‘Prehistoric Planet’ shows the complex behavior of dinosaurs. But how do we actually know?
In the TV show prehistoric planet, where computer-generated images of dinosaurs are presented like any other nature documentary, “shot” as they hunt and mate, there’s a scene where an atrociraptor picks up a burning twig. The feathered raptor lifts the branch to its fur and Sir David Attenborough explains that the raptor uses the smoke to expel the pests that hide in the feathers.
The field of paleontology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past three decades since jurassic park first screened to the public, but using the fossil record to determine the appearance is one thing. Determine the specifics of the behavior – what evidence is there to support this? How can scientists peek into the minds of creatures that have been dead for millions of years? There’s even another scene later in the series where another raptor uses a flaming twig to further spread the forest fire, driving prey from their hiding places.
Although it may seem like an overstatement to describe these dinosaurs as being able to use tools like fire, the veracity of these behaviors is supported by a multidisciplinary approach, according to prehistoric planetfrom executive producer Mike Gunton.
“The worst thing that can happen in this is someone going, ‘Oh, well, it’s all made up. Why should I bother watching this?’ “, Gunton said.
“To create the image you see on screen, we pull dozens and dozens of separate threads and try to weave them together,” Gunton said. “There are paleo-ecologists, there are paleo-climatologists, there are paleo-ethologists, there are fossils, there is everything you can imagine.”
So once the team was assembled, a global team of experts across all time zones and specialties, the next step in determining the behavior of these prehistoric animals was to put the world’s best dinosaur data in front of this team.
Lucky for the team behind Apple TV prehistoric planetthere really hasn’t been a better time to delve into the archives, according to consultant paleontologist Darren Naish.
“We are truly in a golden age of dinosaurs,” Naish said. “People are discovering so many new species all over the world, but also in terms of the information we have about their biology, their sensory ability, what they actually looked like.”
Naish said this information falls into three main categories – the traditional fossil record, which increases by one fossil each week, computer-generated models of these animals, and sightings of living creatures. In the case of the pyromaniac raptor, Naish said assumptions about its behavior were made by observing the raptor’s closest living descendants – bird hunting.
“A rather long list of predatory birds – kites, falcons and hawks – have been reported as picking up burning sticks and moving them to spread fire, and these birds have also been reported as picking up burning sticks and deliberately treating their feathers with smoke,” Naish said.
“It’s an extrapolation to show in an extinct dinosaur, but it’s one we can substantiate.”
Gunton added that the conversation between the team of paleontologists and the CGI artists rendering these dinosaurs is by no means one-sided. He said there were times during the making of the show where a computer model will be so realistic, so grounded in biomechanics and physics, that it will actually help scientists make assumptions about dinosaurs. that they couldn’t do before.
“‘Maybe it can’t spin that fast, well, that’s interesting. Maybe it’s a stalker rather than an ambush, or a sprinter,'” Gunton said.
“So there are some really interesting extrapolations and cross-fertilizations between filmmakers, animators and the scientific community, which we would like to develop further.”
Victoria Arbour, another consultant paleontologist on the show, agreed with Gunton.
“What I really love is all the creative ways we can pull all these different lines of evidence together to create some sort of holistic picture of dinosaurs as living animals,” Arbor said.
Arbor centers on the Ankylosaurus, a dino beast covered in armored scales and wielding a hammer tail. In the show, one of these ancient creatures nibbles on charcoal smoldering in the wake of a forest fire – a scene taken from the contents of a fossil’s stomach and the knowledge that tasty young ferns are among the first to sprout after a fire.
Arbor said she rarely gets to see the subject matter of her work in such detail.
“I often say I work with individual pieces and bones, sometimes I work with really exceptional specimens that are really complete, but that’s not the same as looking at a live animal.”
Gunton said he hopes the sum of these multidisciplinary approaches is greater than the separate parts, adding to what he calls “a blurry picture of the truth”.
“There are so many missteps, if you will, in this procedure that we almost can’t think outside the box, because there are so many things that keep us loyal,” Gunton said. “We wanted to try and see if we could actually create the 21st century model for how we, the audience, see this world.”
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There’s a moment on Apple TV’s “Prehistoric Planet” – which BJ Leiderman isn’t doing the theme music for, but he’s doing ours – where a CGI raptor picks up a burning twig from a forest fire and waves it around under his feathers.
(SOUND EXCERPT FROM THE TV SHOW “PREHISTORIC PLANET”)
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Smoke is an insecticide.
(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)
ATTENBOROUGH: And it can help an animal get rid of its parasites.
SIMON: Sir David Attenborough sounds convincing, but journalist Alexander Tuerk has a few questions.
ALEXANDER TUERK, BYLINE: Now don’t get me wrong – dinosaurs using fire are very cool, but I was skeptical. And later in the show, another raptor even spreads fire using another twig. I get why we know so much about the appearance of dinos, but how can we look inside their minds? I called the people behind the show, and it turns out I picked the best time to ask.
DARREN NAISH: We’re really in the golden age of dinosaurs.
TUERK: This is paleontologist Darren Naish, one of the show’s scientific consultants.
NAISH: People are discovering, you know, so many new species all over the world – but also in terms of the information we have about their biology, their sensory abilities, what they actually looked like.
TUERK: Naish says there are three main buckets of new data – fossils, computer models and observation of living creatures.
NAISH: There’s also been a big shift in thinking about the behavior of living animals that are related to dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are therefore not extinct. Birds are living dinosaurs.
TUERK: Turns out it was by looking at the closest descendants of the dinos we know and love that they came to the conclusion about the pyromaniac raptor.
NAISH: A fairly long list of predatory birds – kites, hawks and falcons – have been reported picking up flaming sticks and moving them around to spread fire. And these birds have also been reported to grab flaming sticks and deliberately treat their feathers with smoke.
KILL: Alright. It’s a mystery solved.
NAISH: It’s an extrapolation to show on an extinct dinosaur, but it’s one we can substantiate.
TUERK: But how do you coordinate five episodes of dead dinos and their weird behaviors and make sure everything holds up? This is Mike Gunton, executive producer of this show and “Planet Earth 2”.
MIKE GUNTON: To make the image you see on screen, we pull dozens and dozens of separate threads and try to weave them together. So there are paleoecologists. There are paleoclimatologists. There are paleoethologists. There are fossil people. There is everything you can imagine.
TUERK: Environmentalists played a crucial role in a scene where a herd of triceratops eat nutritious but poisonous plants. They have medicine, however, underground.
(SOUND EXCERPT FROM THE TV SHOW “PREHISTORIC PLANET”)
ATTENBOROUGH: It’s the antidote – a special clay. These are known as clay blocks and are visited many times.
(VOCALIZING DINOSAURS SOUNDBITE)
GUNTON: Bringing together this multidisciplinary approach means that the sum is much, much greater than the parts.
TUERK: Gunton says computer models of dinosaurs can be so realistic that they actually help scientists reach conclusions they couldn’t before.
GUNTON: Maybe it can’t spin that fast. Well, that’s interesting. So maybe in his – he did a – you know, it was a stalker rather than an ambush. Or it was a sprinter or a – you know, so there are some really interesting extrapolations and cross-fertilizations between the filmmakers, the animators and the scientific community, which I think we’d like to expand on further.
TUERK: It all adds up to what Gunton calls a blurry picture of the truth.
GUNTON: There are so many slip-ups, if you will, in this procedure that we almost can’t get out of hand because there’s so much that keeps us loyal.
VICTORIA ARBOUR: What I really love is all the creative ways we can pull all of these different sources of evidence together to create some sort of holistic picture of dinosaurs as living animals.
TUERK: I asked Victoria Arbour, paleontologist and fellow consultant on the show, what it was like to see the object of your studies come to life on a screen in front of you.
ARBOUR: I often sit down and work with, like, chunks and, you know, individual bones. Or sometimes I work with really exceptional specimens that are really complete. But that’s not the same as looking at a living animal.
TUERK: That’s what Gunton says he hopes viewers take away from “Prehistoric Planet” as well — a new perspective on some old bones.
GUNTON: We wanted to try and see if we could actually create the 21st century model for how we as an audience see this world.
TUERK: So the bottom line, says paleontologist Darren Naish…
NAISH: Those animals weren’t boring. They weren’t, like, simple behavioral. They were almost certainly – no, no. They did complex things.
TUERK: Case closed. For NPR News, I’m Alexander Tuerk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.