Walking With Dinosaurs

What’s the biggest carnivore that ever lived? Tyrannosaurus, right? Nope.

The biggest of the carnivores was a whale-like marine carnivore called liopleurodon. Or at least that’s what I learned from Walking With Dinosaurs, the popular 4-hour BBC series about the lives of dinosaurs that according to Wikipedia is the most expensive documentary ever made.

A little research shows me that liopleurodon really is bigger than T. Rex, and so far really does seem to be the biggest carnivore that ever lived.

It’s big enough to bite a car in half.

Despite shakiness on some facts (like presenting the liopleurodon as being a lot bigger than it probably was), the series offers visual effects that are absolutely stunning. If you saw Jurassic Park in the theatre when it first came out, you remember how amazing the effects were, how convincing. The dinosaurs were real. They breathed and snorted, bellowed, ran.

In some scenes these dinosaurs are like that, that lifelike. The illusion — created from puppetry and CGI on real backgrounds of desert, forest, ocean — is weaker because it is extended for a longer period, and not always quite as convincing. But with only a slight suspension of disbelief you feel like you are watching a nature program that just happens to be filmed millions of years before there would have been anyone around to film it.

The POV and narration are intentionally and cleverly just like a TV nature show’s, and you see early mammals in their burrows raising their young, sea mammals giving birth, tiny little foraging reptiles building nests and repelling predators… The illusion of life can be quite convincing. I gave in to it, and watched the show as if it were a nature program.

Which it both is and isn’t. Despite the fact that prominent paleontologists were brought in as advisors, apparently some information is scientifically specious. For example, scary liopleurodon (pictured above), a huge, fascinating and frightening marine carnivore, isn’t nearly as large as the series says it is (it’s probably closer to 15 meters long than 25 meters, a huge error). So I wonder how much else is exaggerated or wrong, and I wonder how the series can really recreate the mating habits of ornithocheiros, a flying dinosaur. How do we know that ornithocheiros flew from Brazil to Europe to mate on the beach, the males forming a circle with the weakest on the outskirts and the strong young ones in the center, and the females scoping the males out from the air?

But sometimes even I have to give in to not knowing where the meal comes from and just enjoy the delicious flavors. This series is remarkable for bringing the ancient past vibrantly alive. Dinosaurs as wildlife! For that’s what they are: ancient wildlife. The factual errors don’t outweigh the value of the feeling of connection to the ancient past that this series offers to the viewer.

And as you watch the series, you realize how ancient some modern species are. When the ancestors of human beings were rodentlike early mammals living in burrows, there were ferns, wasps, sharks, flowers, dragonflies, horseshoe crabs… There are so many familiar flora and fauna whose forms are so much more ancient than ours, who shared the Earth with completely alien creatures like liopleurodon.

The show posits that 100 million years ago, when there were no polar caps, the south polar region was a humid jungle for months on end, then a frozen jungle for months on end. It was perhaps inhabited by Koolasuchus, a 1000-pound carnivorous amphibian.

Incredible. Kevin Kelly is also a fan of the series.

Here’s a clip:

http://www.metacafe.com/watch/239141/jurassic_sea_monster/

Another clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzkvJDnjh6c&mode=related&search=

I think this would be a great program for older kids to watch — I only rule out sensitive younger ones because of the killing-and-eating factor, and the dino-sex.

9 responses to “Walking With Dinosaurs

  1. Wow…. If I hadn’t read the text I would say “Where did you take those pictures??” :-D

    I would love to watch that serial, really a pity it is not possible here…

    According to a popular science radio program I heard long time ago, dinosaurs never really went extinct. They continued to develop, and today they can be seen in trees, and on the sky… because they are the birds!

  2. I too am a fan of Walking With Dinosaurs (and the other titles in the Walking With … series). I view it this way: they took the available knowledge, used their best guesses to fill in the holes, and presented a plausible picture of what life would be like back then. I would not take mating habits or crest colorings or any of that to be definitive, but consider it a glimpse into prehistoric life.

  3. Incidentally, Anne, the program is available on DVD; hopefully you can find it in your area.

  4. Yeah, what Darmok said — Walking With Dinos is a BBC production available on DVD. It’s not a series currently airing, but a mini from 2004 or so.

    And Darmok, I see that the show’s writers approached the show as you describe; however, the audience is left to infer that, when I think it should be spelled out. Also I’ve read mention of two factual errors the series includes: the size of liopleurodon and the wrong timeframe for the extinction of the sauropods. Sloppy.

    It’s too late for the errors, but I do think the show would have benefited from a disclaimer explaining how much was extrapolation. But I think the show wanted a sexier look as a “fake” nature documentary, and chose that over something less slick but more truthful.

    That said, I read on Netflix that the way to watch the show is with commentary on, where you can hear how the creatures were animated and also why the writers made the choices they did in depicting the animals. I wish I’d watched it that way.

    I agree that that’s where the show shines — as a “glimpse into prehistoric life,” the best one we can build using the fossil record. I wouldn’t say I’m nitpicking, but despite the show’s flaws, it’s wonderful television.

    Anne — the show ends by saying that the dinos are still with us — birds are indeed descended from them!

  5. No doubt I am going to watch it… though I am not sure where to look – Local Blockbuster? (Maroubra Junction, Sydney)… but I will find it.

    I agree with you Jennifer in principle there should be a disclaimer stating what was extrapolation. Leaving it up to people to find out is like spreading fake beliefs about that period of time – which is not catastrophic but anyway, not honest either.

  6. Yeah, I personally bought the series precisely because of its “fake nature documentary” feel!

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