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'Prehistoric Planet 2': an unofficial scientific guide to 'Islands'


‘Prehistoric Planet 2’: an unofficial scientific guide to ‘Islands’

The beasts are BACK!

Today Apple TV+ debuts Prehistoric Planet 2, a sequel to last year’s Mesozoic docuseries. With David Attenborough returning to narrate the Jon Favreau and Mike Gunton led science-based series, we at AIPT aim to cover the science behind each episode, as we did with the first series.

Prehistoric Planet 2 begins its first episode,s “Islands,” in the waterways of what would eventually become southern Europe. Prehistoric Planet takes place during the latest part of the  Cretaceous period, known as the Maastrichtian age (named after the Dutch city of Maastricht, where geologist André Hubert Dumont worked). During this time, Europe existed less as a continent and more as a series of islands of varying sizes. One of these was the Hateg island ecosystem in what is now Romania, and it’s here that we meet the series’ first dinosaur, Zalmoxes robustus.

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A true sequel, Prehistoric Planet 2 brings back many of the first series’ creatures, while providing new dimensions to them. Zalmoxes debuted in the final episode of the first season, though those were hatchlings, and the Zalmoxes that appear in “Islands” are adults. Zalmoxes is shown in this opening scene drifting on a raft, reaching a new land where their population could potentially develop into a new species. This type of population dispersal, simply called a rafting event, is one way that islands develop isolated ecosystems. Such events are supported by genetic evidence in lemurs, which likely rafted from mainland Africa to Madagascar.

'Prehistoric Planet 2': an unofficial scientific guide to 'Islands'

The second vignette introduces Tethyshadros insularis, a hadrosauroid from what is now Italy. Tethyshadros is quite small for a hadrosaur, which was originally thought to be due to insular dwarfism. However, a 2021 study of a second individual of Tethyshadros showed that while it didn’t grow as large as its cousins, like Edmontosaurus, it was well within the size range of its ancestors, with whom it shared a number of skeletal characteristics. This new study suggests that rather than being an island dwarf, Tethyshadros may have been a late surviving member of an ancient lineage.

Attacking the Tethyshadros is the azhdarchid pterosaur Hatzegopteryx thambema. In the episode’s “Prehistoric Planet: Uncovered” segment, paleontologists Mark Witton and Darren Naish do a fantastic job going over the evidence supporting a terrestrial feeding strategy that would have been utilized by the animal (their paper goes over it in more detail).

Additionally, while giant azhdarchids have been found on multiple continents, Hatzegopteryx was located in the Hateg Island ecosystem, one that notably lacks evidence for more traditional large predators to prey upon the dwarf sauropods and hadrosaurs. While the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence, that void, taken along with the morphology of Hatzegopteryx, suggests that this pterosaur might have been the top predator in the ecosystem.

“Islands” then takes viewers to (hey!) Madagascar. Having already been separated from the rest of Africa, the Madagascar of the late Cretaceous was home to some bizarre animals, including Masiakasaurus and the frog Beelzebufo, both featured in the “Freshwater” episode of the first series. Here, Prehistoric Planet introduces another member of the ecosystem, Simosuchus clarki.

While dinosaurs and pterosaurs formed one side of the archosaur family tree, the other was formed by pseudosuchians, represented in the modern day by crocodilians. Though many pseudosuchians would have resembled their modern relatives, the lineage diversified multiple times throughout the Mesozoic. One group of these animals were the notosuchians, which inhabited Gondwana (the landmass that would become South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia).

Unlike today’s semi-aquatic crocodilians, most notosuchians were primarily terrestrial. Some, like the armored and aptly named Armadillosuchus arrudai, had features that suggested an omnivorous or potentially herbivorous lifestyle. For Simosuchus itself, a study of its dentition strongly supports a herbivorous diet.  

Hunting the Simosuchus is the abelisaur Majungasaurus crenatissimus. A relative of the dancing Carnotaurus in the “Forests” episode of the first series, Majungasaurus shared its cousin’s diminutive arms and bizarre cranial ornamentation. Whereas Carnotaurus had two horns over its eyes, lending the animal its “flesh-eating bull” moniker, Majungasaurus had a dome-like structure on the top of its skull that would have served as the base of a small keratinous structure, likely a small horn.

'Prehistoric Planet 2': an unofficial scientific guide to 'Islands'

Joining the two archosaurs in this Madagascar segment are the bizarre mammal Adalatherium hui and the python-like Madtsoia madagascariensis. Madtsoia might look like a modern boa, but it’s a member of a different family of snakes that has no modern survivors.

Adalatherium is a recently described member of a group of extinct mammaliaforms, Gondwanatheria. The Gondwanatheres’ placement within Mammalia has been questioned, and the fossil record of these animals is largely just teeth and bone fragments. The discovery and description of Adalatherium hui in 2020 was a turning point in our understanding, as the skeleton for the animal is almost complete, and the phylogenetic analysis of the new specimen recovered the Gondwanatheres as being a sister-group to Multituberculata (another group of extinct mammals). This discovery enabled the depiction of the animal here with a level of confidence that would have been impossible even five years ago.

'Prehistoric Planet 2': an unofficial scientific guide to 'Islands'

From the warmth of Madagascar, “Islands” takes us further south, where the paravian Imperobator antarcticus hunts a Morrosaurus antarcticus. As one might guess from their names, both Imperobator and Morrosaurus were discovered in Antarctica. Morrosaurus is an ornithopod, a group of dinosaurs on the ornithischian side of the dinosaur family tree. Despite their name, ornithopods and ornithischians are not the branch of dinosaurs from which birds are descended (they emerged on the saurischian side).

So why does it have feathers? In 2014, a dinosaur named Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus was described, showing both feathers and scales on the animal. Since that discovery, it’s been questioned whether or not feathers are an ancestral trait to all dinosaurs, rather than just the saurischian branch (a later study of pterosaur integument suggests that feathers might go even further back in the family tree).

'Prehistoric Planet 2': an unofficial scientific guide to 'Islands'

While at first glance the man-sized Imperobator might look like its distant cousin, Velociraptor, Imperobator lacked the sickle-like claws of its dromaeosaur relatives, making its exact position within the group Paraves (a group that includes dromaeosaurs, troodontids, and birds) a little harder to determine.

“Islands” ends with a callback to one of the earlier sequences, with a male Hatzegopteryx presenting a young Tethyshadros as a gift to woo a mate. While the behavior in this sequence is speculative, pterosaurs’ closest living relatives are birds and crocodiles, both of which are known for elaborate courtship behaviors, so it’s almost certain that pterosaurs and dinosaurs alike would have had somehwat similar displays of their own.

'Prehistoric Planet 2': an unofficial scientific guide to 'Islands'

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

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