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They Spared No Expense

Found on social media: Theropoda Blog Facebook Page.

Like most paleontologists, I spent this week watching “Prehistoric Planet” on AppleTV+. For someone who grew up watching dinosaur documentaries on PBS and Discovery Channel (back when Discovery and its networks focused on, you know… actual science), this was a major TV premiere event as we had not gotten very many dinosaur documentary specials for what seemed like a long time (and this month we got two: “Prehistoric Planet” and Dinosaur Apocalypse. And both were hosted by the incomparable Sir David Attenborough!)

“Prehistoric Planet” was not the first wildlife documentary style show about dinosaurs. That honor goes to 1999’s “Walking With Dinosaurs” (which teenage-me totally geeked out on back in the day). In between that, folks also forget about Discovery’s 2011 “Dinosaur Revolution”, which was also entertaining and visually stunning. But these three shows set the tone for future dinosaur documentaries that could now move beyond clips of museums, dig sites, and talking heads, giving the public a truly immersive experience.

As real as it got for 1999-2000 graphics. And it blew us all away!

TL:DR & Spoiler-Free Review Summary

It was damn near perfect.

If you haven’t watched it yet, go do it!

Seriously, the effects make you forget you’re watching a fictionalized account of life 66 million years ago. The science was dead-on accurate for our understanding of dinosaurs and the Mesozoic for 2022.

Major shout-outs to the consultation team and the animators and designers for pretty much bringing our dreams to life. You all nailed it. You got the right team, the right narrator, and the right composer for the score!

How could you have gone wrong?

This is how we all feel.

As of now, all episodes are on AppleTV+ so you can binge to your little heart’s content. I also believe AppleTV+ does have a 7-day free trial for new members.

It is also important that we all avoid the temptation to bootleg it, if for no other reason than we want more “Prehistoric Planet” (or at least more documentaries like this). And having people legitimately sign-up to watch it sends that message clearly to Apple and the BBC. Drive up those ratings!!

Also, with the impeding release of “Jurassic World: Dominion” next month, it was great that “Prehistoric Planet” got here first. Hopefully, we can slowly start to show the public what we think actual dinosaurs looked like. Personally, I would love to see folks coming out of seeing JW:D going like, “But why doesn’t Blue have feathers?” Or “That therizinosaur wasn’t chonky!”

8 out of 4 stars! (‘Cause I want to give it 4 stars twice).

And now for those who care: the spoiler-filled details…

This documentary is what any paleontologist dreams of seeing. Even if they work on mammals, or ammonites, or trace fossils, seeing a dinosaur “alive” on screen is still a huge thrill. It reminds us all (professional, amateur, and layperson alike) why we fell in love with the science in the first place. For me, this documentary was a great breath of fresh air. I could have probably written a post about each episode, but the abstracts for annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology are due this week and I was a bit behind. So I saved my thoughts for after I got my abstract submitted! But here are 10 thoughts on “Prehistoric Planet” as a whole (spoilers possible below):

1-Fluffy baby T.rex. They had feathers, they played, exhibited curiosity, and gosh darn it, they were cute. (Sorry, I’m a biased homer).

Also: Mosasaurs a just jerks… if you know, you know!

2-Organization. Unlike most dino documentaries, “Prehistoric Planet” was organized like another BBC documentary: “Planet Earth“. So we got 5 episodes that covered dinosaur environments: Coasts, Deserts, Freshwater, Ice Worlds, and Forests. And the best part… for once a dinosaur documentary didn’t end tragically: no asteroids at all!

I'm not reading the last page of that dinosaur book.
We all know how it ended…

3-Pterosaurs galore! In most documentaries, flying reptiles are just glossed over or are kept in the background. “Prehistoric Planet” featured them in pretty much every episode! And more than just the usual Pteranodon cameo. No, we got to see a diverse group that were major players in their ecosystems.

Excellent pterosaur diversity…and showing that they were important components of the Mesozoic ecosystem!

4-Feathers! And not just a little fuzz. Dromaeosaurs like Velociraptor were not only fully-feathered, but shown using them for purposes other than flight! And we got to see some big feathered critters like Nanuqsaurus and Deinocheirus!

No they couldn’t fly, but falling with style….

5-Dinosaurs that didn’t roar. Instead we got a lot of low-frequency rumbles, grumbles, hisses, and bellows. A roar is a very specific type of vocalization that is produced by mammals. As far as we know, dinosaurs did not possess the anatomical structures to produce a roar. And based on their close relationship with birds and crocodiles, we can assume they produced similar sounds. (See: Phylogenetic Bracket below). So, sorry folks who were influenced by “Jurassic Park”.

You don’t need a Juassic-Park-esque sound blast. A low-frequency rumble coming from a T.rex would still be scary AF!

6-Triceratops ontogeny. In the final episode we saw a herd of Triceratops. We know from fossil evidence that Triceratops underwent extreme cranial changes as it grew and it was nice to see that reflected in the episode. (So yeah, the Triceratops from “Jurassic Park” was likely not fully grown based on the little spiky bits (epoccipitals) around its frill… and based on that, its horns were not in the correct orientation either).

From Horner & Goodwin (2006) linked above. Seriously, if you re-watch the Forests episode, you can see all these growth stages represented in the herd. I totally geeked out.

7-Lots of new dinosaurs made their big screen debuts. In most documentaries, you get the usual suspects: T.rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Brontosaurs/Apatosaurus, etc. Here we got a plethora of species that were likely only known to mega-dino enthusiasts (aka kids aged 4-8) or paleontologists.

8-More than North America. While other documentaries have touched on Asia, Europe, and South America, North America has been the primary setting. But this one took you all over the world to places people may not be as familiar with. It was great to see other places finally get their due.

9-The softer side of killer dinosaurs. Yeah, there was some backlash showing T.rex doing stuff other than killing and fighting. But animals in general behave in complex ways and yes, they do more to survive than just kill or be killed. So seeing a good T.rex dad or a big, tough-looking Carnotaurus trying to impress a mate instead of fighting her added to the realism.

Dinosaurs could be more than killers, folks!

10-Anatomy. Too often, we get dinosaurs that exhibit the svelte look of “Jurassic Park”: just soft tissue shrunk-wrapped around bones. In this one, all the animals were a little more “chonky” (and the carnivores were less “toothy”). And the necks of sauropods were their more appropriate, robust shape.

Inflatable neck sacks aside, look at how big those necks are!

But wait….

If all we have are the fossils, how do we know cephalopods glowed in the dark? How do we know Triceratops ventured into caves to eat clay? How do we know sauropods knocked down trees or Carnotaurus performed elaborate bird-like mating rituals?

Those are all very good questions. And the short answer is, we actually do not. Behavior is something that is rarely preserved in the fossil record. However, sometimes we get lucky! Last year paleontologist Dean Lomax and illustrator Bob Nicholls published Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils detailing the discovery and implications for various fossils that capture ancient behaviors. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested!!

But as for some of the other more fantastical (and realistic) scenes in the show, paleontologists do have the tools that can help fill in the gaps, so to speak.

Phylogenetic Bracket

A phylogenetic bracket is a tool that paleontologists (or any evolutionary biologist) can use to infer the traits of a species. All you need to apply this method is:

  • A good evolutionary tree (or phylogeny, or phylogenetic tree, or cladogram… they all refer to the same graphical illustration of evolutionary relationships).
  • An “ancestor” species and a “descendant” species with a trait you’re interested in.

As you can see in the image below, if you have a species with an unknown trait that is bracketed on a phylogenetic tree by an ancestor and descendant, it is logical to infer that the species also possessed that trait because it is shared by an ancestor and descendants! This is a great approach for figuring out traits that don’t fossilize well, like behaviors or soft-tissue structures. Also keep in mind that the phrase “ancestor” is a relative term that denotes its more basal position (towards the bottom of the tree) rather than its evolutionary role.

Supposed you found a fossil bird (B) and wanted to know what it could look like. You could accomplish this by “bracketing” it: look at the lineage directly basal to it (ancestor) and the next one up from it (descendant). We can assume Species B had the red feathered crest because both species that bracket it have it as well! Bird silhouette modified from http://phylopic.org/image/d5194798-0b50-4a79-8b3d-e6efe468c5ab/. Created by T. Michael Keesey used under Creative Commons License.

In the case of some of the more fantastic aspects of the animals seen in “Prehistoric Planet”, such as the Carnotaurus mating dance, parental care among dinosaurs, feathers on certain species, and the glowing cephalopods, we can look to this method and infer that they exhibited these traits because closely related species did as well. And the same can be said for the bright colors!

For more information about phylogenetic brackets, check out this awesome video from PBS Eons!

Uniformitarianism

One of the foundational concepts that any geology student learns is Uniformitarianism. This concept underpins a lot of what we document in geology. This concept was popularized by early British geologists James Hutton and Charles Lyell (who also influenced Charles Darwin). Roughly, uniformitarianism is often summarized as “the present is key to the past”. What this means is that the processes and natural laws we observe going on today also worked the same way in the past. So, if you were to find ripples preserved in sandstone, you would infer they were made by the action of a body of water on loose sand!

Likewise, we can extend this principle to the biological realm. Interactions between animals and their environment operate roughly the same way today as they did in the past.

So how did we know that hadrosaurs needed to lick salt? Or that Triceratops sought out clay minerals in caves? Or that giant sauropods tore down trees? We can infer this because this is how we see modern animals behaving. Today, we know that African Elephants will knock down trees (in this way they are also playing a role as a keystone species, helping maintain the grassland environment); as sauropods were the largest land animals during the Mesozoic, they likely adopted similar strategies (and may have impacted the land in the same way). Modern animals will seek out mineral licks/supplements as they need them, so it is likely dinosaurs did that as well.

Hold on… Is there anything I didn’t like??

I suppose that as this is a review, I should also talk about the negatives. I could probably spend a bit of time nit-picking about little anatomical minutiae so esoteric that only a professional paleontologist who studies that organism would catch it… but that wouldn’t be appropriate. Nothing depicted here took away from the general scope and message of the documentary. The sauropod air sacs? There is some speculative basis for them (and other things depicted in the series) in the book All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals by paleoartist John Conway, C. M. Kosemen, paleontologist Darren Naish, which is worth a read!

Was I upset that this was a fictionalized story?

No. The story was rooted in the science and most of what was presented fell in the realm of possibility.

My only official complaint was that the series spent 5 episodes taking us around the world 66 million years ago and only 66 Ma. Unlike other documentaries (e.g. WWD and Dinosaur Revolution) that jumped around from time bin to formation, “Prehistoric Planet” stayed on planet Earth during this one time slice (the Maastrichtian, presumably, based on the species).

But this “complaint” can be totally fixed: SEQUELS, baby! To quote Max Bialystock, “It’ll run for years!”. Season 2: gimme the Late Jurassic, Morrison & Lourinhã Formations for everyone! Season 3: Cenomanian: crazy times in the early Late Cretaceous! Season 4: Late Triassic: let’s see what early dinosaurs had to deal with! Season 5, go crazy: give us the Permian! Season 6, throw the mammal folks some love: welcome to Miocene Earth! Season 7: what was going on in the Devonian when tetrapods grew legs? Season 8: PETM-Titanoboa for everyone! Season 9: Cambrian Explosion!!

You get the idea.

There is so much content possible that the creators could produce enough seasons and episodes to make the folks who work on “Law & Order: SVU” salute.

Published by Richard Bykowski

I am a vertebrate paleontologist, avid baseball fan, and loyal alum of U. Oregon and Indiana U. I like all things science (including dinosaurs) and most things baseball (like the Cubs, but not the Cardinals or White Sox).

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