A month’s disappearance? That’s nothing. Try 65 million years.

I know. I know. You don’t need to say it.

I mean, feel free to say it if you want to, but I really would rather not hear it. Believe me, I am fully aware that this newly-defibrillated blog of mine, for which I had such high hopes, has been lying untouched on the coroner’s slab for over a month. For shame. For shame.

In my defence, it has been a pretty busy month. What with the exhausting but not entirely thankless tasks associated with crewing miscellaneously and the perils involved with the start of a new Masters course, I haven’t really given myself the time to just sit back and type. So it seems appropriate that on this surprisingly chilly Day of Atonement I should properly atone for the past month’s numerous sins of omission.

The most important of which probably is that I never completed my stated aim of watching all this year’s episodes of Horizon, despite having gotten off the blocks, down the tracks and a good way around the first bend. Other commitments somehow got the better of me, and once the fourth and fifth episodes had slipped by unnoticed I got the blogger’s equivalent of lactic acid build-up and sat out the rest of the series from the bench. Or, if I’m being honest, the sofa.

    Planet Dinosaur

From which vantage point I got a breathtakingly HD view of what must be the most exciting piece of natural history programming to make it to television screens this year: the BBC’s Planet Dinosaur.

Planet Dinosaur, for those of you who have been unfortunate enough to miss out on it, was marketed as a CGI updating of 2001’s animatronic Walking With Dinosaurs. Apart from deciding to change the production technology, and hiring John Hurt in lieu of Kenneth Branagh, what, you may well ask, is different ten years on?

And the simple answer is that I don’t know. I never got around to watching Walking With Dinosaurs, despite the boxset having made my Christmas wishlist for most of the past decade. Maybe that would change if I actually started celebrating Christmas. Who knows. The fact remains that I cannot offer a detailed comparison between the two programmes. All I can say is that Walking With Dinosaurs must have been pretty bloody amazing, because that’s the only way Planet Dinosaur could have possibly cranked it up to 11.

    Why Now?

The 21st Century has so far been an incredibly fertile period for palaeontologists. Digs around the world – including recent excavations in China, possibly the most exciting country for dinosaur fossils – have unearthed hitherto unknown species and provided new insights into the lives and habits of these prehistoric giants.

Lives and habits which have been painstakingly pieced together from what is an almost homeopathically tiny amount of evidence. After all, of the lifeforms that walked the Earth for the 180 million years during which it was effectively Planet Dinosaur, we can only put our hands on the remains of a couple of thousand. And even then, most are only known from a single tooth or bone fragment. Attempting to draw any sort of conclusion from these artefacts is reconstruction work that would seem far-fetched in an episode of NCIS.

And yet therein lies the beauty of so much scientific research – the sheer scale of the darkness into which we are plunging our tiny match. Whenever I am trying to explain the unimaginable vastness of the enterprise in which all scientists are engaged, I like to borrow a favourite quotation of P.G. Wodehouse’s. In his words, scientists have “about as much chance as a one-armed blind man in a dark room trying to shove a pound of melted butter into a wild-cat’s ear with a red-hot needle.”

And yet they manage it.

Maybe not the full 453.59 grams, and maybe not all straight down the eustachian tube, but enough to make a difference. Enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

    The Evidence

Despite the pretty nifty CGI dinos and the authoritative tones of John Hurt, the real hero of this series so far has been the evidence. Because mixed in with the colourful images and lush backdrops, the sanguinary storylines and chilling sound effects, we are shown in great detail precisely why palaeontologists believe these computer-generated scenes to be accurate representations.

In the first episode, for instance, we were introduced to the memorable Spinosaurus – a terrifying genus of dinosaurs which included the largest carnivores ever to make the ground shake beneath their feet. In an attempt to justify the assumption that these giants fed on the 10-foot urswordfish Onchopristis, we are shown how Onchopristis bones were found in Spinosaur teeth, and how Spinosaur teeth have been found lodged in Onchopristis remains. It is evidence such as this which has allowed experts to conclude that Spinosaurus was predominantly a pescivore. Although, as the episode went on to aver, few land-based or even airborne animals were safe.

One peculiarity of my 16-year-long obsession with dinosaurs (a childhood birthday cake my mother once prepared for me was in the shape of a triceratops) is that I have only ever imagined them as individuals. The scarcity of remains has not made it particularly easy for museums to correct that fallacy – not to mention the lack of space, even in the atrium of the Natural History Museum, required to portray a herd of grazing diplodoci.

I imagine I am not alone in making this Mesozoic fallacy – in instinctively jettisoning the notion that dinosaurs did live in herds; did exhibit pack behaviour and did display many of the characteristics shared by today’s mammals. Presumably many others were equally surprised at the notion that Camptosaurs lived among larger, less cranially well-endowed Stegosaurs, ostensibly as symbiotic partners who could help warn them of oncoming danger.

But what is even more fascinating than the lives of these terrible or awesome lizards is the fact that we are able to know so much about them. And what makes Planet Dinosaur so special in my mind is the way in which we are shown images of the fossils themselves, told where the fossils were found, told how they have been interpreted by experts, and given every opportunity to draw our own conclusions.

And it makes for bloody great television.


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