Clash of The Dinosaur TV Specials!

Posted by Nima On Sunday, December 13, 2009 9 comments

Have you ever anticipated some new event with excitement – perhaps a movie or a concert, or something more mundane, that is of particular importance to you…. But then once you experience it, it just keeps promising and not really delivering all the way? 
It’s only every so often that a scientific TV series on dinosaurs gets produced. In fact there have been only a handful of good ones since “Walking with Dinosaurs” was made by the BBC in 1999. So you can imagine my interest when I heard about the newest title: “Clash of the Dinosaurs”.
I recently watched the new Discovery Channel series “Clash of the Dinosaurs” after I read Dr. Matt Wedel’s comments on it on SV-POW, and I must say, I was impressed by the quality of the animation. A decade on from “Walking with Dinosaurs” the computer animation quality had improved nicely. And watching it was no doubt fun. The dinosaurs came to life as never before and the look of real living pulsating flesh was insanely well-done. But as for scientific ACCURACY, I had some big issues with it as well. And if you’re wondering what any of this has to do with paleo-art…. well, paleo-television IS paleo-art, just as film-making is an art in general. A well-done dinosaur series is just as pleasing and satisfying to the Paleo King (and any other real dino-fan) as a beautiful lifelike painting by Greg Paul or Raul Martin. And a bad series is just as distasteful as a lousy, inaccurate painting by…. well, that’s another critique for another post.
Zach Miller already posted about “Clash of the Dinosaurs”, but I thought I’d go into more detail about exactly how bad the errors in this otherwise good series were. I don’t like to complain, but this series was in many ways a mixed bag. It had some okay science and some very nice animation, but also a lot of mistakes and outdated theories.
First though, let’s cover THE GOOD: -Great animation, very lifelike. A lot of proportions are based on the real skeletons, not cheesy maquettes or models.  
-Smooth movements  
-Good, accurate scenery and foliage (for the most part). The CG trees are also a lot better than they would have been a few years ago.  
-The show actually features commentary by REAL paleontologists – not just self-proclaimed “experts” with no qualifications. You get the TOP scientists at the cutting edge of paleo-research, like Larry Witmer, Pete Larson, Matt Wedel, Tom Holtz, Mike Habib, and the legendary maverick himself, Bob Bakker. YES – after his ‘mysterious’ near-absence from TV for the past decade, Bakker is BACK! And what’s funny is, this time nobody is really disagreeing with him anymore.  
-The transparent skeletal/muscular/circulatory system models are top-notch, I haven’t seen 3D models of dinosaurs this good… EVER. The Discovery CG guys really did their homework this time, with few exceptions. Now, THE BAD: This series for all its skillful animation and its impressive roster of PhD paleontologists, still has a LOT of MISTAKES that prove its producers didn’t really listen to those same aforementioned paleontologists – if they had, you wouldn’t have such tomfoolery as follows: -Triceratops is described by the narrator as having forelimbs splayed out like a lizard. Not simply bowed out like rhino. Not even semi-erect like a croc. But fully sprawled like a LIZARD (lizard sprawls are easily a full 90 degrees between humerus and lower arm… which makes no sense for horned dinosaurs whatsoever, as the producers would have known if they actually READ Bakker’s book, which isn’t exactly hidden knowledge). The real Triceratops arm posture was erect but slightly bowed out by about 15 degrees at the elbow, and ceratopsian trackways show that the hands and feet were DIRECTLY under the body, not out to the side. There was no sprawl. Oddly, the 3D skeletal model in the show features sprawling arms (a rare exception to the CG staff doing their homework), but the actual live animated Triceratops has the correct, erect rhino arms!   
-The narrator couldn’t pronounce “Parasaurolophus” if his life depended on it! He switches the ph and the l. For those of you that are confused about this, the correct way is to pronounce it: “Para – sauro – LOAF – us” (or “loff-us” if you are David Weishampel…. but I’m not). The narrator instead said “Para – saur – OFFalus”. What the hell is that? Para – Garofalo? Pay czar offal-puss? Snuffle-upagus? (BTW, “offal” means entrails… not exactly Parasaurolophus food). These shows just may need a bona-fide dino-nerd to narrate them. When I was in third grade the class used to say “Para-sa-loph-o-saurus” even though it doesn’t have a “saurus” at the end of its name. And I corrected them. Congrats, narrator: a third grader knew better in 1995 - because he actually read the name and watched PaleoWorld, where the narrator somehow did his homework and got the pronunciation right. -The T. rex is a bit too, er, fleshy. The head-neck junction is swollen with “jowls”, a bit too much like a crocodile or komodo dragon neck. The throat is too fat to the point where the head is poking out of the neck, looking a bit small – but it’s really because the underside of the neck is too fat. They overflesh the throat muscles as well. Sure it was a big predator, but this neck was no fat squat crocodile neck. It was lean and s-curved, but the only time when the animated T. rex in the series seems to curve its neck is when it bites down on Triceratops’ face. No more Disney T. rexes please! (ugly) And a few cryptic camouflage patterns on their T.rex wouldn’t hurt either - so far it just looks like a big tan blob.  
-T. rex was made out to be some insanely smart brainiac whereas all the other dinosaurs were supposedly idiots that relied on instinct alone. But in reality other dinosaurs were not necessarily any dumber than T.rex. They just had smaller olfactory lobes, which in T.rex, make up nearly half of the brain. That’s right, T. rex wasn’t exceptionally smart for a dinosaur – it just had an exceptional sense of smell. 50% of its brain mass was dedicated to the nose alone! Raptors had a bigger cerebrum, and most dinosaurs had fairly well-developed senses – and all but a few had pretty decent social communication abilities like birds today.  
-The T. rex is too slow. This series hired Bakker to make some appearances, but they totally disregarded his writings on T. rex! T. rex was a runner –not as fast as smaller predators, but still a cursorial animal with athletic legs. Here instead we get a slow, ponderous T. rex that walks not much faster than an elephant. They simply regurgitate MacNeill Alexander’s old discredited theory that “if it’s as big as an elephant, it must be as slow as an elephant” without ever stopping to think that T. rex’s leg design has nothing to do with elephants and everything to do with fast running ground birds. Same goes for the new pet theory about chicken models for T. rex indicating that a fast T. rex would have needed 90% of its mass in its legs (this theory seems to have influenced the producers). A chicken the size of a 'rex might need that much leg mass, but T. rex had proportionally much longer legs and stride than some tubby poultry! An ostrich would be a much more logical model.    
-The narrator claims T. rex could see fine details from four miles away. LOL did he just pull this number out of his ass? Who makes up these “facts”? None of the experts on the show said it! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying T. rex had bad eyesight like they claimed in Jurassic Park - there’s no doubt that T.rex had excellent vision, since it had forward-facing eyes and deep eye sockets like those of birds, as well as a big visual cortex in its brain. Good eyesight, but in all honesty you simply can’t measure it! There are no living T.rex eyes to dissect today, all we have is their eye sockets, which only tell us that the eyes faced forward – NOT how far they could see. Perhaps it could see a mountain from four miles away. But a prey animal? Please. These guys took T. rex vision to the opposite extreme from Jurassic Park’s equally whimsical legally blind T.rex. Perhaps just saying “It could see very far and in great detail” would be more scientifically credible than any of this “lets just pick a cool number” BS.    
-T.rex attacks a Triceratops head-on and tries to bite one of its horns off, losing an eye in the process! Now ask yourself, would any sane predator EVER attack its prey in its most well-protected area? NO! They would go for the flanks or the ribs or other exposed areas. That T.rex should win the Darwin Award for being stupid enough to rush headfirst into the most dangerous part of a very dangerous herbivore, and thus getting blinded and incapable of hunting and living to pass on its genes. I don’t care how strong your teeth are, biting the horns is a lot dumber, more dangerous and self-defeating than simply going for the obvious weak spots!  
-The narrator claims Sauroposeidon’s stomach acid was corrosive enough to dissolve iron. This is total imagination. It wouldn’t take acid that strong to digest plant cellulose (even though cellulose is a LOT tougher to digest than meat). In fact, stomach acid only weakens the chemical structure of the plants, it does not digest the food. That’s the job of pepsin and other digestive juices and enzymes. Without them, all the acid in the world would only soften the plants, not turn them into manageable compounds the body can actually absorb. Furthermore, if the acid could dissolve iron, wouldn’t it also be able to dissolve the mucous membrane of the stomach and then eat through the stomach lining? I don’t care if the stomach wall is a foot thick, if iron can’t survive the acid, neither can mucus or flesh.    
-Larry Witmer claims in one segment that Sauroposeidon had a brain the size of a cheeseburger (just a regular one, not a double or triple cheeseburger FYI, as Witmer demonstrates with hand geatures). In reality, even its smaller relative Brachiosaurus had a brain larger than a cat’s brain. So Sauroposeidon’s brain would have been even bigger than that.    
-Also they use a CG model of a brain purported to be from Sauroposeidon, and claim the cerebrum was barely developed (even though the highlighted area in the model was the very CENTER of the brain to which all the other lobes attached! This was the core of the brain they showed, not some rudimentary lobe.)    
-In addition, the “Sauroposeidon brain” in the show was a hoax – they actually showed a CG model of a Camarasaurus brain (Camarasaurus was a much smaller sauropod, and the brain wasn’t even scaled up). The actual skull and braincase of Sauroposeidon have NEVER been found. The CG model of the skull and skeleton was essentially copied from Brachiosaurus, with an unscaled CT scan of Camarasaurus' brain added in. A scaled-up Brachiosaurus brain would have been a better choice at least, but nobody bothered to scan either a B. brancai (Giraffatitan) skull, OR the Felch Quarry skull referred to B. altithorax.  
-Larry Witmer claims Sauroposeidon is “dumb as a fencepost”. In reality, it would have needed a complex brain for social herd behavior and also storing data on the long journeys, landmarks, etc. required to find food and water in a seasonally dry landscape. A small brain does not necessary imply stupidity, nor does a small brain-to-body mass ratio. You don’t need a huge brain unless you need lots of dexterity or precision acrobatics – and considering sauropods were slow, 4-legged graviportal animals whose fingers and toes were pretty much immobile and permanently bound together by tight tendons, acrobatics and dexterity weren’t really important for them.    
-The Sauroposeidon’s neck is shown TOO SHORT. They basically animated a bulked-up B. altithorax and just called it Sauroposeidon. And yet the main reason this guy is so famous is the freakishly long neck… freakishly long even proportionally, and even for a brachiosaur, so as to dwarf the already impressive neck of B. altithorax. This is one of the few times they messed up the skeletal CG as well.    
-A young Sauroposeidon sixty feet long and as massive as a few elephants gets killed by only TWO dog-sized Deinonychus. And doesn’t even fight back. Matt Wedel talks about big packs of raptors killing baby Sauroposeidons, not merely two of them tackling the huge half-grown ones that could crush a house! Yet the animators chose to have precisely just such a large teenage Sauroposeidon being killed, not by a whole pack of raptors as Wedel said, but only by a single PAIR. What should have happened is the Sauroposeidon whacking those wimpy raptors with its tail and breaking their spindly legs and paper-thin rib cages. In fact, it’s unlikely they would even try to take on something that big – the speedy little raptors were not sauropod-killers, they were built for hunting much smaller, faster dinosaurs like beaked Ornithopods. The only predator of the time who could take down even a half-grown Sauroposeidon was the huge allosauroid Acrocanthosaurus, which was only a bit smaller than T.rex. And it would take at least four or five strong Acros to take down even a half-grown Sauroposeidon. Matt Wedel himself was understandably angry at this visual bowlderizing of his words, as you can read in Zach Miller's comments section HERE.  
-The show has Sauroposeidon dumping its eggs in an open nest in the middle of a barren desert and just LEAVING them there UNCOVERED! No burying the eggs to hide them from predators, no foliage nearby for the babies to eat, no first meal, not even laying them somewhere secluded for protection! This runs flat in the face of the actual evidence: every sauropod nest ever excavated shows evidence of the mother having hidden the eggs under sand or dirt. And the nests are often found in clusters or colonies, indicating that several sauropods purposely made nests in the same area instead of haphazardly dumping and abandoning eggs any old place - and that only makes sense if they collectively cared for the babies at least for a while. Indeed, there is NO group of dinosaurs that’s actually been proven to abandon their eggs. Their maternal instincts were at least as developed as those of crocodiles, which guard and care for their hatchlings for at least a week or two. Basically the Discovery guys show sauropods as land-living sea turtles! And even creatures as primitive as sea turtles still COVER the eggs with sand before they abandon them! If Discovery’s that hell-bent on ramming the outdated notion of stupid cold-blooded egg-abandoning dinosaurs down our throats, they should at least do it correctly! There’s an understandable way to be wrong, and then there’s a simply idiotic way – apparently it’s called the Discovery channel way.  
-In the "Infamous Jaws" clip, at about 00:12 seconds, the narrator is talking about T.rex, but a silhouetted scientist is shown inspecting the skull of an Acrocanthosaurus (lol, I bet the post-production team didn’t catch THAT one).  
-In the "Cretaceous Meatball" clip with the baby T.rex, Deinonychus was shown as one of the many threats a T.rex hatchling would face growing up. But this is plainly WRONG because Deinonychus lived millions of years earlier! It was already extinct by T.rex’s time. Somebody should really teach the producers the difference between Early and Late Cretaceous.  
-At one point they even show a Camarasaurus skull when talking about Sauroposeidon’s teeth. Camarasaurs are NOT brachiosaurs. Although the teeth are roughly similar, the two animals have distinctly different skulls and are not even in the same family! At least show a Giraffatitan skull, a flight to Berlin can’t be that pricey for just one cameraman to get 5 seconds of footage! The days of the Soviet Bloc and the Cold War are over! Is East Berlin that hard to get into? And if that’s too far, then how about the Field Museum in Chicago? They casted their own Brachiosaurus skull, so might they also not have a duplicate cast? And what about the Felch Quarry skull from Wyoming? You don’t have to compromise for a Cam when a Brach is present and not locked away by some hostile foreign bureaucrats. It’s a bit like Loma Linda hospital when a surgeon transplanted a baboon heart in the patient instead of a chimp heart – and when the patient died, the doctor claimed there was no real difference and that evolution and genetics aren’t legit sciences. Yeah. Sure. If humanity still manages to confuse species so horribly when it comes to surgery, that doesn’t say much for dino-television!  
-The same stock footage of the animated dinosaurs was played OVER AND OVER AGAIN. I know this was a short program, and fairly low-budget compared to things like Walking with Dinosaurs, but at least the animators could have rigged up some more scenes or settings! Even showing the Sauroposeidon herd making the exact same movements in a forest or a floodplain rather than just that same desert over and over, would have made my day. And that’s just a matter of quickly making and texturing a different setting in CG, something that’s way easier to do than the dinosaurs themselves, since the setting is static and doesn’t move or need to be animated! As far as CG technology has come in the past decade, you’d think this would be a piece of cake compared to most of the things the animators pulled off.  
-The narrator is the same guy that narrated whale wars. Not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just a bit funny to hear that cold, monotone voice again… he should either stick to whales or at least spend an hour or two reading up on dinosaurs BEFORE making a bunch of unfounded BS claims about T. rex visual range, sauropod nesting behavior, or butchering the name of Parasaurolophus. Bring back well-narrated dinosaur shows like PaleoWorld! Long live Ben Gazzara!    
Well, that’s my rant on the topic so far. Not that I like to complain about stuff like this, but even a more entertainment-based dinosaur series like Jurassic Fight Club didn’t make as many mistakes! JFC had a lot fewer paleontologists giving commentary on the show, and more armchair amateurs who were simply labeled as “experts” not curators or PhDs or professors…. but despite all that, it still didn’t make such openly unsupported claims about so many different things. Nor did it show the wrong skull or brain for any animal.
But don’t just eat up what I say. Watch the clips for yourself, and you be the judge. PS. sorry for any messy formatting errors. Blogger is giving me a real headache.


Crazyharp81602 said...

Great review! But don't forget the show also claims about Sauroposeidon having an alleged second brain at the hips to control the hind lags and the tail. That outdated claim is also in the show, too.

Nikola Popovic said...

I remeber having my hopes up, until I saw the Tyrannosaurus model with that beffy stubby neck, that is. Oh and the raptor duo taking down a sauropod. Wow.
You'd think that with the internet and the whole revolution thing about sharing the information, it would be easier than ever just to double check your facts. Guess I was wrong.

davidmaas said...

"Is East Berlin that hard to get into?"

Yeah, the West Berliners have it blockaded. LoL!
The museum is a beautiful building a comfortable walk from the new central train station. No East and West anymore - just east and west. No 'scuses there.

Anonymous said...

An excellent review, tough I perswonally didn´t like the CGI and I don´t consider it anywere near as good as WWD´s.

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