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‘Prehistoric Planet’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Ice Worlds’


‘Prehistoric Planet’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Ice Worlds’

Dinosaurs in the snow?!

The fourth episode of Prehistoric Planet, “Ice Worlds,” takes viewers to the poles to explore the dinosaurs that would have experienced colder conditions than their compatriots.

As seen since episode 1, one of this series’ strongest points is the willingness to be conservative in identifying the animals, choosing to go with what we definitively know rather than potentially dating itself. More than any episode, “Ice Worlds” puts that to the test.

The first animal we see is a dromaeosaur, a member of the group that includes Velociraptor. Prehistoric Planet doesn’t go any further in identifying it, a point that might frustrate some viewers. There’s a reason, though — much of the Arctic portion of “Ice Worlds” is based on the fauna of the Prince Creek formation in Alaska, which has a lot of animals that seem closely related to counterparts in the south, but the fragmentary nature of the fossils means it’s hard to positively identify them. Is this dromaeosaur a Dromaeosaurus, or something new entirely? We don’t quite know.

A great example is the hadrosaurs of the Prince Creek formation, depicted in the episode’s opening. They were initially identified as Edmontosaurus, which has been found in southern Canada and the northern United States. In 2015, the remains were assigned a new genus and species, Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis. But then, in 2017 and 2020, new studies reassessed the fossils and determined they were indistinguishable from Edmontosaurus, although they weren’t assigned to either of the two known species (annectens and regalis). Since this dinosaur’s classification is up in the air, it makes sense to remain cautious in labeling it for the show.

The next animal we see is Ornithomimus, which lends its name to the group that contains the bizarre Deinocheirus and the famous Gallimimus: ornithomimosauria. The exact behavior here seems reasonable, but I think the threat of the hadrosaurs to the Ornithomimus nest is a reference (in reverse) to the work of the legendary Phil Tippett. For the 1985 documentary Dinosaur! (hosted by Christopher Reeve), Tippett built off the work he’d done for an experimental short called “Prehistoric Beast,” and orchestrated a stop motion sequence featuring a Struthiomimus (a relative of Ornithomimus) stealing eggs from the nest of a pair of hadrosaurs.

‘Prehistoric Planet’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Ice Worlds’

After this opening, the episode moves “further North” to a herd of Olorotitan arharensis. I’m not sure why the documentary says “further North” instead of just saying “northern Asia,” as Olorotitan were discovered in the Udurchukan formation of Russia. The use of volcanic sand to help incubate eggs is a behavior seen in birds like the maleo of Indonesia, and though I couldn’t find evidence of Olorotitan doing this, a 2010 study of a sauropod nesting site in Argentina showed that the sauropods were laying their eggs in a hydrothermal environment, so it seems like a good possibility that hadrosaurs could have utilized a similar strategy.

Prehistoric Planet then returns to North America, where a troodontid is shown utilizing and even aiding a forest fire to flush out prey. While the use of fire by the troodontid might also seem outlandish, multiple bird species have been observed by Indigenous Australians spreading fire to help flush out prey, making this a fine example to demonstrate intelligence in a dinosaur.

Troodontids had large brains in proportion to their size, suggesting they were intelligent animals. This has led to some interesting (perhaps infamous) speculation. The late paleontologist Dale Russell created a thought experiment about what might have happened if Troodon hadn’t gone extinct and continued to evolve, creating something he called a Dinosauroid. I do want to emphasize here that this was intended as a bit of fun and healthy speculation, not a conspiracy or an idea put forth in the scientific literature.

Prehistoric Planet then takes viewers to the Antarctic, where a trio of Antarctopelta oliveroi get ready for winter. Antarctopelta was the first fossil dinosaur found in Antarctica, though it was the second to be formally described. It was an ankylosaur, a group of armored dinosaurs that were successful throughout the late Cretaceous. While ankylosaurs are most famously known from North America, Asia, and Europe, thanks to the discovery of Spicomellus afer in Morocco, they’re now one of the few groups of dinosaurs known from all seven modern continents.

This scene also shows hadrosaurs. While there aren’t any hadrosaurs currently known from Antarctica, their presence in southernmost South America means they weren’t very far away, and given how new paleontology is to Antarctica, it may only be a matter of time before we find them.

“Ice Worlds” closes out back in Alaska, as a herd of Pachyrhinosaurus defend themselves against the polar tyrannosaur, Nanuqsaurus hoglundi. Pachyrhinosaurus has had a boost to its profile in recent years — they were the lead animal in the 2013 film Walking with Dinosaurs, which had the most accurate on-screen dinosaurs prior to Prehistoric Planet. Its opponent here, Nanuqsaurus, is depicted as a smaller tyrannosaur, with a feathery coat to help shield it from the cold.

‘Prehistoric Planet’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Ice Worlds’

Recent analyses of undiagnosed tyrannosaur material from the Prince Creek Formation suggest that Nanuqsaurus may have grown larger than what’s shown here. Still, Prehistoric Planet‘s depiction works perfectly well if the animals are juveniles. More importantly, that same study showed that larger animals from the Prince Creek formation likely stayed there year round, supporting the depiction of these animals in a snowy blizzard.

Four episodes down, one to go. Next we’ll look at the denizens of the late Cretaceous forests as depicted in the finale of Prehistoric Planet.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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