've been looking forward to this one ever since I saw the storyboards for it (which were released on Youtube prior to the broadcast of the actual show). The lighting in the story is darker and gloomier in the final product than I expected (even though I knew it would be foggy), and the Rahonavis looks a little cuter in the storyboard than in the final product, probably because the final design has a noticeably featherless, scaly face. Incidentally, there is no evidence for scaly faces in any paravians, but otherwise the model for the Rahonavis is excellent. We get to see the Rahonavis performing its day to day activities, flying down from the trees, hitching a ride on a Rapetosaurus, feeding on insects and seeds, and escaping from two young Majungasaurus by using WAIR, all fairly plausible behaviors. One entirely speculative behavior shown for the Rahonavis is mimicking sounds, an ability it later uses to scare away the young Majungasaurus. It's interesting that it is shown to be an omnivore, a subtle Shout Out to the omnivorous ancestry of maniraptors. The portrayal of Seldom Seen Species, the simplistic but interesting and well rounded story, and the plausible behaviors shown in this segment give it a spot among my favorite Dinosaur Revolution stories.

The third maniraptor in the episode is Velociraptor. Unlike Rahonavis, it plays an antagonistic role, and the protagonist of its story is instead the ceratopsian Protoceratops. As it happens, this is the only ornithischian centric storyline in Dinosaur Revolution. (Others were planned, but ornithischians turned out to be too boring by sheer bad luck they were all cut from the final product.) Another special characteristic of this story is that the (tacked on) narrator only says one line of background information at the beginning and doesn't intrude at all for the rest of the segment, giving us a taste of what Dinosaur Revolution was meant to be like. I really liked that. The story itself being engaging and full of heart helped as well. There are things I could nitpick about, but (shock horror) I almost didn't care. Certainly one of the best of the stories in the show (at least out of those that actually ended up being broadcast). As with all the other stories of this episode, the story is short (in fact, I felt that it had slightly been rushed a bit, presumably because little bits of all the stories had been cut out to make room for the last-minute talking head segments), so the Velociraptor don't get to do that much, but for most part I liked what I saw. It is strange though that, immediately after making a kill, they're shown killing an adult Protoceratops and trying to catch a juvenile. Surplus killing? An interesting factoid is that the Velociraptor species shown is not the better known V. mongoliensis, but V. osmolskae, as the story features the Bayan Mandahu Formation.

All in all, the maniraptor segments in this episode were enjoyable. Strangely, I felt that all the stories that didn't feature maniraptors were the goofier stories in the episode. (For the record, the other stories in the episode include a story about two Guanlong, one about a young Shunosaurus, and one about a young Anhanguera.) Some are (intentionally) full blown Looney Tunes shorts but with realistic-looking animals. Your Mileage May Vary on whether that's a good thing.

Incidentally, there's been some (much desired) good news on Dinosaur Revolution. Discovery has postponed the DVD release until a product more worthy of the creative team's efforts can be produced. As mentioned in my review of the first episode, this show has been screwed over really hard by the network, so this sounds like a huge victory for the creative team. Exactly what this will result in is still unknown, but I hope that we'll finally get to see the show in its intended format (or at the very least something closer to its intended format than the broadcast version).

Saturday, October 1, 2011

San Diego Zoo Part V: Some Last-minute Exhibits

Unfortunately, not long after going through Elephant Odyssey, I had to cut the trip short. Here are some last-minute photos I got as I walked back towards the exit of the zoo.

Here's a takin, probably a relict of the old Horn and Hoof Mesa.

Some lion-tailed macaques.

A (melanistic) jaguar.

I think this is a Siamese fireback, but my memory is fuzzy.

And my memory is even fuzzier for this one. The fact that there isn't much to look at besides a bundle of feathers doesn't help. Reeve's pheasant?

Another one of the many types of hornbill that are at the zoo (and that I don't remember the exact name of).

A snow leopard. It kept moving around, so this is about the best photo I got (and besides, I was in more of a hurry than usual).

A squirrel monkey. Somewhere between here and the next photo I decided to go pay a visit to the zoo's kiwis. Unlike the other nocturnal animals at the zoo, the kiwis are kept in a nocturnal house. I'd never seen these interesting maniraptors, and the last time I came they were off exhibit.

Except... as it turned out they were off exhibit this time as well! What a let down.

Just outside the kiwi house was this lowland anoa. Another (comparatively) rarely seen creature as far as zoos go. Too bad it's a stinking synapsid.

Babirusa are neat as well. Still, stinking synapsids.

It's only proper to end with a maniraptor, so here's a wompoo fruit dove.

All in all, even with my two trips to this zoo so far combined, I still didn't quite get to visit the entire zoo. But there are only two major exhibition areas (Tiger River and the giant pandas) I haven't been to at least once, so I suppose I haven't done too badly. Might want to give it another go in the distant future. And I need to see some kiwis.

150 Years of Archaeopteryx

This year marks the 150th anniversary for the description of the iconic "first bird" (or not) Archaeopteryx.

First, a quick diversion. Filled with anachronisms and Misplaced Wildlife, but very catchy. Points for getting the term "Maniraptora" into a children's song!
Naturally, I've prepared a special presentation for this special occasion, this time brought to you by resident Archaeopteryx Savape!
Eh... so I really have to do this, don't I? I would argue that this is the equivalent of grabbing a human passing by on the street on the such and such anniversary of the description of Homo sapiens and asking it to talk all about the research done on its own species. But part of the joy of being a fictional character is that you come with all the knowledge your creator wishes to grant you, so I might as well proceed. You all know the story. A fossilized feather was unearthed in the Solnhofen Plattenkalk in Germany, described in 1861, and named Archaeopteryx lithographica.
The feather, photographed by H. Raab, from Wikipedia.
A couple of years later an actual skeleton of Archaeopteryx was described. It was preserved with feathers, so it was assumed that this was the type of animal the original feather belonged to, but this is less certain now. First feathered fossil to be discovered! Eat it, Yixian. These days they call this specimen the London Specimen. They really like to keep track of us Archaeopteryx specimens, and all published specimens have been given nicknames like that. These specimens are actually named after the museums they're held at and have nothing to do with where they were discovered. Names like Solnhofen Specimen I and Solnhofen Specimen II just don't stick. (One specimen is called the Solnhofen Specimen, actually. You'll see it later, if nothing has happened to it.)
The London Specimen, photographed by H. Zell, from Wikipedia.
The specimen that gets all the publicity though is the Berlin Specimen. This is the one you see depicted everywhere. Notice in this historical photo that the specimen preserves nice leg feathers and some long body feathers, but those were destroyed during prep. You never see those in modern photos of the specimen, nor in some of the more mediocre Archaeopteryx depictions.
Historical photo of the Berlin Specimen from Vogt, 1880.
As is quite common in paleontology, new names were given to new Archaeopteryx specimens left and right. Names like "Jurapteryx", "Archaeornis", Archaeopteryx "bavarica", Archaeopteryx "macrura", and others that almost no one uses anymore. One that you might still see occasionally is Wellnhoferia, and this is the Solnhofen Specimen mentioned earlier. For most part though, the only Archaeopteryx species still commonly in use is the original Archaeopteryx lithographica.
Wellnhoferia, or the Solnhofen Specimen, photographed by H. Raab, from Wikipedia.
Because Archaeopteryx was the first Mesozoic maniraptor fossil found with feathers, we played a big part in early studies on the evolution of birds. It was noted early on that we had many theropod dinosaur characteristics, and famously in the 1970s Dr. John Ostrom compared the skeletal features of Archaeopteryx and other theropods, providing evidence that birds are theropod dinosaurs.
Comparison between the hands of the dromaeosaurid Deinonychus (left) and Archaeopteryx (right) by John Conway, from Wikipedia. Not to scale.
Due to these significant impacts, Archaeopteryx is often thought of as a "special" fossil, a creature with both "reptile" and "bird" characteristics that shows how modern birds evolved. This concept has led to some awful, awful restorations that depict us as looking something like weird lizard-bird hybrids. But now in 2011, we really aren't that special anymore. It's now known that a lot of other maniraptors (including even things like Velociraptor) had the exact same combination of "reptilian" and "avian" features (feathers, wings, teeth, wing claws, long tail) that we do. As far as Mesozoic paravians go, we're really quite generic, not unusual looking at all. If it had been something like Sinornithosaurus, Microraptor, or Caudipteryx that had been discovered back in the 1800s, they'd have received the same special treatment we do today. But too late for them now.
Modern restoration of Velociraptor by Matt Martyniuk.
Even our traditionally held "first bird" status is no longer ours. Mind you, as far as known maniraptors go, 150 million years ago in the Late Jurassic is still quite old. But other paravians (including some probable avialians), such as scansoriopterygids, Pedopenna, Anchiornis, and Xiaotingia, are now known from even older parts of the Late Jurassic. As Archaeopteryx was known to have had feathers early on, when no feathered non-bird dinosaur fossils were known, it was assumed that we must have been avialians (i.e.: closer to modern birds than other types of theropods are). Up until recently, this was still widely considered to be true. But several recent analyses have suggested that we may actually be non-eumaniraptor paravians or even deinonychosaurs. It's worth saying that the latter result in particular only has weak statistic support, but suffice it to say that you guys really don't have any good idea what exactly type of basal paravian we are. Me, I'll enjoy observing the chaos in the next few years. Such confusion is only to be expected. As I hinted earlier, we don't really have that many modern bird traits, at least not much more than definite deinonychosaurs do. Study of one of the latest described Archaeopteryx specimens, the Thermopolis Specimen, even shows that we have a retractable second toe and a barely reversed first toe (contrary to the way many specimens are preserved), similar to definite deinonychosaurs but unlike modern birds. Studies of our forelimb motion and wing feathers suggest that there isn't even any evidence that we were any better at flying than were small definite deinonychosaurs such as Microraptor!
The Thermopolis Specimen, photographed by Stephan Schulz, from Wikipedia.
Other recent research has been done on Archaeopteryx, There have been studies of our brain structure, showing that we have a good sense of balance and spatial perception, which makes sense for small gliding and clambering animals like ourselves. Studies of our growth show that we grew slower than modern birds (similar to most other Mesozoic dinosaurs, including many other Mesozoic birds). There has even been study of the possible size and shape of our eyeballs that reveal we were active during the day (like many modern birds but unlike many deinonychosaurs). So there you have it. Archaeopteryx is one of the most significant dinosaur discoveries and has a long, rich history and continues to be studied blah blah blah. Not bad for a pigeon-sized protobird if I say so myself. Last but not least, I must leave a token of my appreciation for the Acme Museum, which has provided me with this wonderful opportunity and put me up to this arduous chore.