Mockumentaries, part 1: Walking with Dinosaurs

Walking with Dinosaurs

That's probably one of the most accurate depictions of Diplodocus in popular culture. Sadly, there's a few dinos in this series that are not that realistic.

Walking with Dinosaurs is probably the most famous natural history related mockumentary ever, and also one of the most expensive. Everyone, little me included, went crazy about it at the time (it was 2000), and honestly, who could blame us? Dinosaurs are badass, and that series was the first of its kind, making use of advanced digital effects and taking inspiration from real nature documentaries to narrate the lives of the “terrible lizards”. It was so popular, it spawned a shitload of sequels/prequels/spin-offs focusing on various other prehistoric beasts (including the science fiction show Primeval), and even nowadays, 12 years after it first aired, is still remembered and loved by many fans all around the world. So, what are my impressions about this series now that all these years have passed and I’m no more a little kid obsessed by dinosaurs, but a young man obsessed by dinosaurs? Is it good like the first time I’ve watched it? Well, yes and no. Mainly no.

The fact is that, for various reasons, the series didn’t age well. The special effects are still better than in most, if not all, other series of this kind, and at the time they looked they could compete with Hollywood movies in term of realism, and that was especially surprising considering that it wasn’t a Hollywood production, but a british one. Now, however, it’s really easy to understand that those big animals on the screen are just 10-year-old CGI, and see all of their imperfections, while I’m still amazed at the realism of the effects in Jurassic Park, a more than 20 years old film.

The series was revolutionary also because it contributed to enlighten the general public about the world of dinosaurs, divulging informations that where relatively new and certainly mainly obscure to most people, and dissolving many myths (I’m especially referring to the depiction of sauropods and pterosaurs, and to the mesozoic biomes, but there are many examples). Behind many aspects of the reconstructions there was good science: not only palaeontologists helped along, but the use of computer simulations to understand the ways the animals could or could not move were probably revolutionary. And yet, the series isn’t immune to embarassing errors, like many anatomical inaccuracies the most obvious of which is probably the complete lack of feathers on dromaeosaurids (and baby t-rexes too, actually, but I’m not sure if at the time the fact that baby t-rexes had feather-like structures was known). Maybe it would have been too difficult to animate the feathers, I don’t know.

Even worse, however, is the fact that many information presented there as solid facts are, in fact, just hypothesis or even wild guesses inspired mainly by modern day animal behaviour, and that’s the big limit of the narrative style chosen for the series: to keep going the illusion that what you are watching is a real documentaries with living animals, they had to stay in part and talk about the dinos like they knew everything about them. This, however, prevents the viewer to know what are the more plausible theories and what are just guesses that are possible but aren’t in fact backed up by many facts. I’ve still nightmares about people that were sure that Frill-necked lizards are in fact living dinosaurs (big mistake, pals, that would be birds) because the Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park was depicted as having a (completely fictional) frill (by the way, the poison was made up too). And while I can excuse a sci-fi movie whose purpose is just to entertain, it’s a little more difficult to excuse a series that should entertain AND teach. I don’t know, maybe if the narration wasn’t just like the narration of real nature documentaries, people would have been less involved in the show, and so it couldn’t have helped spread the interest for and knowledge of prehistoric life the way it did.

In the end, while it’s easy to see why the series was so successfull, and revolutionary in many ways, and while it’s still the best of its kind, I don’t think that someone who watches it for the first time today would be as impressed: once it looked like a real documentary with real dinosaurs, now it looks like a fake documentary with relatively good (but easily recognizable as such) CGI and puppets.

I’m not going to talk about all the other Walking with… series, because they’re mainly the same thing with less popular animals, and some of them include the obnoxious presence of Brady Barr, who makes them a lot cornier. Next time, I’ll talk about something different – and way, way shittier than the flawed but relatively enjoyable Walking with Dinosaurs.

Popcorn Biology: The Tree of Life (2011)

Tree of Life

"We're gonna make a religious movie about a father and his sons doing ordinary everyday shit, so the title will have to reference evolution. Obviously."

First of all: fuck you, The Tree of Life. You suck. You suck so much that in a cinema of Bologna the film scenes where shown in the wrong order and NOBODY NOTICED IT for a week. And actually, the wrong version was slightly better than the original.

It’s not even the fact that this film is so christian that even the goddamn dinosaurs in it are christians (also, dinosaurs? What the fuck?). It’s just that it’s so unbelievably boring.

Anyway, Popcorn Biology should be the section where I discuss the interpretation of biology in movies, so let’s start. First of all, calling what is basically a creationist movie The Tree of Life, a title that basically screams “evolution”, is just an insult. And yes, it is a creationist movie (in every scene everyone is praying god and saying that nature sucks compared to the divine grace), I don’t care if they put in a pointless half an hour of naturalistic footage to narrate the history of life in a frantic effort of justifying a title that doesn’t have anything to do with the main “plot”. The naturalistic footage itself is pretty spectacular, but again… dinosaurs? Half of the history of life is CGI dinosaurs? In a movie like this, where the presence itself of a section about the history of life is incredibly useless? Why don’t you just stick with the real footage?Seriously, the CGI bacteria and amoebas were lame, you could have just used real images of those organisms and the result would have been much more beautiful.

And what was that theropod? We’re in late cretaceous (the other dinosaur shown is a Parasaurolophus), that predator looks like a coelurosaur and yet it has no feathers (and its palms were faced to the ground, while they should be facing each other – a common mistake in depicting dinosaurs). Also, as I’ve anticipated, this is probably the first instance of a predator with a sense of mercy: it doesn’t kill the small Parasaurolophus, but decides to let it live. Yeah, I call bullshit on that. Maybe god spoke to it or something.

Fuck this movie. Fuck it.

Random incoherent rants vol. 2: Paleontologists can sometimes be attention whores

I urge you to look at the badass motherfucker in the photo below:

Alan Grant

You bred Raptors?

He is, of course, Sam Neill in the role of paleontologist Alan Grant, the main character in Jurassic Park, one of my childhood heroes and one of the reasons when I was a kid I wanted to be a paleontologist. Now, compare him with this guy:

Jack Horner

My hair is a Maniraptora. Your argument is invalid.

(BTW, if you get the joke in the caption, you earn my instant and outmost respect. Also, you’re a nerd.)

This is the famous real life paleontologist Jack Horner, but I started to suspect that his methods are just as fake as the ones of the fictional character Alan Grant. I’ll elaborate: I’ve come to think that the theories he elaborates are chosen on the base of how innovative and grounbreaking they look, instead of how close to reality they might be. An open, antidogmatic mind that accepts new ideas is fundamental in a scientist, but this doesn’t mean that every new theory is automatically more valid than an older one.

I’m talkin of course about Horner’s opinions on the T-Rex’s feeding behaviour. Specifically, Jack is known for his theory that T-Rex was an obligate scavenger, based on the facts that it was too big and slow to chase the prey, it had such small arms and a very good sense of smell. However, none of these points convinces me: first, even if the most moderate estimates of T-Rex’s speed were true, we must remember that its possible preys where big and probably slow too (and the wiki section about its locomotion, which I’ve just conveniently checked, confirms it). Second, who the fuck needs arms to kill the prey, when you have a mouth like that, capable of the most powerful bite known to man? Third, a good sense of smell can be used to locate dead animals as well as living animals, so it’s not a proof. Long story short, I (and most other people, for what I know) think that good ol’ Rex fed on both living animals and corpses, just like the vast majority (if not totality) of modern apex predators. No reason not to eat a dead animal if you have the occasion, not to waste time and energy in the hunt. No reason to wait for a corpse, if you have the occasion to easily overpower and kill a living animal that you located.This is the most reasonable hypothesis, and as far as I know there’s no reason not to think it’s correct.

However, what makes me suspicious about the reasons that took Horner to formulate this hypothesis is that, as far as I know (I could be wrong), it is only about Tyrannosaurus. There’s a bunch of giant predator dinosaurs with small arms (some even bigger than Tyrannosaurus), but Jackie talked only about T-Rex, because it was the most famous, a true legend – and while crushing a legend can make you famous, crushing, let’s say, Charcharodontosaurus certainly won’t. Horner even contradicted himself about the “big size=scavenger” argument when he was working as a consultant for that unworthy abomination that is Jurassic Park III. In the special features of the DVD, he said that he envisioned Spinosaurus as the hunter and Tyrannosaurus as the hunted because Spino was much bigger. What? That’s the exact opposite someone should expect from a man that argued that T-Rex was too big and slow to catch living preys.

So, was Jack’s theory all a stunt to become famous for destroyng the image of the most notorious dinosaur of all time? I don’t know, but this doubt somehow prevents me from taking too seriously even some of his more recent theories, because they all have the same characteristic: they try to subvert a previous idea. And again, while the mind must be open to new ideas (as Darwin certainly knew very well), this doesn’t mean necessairly that newer ideas are more correct than older ideas. Jackie recently argued that Dracorex and Stygimoloch are probably just juvenile forms of Pachycephalosaurus. This is counterintuitive since the first two have horns and the last hasn’t, but I have to admit that this doesn’t mean anything: we know of structures (like the one used by newborn sea turtles and other reptiles and birds to break the shell of their egg and hatch) that are present in the young and not in the adult, so this *might* be true in this case too. Another of his recent hypothesis of this kind, however, is that Triceratops is just the juvenile form of Torosaurus. Well, actually the hypothesis was made by John Scannella, but Horner approved it, and argued that ceratopsian skulls are made of metaplastic bone, capable of changing shape and size of the whole structure over time. What. The. Fuck. I mean, yeah, they share similarities, but a complete change of structure in the skull so late in the development, when the full size was already reached? I dunno, maybe. If you really have to consider them as part of the same species, isn’t it more likely that they’re of different gender (with Torosaurus, which had the largest frill, being the male)? I don’t know, on the light of what I think about Horner and the T-Rex, I can’t help but have a little suspect that this might be another stunt to gain notoriety by subverting what we know about Triceratops, another widely-known dinosaur. I’m probably wrong, and Horner may have a million good reasons for his hypothesis, but I still have doubts.

What I’m trying to say here is that I have the impression that some paleontologists (Horner is not alone; his “rival” Robert Bakker seems pretty crazy too) feel that they are free to make up whatever the fuck they want since nobody will ever see a living Tyrannosaurus or Triceratops to prove them absolutely wrong. And that’s a shame, because paleontology is a very fascinating science, and should be based on the principles of science, not thirst of notoriety and attention.

N.B. Once again, is what I’ve said is total bullshit, don’t take it too seriously; there’s a reason it’s called “Random incoherent rants”.

The problem with Mammals, plus a Dino Digression

by Francesco Lami

So, if I recall correctly, I promised you an article about the stink of mammals.

Let’s get this party started.

Mammals are actually a quite impressive group. Although, back in the Triassic, dinos took over and forced them in the shades (more on that later), they managed to survive, and when the meteor went BOOM mammals had a whole new world all for them. What’s most amazing is that there’s such a huge variety of mammalian forms, when the number of their species is relatively low: only about 4000-5000 (compare that to the 8000 known snake and lizard species, or Squamata). In such a “small” variety, we find extremes like the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the biggest animal known to have ever existed, perfectly adapted to live into the water from birth till death, and the Bumblebee Bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai), weighing only 2 grams, and part of one of only four groups of animals in history (bats, birds, pterosaurs, insects) to have achieved flight. And what about the others? Some can run faster than any other land animal, some can dig, some can climb, some can jump. Most of them are covered in fur, in others the fur is absent or modified into body armour or quills. Some can make tools, like sharp sticks or computers. So, from a purely objective point of view, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to study and learn from the world of Mammalia.

Then what’s my problem with them? They stink.

Although bad smell could give the (probably absolutely wrong) impression that they are less clean than other animals, stink in mammals is physiological, since their skin contains different kinds of glands, some of which are precisely specialized in producing smelly substances (skin glands are a rarity among other amniotes – aka birds and reptiles). Smell is for many (probably most) mammals an important method of communication.

It’s not the only one. Some mammals use vocalization, even very complex vocalization (cough, Homo sapiens, cough), and some use visual methods of communication, from displays of beauty and strength in some ungulates to the wide array of facial expressions and hand gestures that characterize primates. All of this didn’t eliminate the importance of stink in most species. Stink could say everything from “I’m horny! Hump me!” to “This is MY territory. Stay the fuck away”.

I’ve studied nothing specific about the argument, but if I had to make a hypothesis, I think it would be pretty easy to guess the factors that made stink so important in mammal communication in the first place. The original mammals were small, rat-like creatures that probably hunted by night in order to avoid dinosaurs. Vocal and visual communication would have been too risky, so natural selection started favouring the mammals with the keenest olfaction– and the worst possible smell. This way, unnoticed in the night, the first mammals could communicate with each other, and even when dinosaurs disappeared and mammals could go out in the light of day, conquer Earth and develop new ways to communicate, smell remained an important legacy. Or at least, that’s what I lazily came up with.

And now a dinosaur digression still pertinent to the mammal subject: to the surprise of apparently everyone but me, a recent discovery officially confirmed that small predator dinosaurs were nocturnal. Seriously, people, didn’t you see that coming? Small, agile predators with big eyes, doesn’t that ring a bell (modern nocturnal animals)? Animals and ecosystems may have changed a lot in millions of years, but to occupy the same niche you often need the same general characteristics: it’s called convergent evolution. It’s great that we have the official confirmation, but they should at least have suspected it. Since predator dinos were identified as the main reason mammals would lead a nocturnal lifestyle back in the Mesozoic, now someone is suggesting that, since there were night dinosaurs after all, maybe mammals weren’t nocturnal at all at the time. I think they got it backwards: since mammals evolved to be nocturnal to avoid the diurnal dinosaurs, some dinosaurs started to evolve to be nocturnal to gain access to a food resource that was precluded to others. Once again, look at the modern world: small mammals today are not the same they were in the past, but they share the same basic characteristics: small, agile, omnivorous. And today, in spite of the fact that a lot of predators evolved to capture them at night, small mammals are almost universally nocturnal. Why? Because it is still easier to go unnoticed than it is to go unnoticed by day. Not to mention the other classic arguments in defence of the nocturnal origin of mammals: the mainly dull colours of their fur (they couldn’t use colour to communicate in the dark, while other diurnal animals are often brightly coloured), and the much higher number of night photoreceptors (rod cells) than day photoreceptors (cone cells) in the eyes of even fully diurnal mammals, like us. Considering this, I think that my “smell in the dark” theory is safe, for now.