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‘Prehistoric Planet’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Forests’

Television

‘Prehistoric Planet’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Forests’

Triceratops! Finally!

The final episode of Prehistoric Planet on Apple TV+ explores the forests where dinosaurs roamed. 

“Forests” opens in South America, with the Brazilian titanosaur Austroposeidon magnificus. One thing I really like about this sequence is that it emphasizes just how small even the largest dinosaurs were when compared to plants. In fact, this episode has multiple moments that show the diversity and even competitiveness of plant life in a way that acknowledges them as living things, rather than simply background material.

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After this brief opening, Prehistoric Planet returns to Triceratops, one of the most famous dinosaurs that had thus far been relegated to the role of T. rex breakfast. There are actually two known species of Triceratops, and the relative shortness of the nasal horn and the lengthy brow horns help identify these as Triceratops horridus, as opposed to Triceratops prorsus. Recent studies of the stratigraphy of the Hell Creek formation show that Triceratops prorsus appeared later than Triceratops horridus, leading to the hypothesis that T. horridus evolved into T. prorsus via anagenesis.

The use of clay licks has been observed in macaws, and the trip through the cave by the Triceratops seems an intentional callback to another BBC documentary on elephants that travel through caves for salt, once again showing how Prehistoric Planet utilizes documented animal behavior to make their dinosaurs more realistic.

‘Prehistoric Planet’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Forests’

Returning to South America, Prehistoric Planet treated its viewers to a speculative mating display by Carnotaurus sastrei. Darren Naish, the show’s lead scientific consultant, gave an interview breaking down the potential for display in the arms of Carnotaurus, and what’s seen here is an adaptation of artist John Conway’s depiction in All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, that Conway and Naish put together with artist C.M. Kosemen. 

Since its description by José Bonaparte in 1985, Carnotaurus has been a mainstay in dinosaur media, appearing in Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles, Michael Crichton’s The Lost World, Disney’s Dinosaur, and eventually the film side in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Even after all these recreations, viewers will see the same pattern of scales in Prehistoric Planet, with elevated rows running parallel to the spine.

The reason for this is that we have fossilized skin impressions of Carnotaurus. But a 2021 study reevaluated the skin of Carnotaurus and found that these larger scales would not have been arranged in rows, as depicted in Prehistoric Planet, but rather in a random assortment. This was directly addressed by Naish in a Twitter conversation with the paper’s lead author Christophe Hendrickx, as Naish explained that Prehistoric Planet only become aware of the paper after the model for their Carnotaurus had been finalized. If anything, this just highlights the beauty of scientific advancement and the speed at which new information becomes available.

The next scene takes viewers to East Asia in the fall, where a flock of Corythoraptor jacobsi feed on the fallen nuts of a ginkgo tree. Corythoraptor was an oviraptorosaur, a group of very bird-like coelurosaurs (I recently discussed this group and their poorly-informed name in an article about the Joker, of all things). Corythoraptor is a fairly new addition to the family, having been described by the late Junchang Lü et al in 2017. 

The tyrannosaur hunting the Corythoraptor is Qianzhousaurus sinensis, also described by Lü and others in 2014. The discovery of Qianzhousaurus led to a group of tyrannosaur being named: the alioramins (after the other member in the group, Alioramus). These tyrannosaurs are noted for having long, slender snouts that give them an unusual appearance.

‘Prehistoric Planet’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Forests’

Prehistoric Planet then returns to North America, where a mother Edmontosaurus leads her young away from a forest fire. Also featured in the previous episode, Edmontosaurus is one of the dinosaurs best known to science, with not just multiple skeletons, but multiple skin impressions, including a famous specimen known as “Dakota.” That skin is so well-preserved that scientists have been able to examine mineralized organic compounds from the fossilized tissue. This is also how we know that hadrosaurs had thin skin, a claim made during the Olorotitan segment of the “Ice Worlds” episode.

The next animal we see is Atrociraptor marshalli, a type of dromaeosaur. Atrociraptor is frustratingly known from a single specimen that only preserves part of the skull, so even though scientists can tell it’s a new dromaeosaur, there’s not much we know about its overall appearance. The wings depicted in Prehistoric Planet may look large and ungainly, but the size matches the fossilized impressions of Zhenyuanlong‘s wings, and it’s possible this may have typified the dromaeosaur look. I wasn’t able to find any literature supporting animal usage of smoke to help drive out parasites, but I did learn that some birds line their nests with cigarette butts due to the nicotine working as a repellent.

The final animal shown in this sequence gives us the first good look at a club-tailed ankylosaur. Unlike the Antarctopelta of the previous episode, which were nodosaurids and lacked clubs, this is an anyklosaurid, which were identified by their weaponized tails. The shape of the tail and the presence of Atrociraptor in this scene helps narrow this animal’s identity down to Anodontosaurus, found in the Horseshoe Canyon formation with Atrociraptor. The Anodontosaurus is shown eating charcoal, something we have evidence for in the nodosaurid Borealopelta, thanks to its stomach contents being preserved.

After a beautiful interlude highlighting fungi, Prehistoric Planet takes its viewers back to the Nemegt formation in Mongolia, where a trio of curious Therizinosaurus hatchlings discover the delicious joys of honey. I want to stop here and applaud whoever it was that devised this sequence. Therizinosaurus cheloniformis is a peculiar animal, and even as a dinosaur enthusiast, I’ve been so preoccupied with its adult form that I don’t think I’d ever conceptualized their young before. David Attenborough’s narration states the adult is nearly 30 feet tall, which may be an error. Most estimates online give the length as 30 feet and the height as 16 feet.

Therizinosaurus specifically and therizinosaurs as a whole have made appearances in broader culture; notably a “segnosaur” (old name for the group) plays a critical role in the novel Raptor Red. But they haven’t quite made the splash one might expect, given that Therizinosaurus looks like a cross between Big Bird and Freddy Krueger. That does look to be changing, though, as the initial trailer for Jurassic World: Dominion appears to show its own Therizinosaurus, so it’s nice that Prehistoric Planet has given audiences a more scientifically sound look at the animal before Hollywood does its thing.

Prehistoric Planet takes viewers to one final location, the southernmost part of Europe. Given the fauna shown, we can be fairly certain this is meant to be the ancient Hațeg Island, a fossilized ecosystem located in what’s now Romania. The dinosaurs of this island demonstrate insular dwarfism, with the hadrosaur Telmatosaurus transylvanicus being only about 5 meters long. The diminutive Zalmoxes robustus is an iguanodontian, a group which includes the second dinosaur ever named, Iguanodon. Unfortunately for one of the Zalmoxes, Hațeg Island’s primary predator, the azhdarchid Hatzegopteryx thambema, was hungry. 

Hatzegopteryx is shown taking off via a method called quadrupedal launching, essentially vaulting itself into the air. This would allow even large azhdarchids like Hatzegopteryx and Quetzalcoatlus to take flight. The 2014 Godzilla even implemented a vaulting method in the take-off pattern of its male MUTO.

‘Prehistoric Planet’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Forests’

Given that Prehistoric Planet takes place at the end of the Cretaceous Period, it did come as a bit of a surprise that the show didn’t recount the famous K-Pg extinction event. That said, the choice to end the story of this prehistoric world as if it was going to last forever comes off as refreshing, allowing viewers to bask in the beauty without suffering the apocalypse. It’s a fitting way to end the exploration of life in Prehistoric Planet.

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


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