Tuesday, May 31, 2011

March of the Dinosaurs

This was a documentary that aired on Discovery Channel some time ago. After some unsuccessful forays on Youtube, I finally came across it online here. Mild spoilers ahead!

The show takes place in the Late Cretaceous (roughly Campanian, with some fairly mild anachronism) of Alaska and Canada and focuses on polar dinosaurs. It follows two main "characters", a young male Edmontosaurus and a young male Troodon. I quite liked the storyline overall; while not without some silliness (most egregiously, a super persistent Albertosaurus that was somehow able to jump vertically straight into the air and was barely inconvenienced by being set on fire or being swept away by a volcanic flash flood), it was quite interesting and enjoyable. Accuracy wise it does reasonably well, certainly far better than some recent dinosaur "documentaries". (Although pterosaur fans are probably going to hate the Quetzalcoatlus. It looks extremely out of place alongside the comparatively well-researched dinosaurs.) There aren't as many overly wild speculations as is typical of such documentaries, though as with most mockumentaries it doesn't go to any lengths to differentiate between evidence-based aspects and completely speculative ones.

The only maniraptors present in the documentary are Troodon, but as mentioned above they get part of the spotlight. Commendably, they have feathers. However, they are also afflicted with what is quickly becoming the new problem with feathered dinosaur portrayals in pop culture: they look like "dinosaurs with feathers" instead of "feathered dinosaurs". They have scaly, lizard-like heads, even though there is no evidence that any maniraptor had a scaly head, including those with bald faces such as Beipiaosaurus or New World vultures. In fact, most of them appear to have had mostly feathered heads. The Troodon on the show also lack primary feathers entirely (even though those are present in all aviremigians for which integument is well documented), and have an awfully thin covering of feathers for being polar animals. (That was somewhat strange considering that even the tyrannosaurids on the show were portrayed with feathers, which was a pleasant surprise.) On the other hand, a good word must be said about the fact that the Troodon (along with all the other theropods) had non-pronated hands. This is one of those things that make you wonder why takes so long to sink into pop culture. It can't be that hard to give dinosaurs non-pronated hands, and, unlike feathered dinosaurs, they don't even change the appearance of the dinos that much. (At the same time, their presence will definitely show dino enthusiasts that you've been doing at least some of your research.)

I have a number of good things to say about the Troodon behavior wise. They don't engage in the laughable and unrealistic practice of killing ridiculously large herbivores that too many deinonychosaurs have been portrayed doing. They are only shown hunting small mammals (and, in the narration, said to feed on baby hadrosaurs). Granted, they also (try to) take advantage of an incapacitated ankylosaur turned on its back, but that looked like reasonable opportunism. (Although it would have been even better had omnivory in troodonts been mentioned, especially taking into account that they have a scene where the ankylosaur and the young Edmontosaurus experiment with feeding on grubs for extra protein.) We also see them using their sense to hearing to hunt prey, which, given the asymmetrical owl-like positioning of the ears in many troodonts, was a behavior they likely engaged in. Male Troodon are shown to be responsible for brooding eggs, which, based on the ratio between clutch and body size, is also likely behavior, though probable polygamy wasn't shown. However, the Troodon get one of the few particularly wild assertions made in the show when they are claimed to have been able to "see in slow motion". Also, there is a scene where a Troodon decides to bite a Gorgosaurus in the leg. Smart move. (I can get that a band of desperate Troodon might attempt to scare off a larger predator from a kill, but physically attacking it?)

This is purely aesthetic, but I'm going to agree with those who have said the dinosaurs in this documentary are a little too brown and drab. There's nothing wrong with being brown and drab, of course, but as none of the animals featured are likely to get their colors analyzed anytime soon (due to not preserving any integument), it would have been at least more visually appealing if some of the dinosaurs had had some (reasonably) bright colors or striking color patterns. Given that many modern reptiles are very visual animals and also use color patterns to communicate, it certainly wouldn't have been far fetched in the least. In fact, the color patterns the mammals had were arguably more striking than most of the dinosaurs', when in all likelihood it would've been the other way around.

Overall, though not focusing enough on the science behind it and not without faults, this is a good step up from much of the crap we've been getting.

Incidentally, I put up a poll on the blog. Haplocheirus appears to be winning, surprisingly, but I know it's only a matter of time before Balaur catches up. Fear not, for I will simply re-name the two choices afterward... I kid, I kid.


  1. Interesting, and thanks for the video link! Have to watch it when I get a chance, it actually sounds better than I thought. Nice to see their got a reasonably accurate single time/space biota in there (but why include the anachronistic Gorgosaurus when you already have Albertosaurus? They'd look nearly identical in life anyway).

  2. I thought that was strange, too. They play different roles in the show, but they could've easily made something up and speculated that different populations of Albertosaurus had different behaviors or some such (as the Albertosaurus and Gorgosaurus are shown living in different parts of North America).

  3. "They have scaly, lizard-like heads,"

    That's an understatement. They were practically JP ripoffs.

    "(Although it would have been even better had omnivory in troodonts been mentioned, especially taking into account that they have a scene where the ankylosaur and the young Edmontosaurus experiment with feeding on grubs for extra protein.)"

    The following quotes may explain why.


    "One study was based on the many Troodon teeth that have been collected from Late Cretaceous deposits from northern Alaska. These teeth are much larger than those collected from more southern sites, providing evidence that northern Alaskan populations of Troodon grew to larger average body size. The study suggests that the Alaskan Troodons may have had access to large animals as prey because there were no tyrannosaurids in their habitat to provide competition for those resources. This study also provides an analysis of the proportions and wear patterns of a large sample of Troodon teeth. It proposes that the wear patterns of all Troodon teeth suggest a diet of soft foods - inconsistent with bone chewing, invertebrate exoskeletons, or tough plant items. This study hypothesizes a diet primarily consisting of meat[17]"

    "^ Fiorillo, Anthony R. (2008) "On the Occurrence of Exceptionally Large Teeth of Troodon (Dinosauria: Saurischia) from the Late Cretaceous of Northern Alaska" Palaios volume 23 pp.322-328"

    Source (See "Paleobiology" & "References", respectively): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troodon