Tag Archive: creatures


All dinosaurs are bizarre, by mammalian standards. Some, however, are bizarre even to paleontologists, and the title program of this DVD is devoted to them. There is, however, a secondary program, not even mentioned on the cover, which to me was of considerably more interest.

Most of these animals are considered bizarre because they have appendages, preserved in the fossil record, that leave paleontologists wondering just why these animals have that appendage. Take the 33 foot-long Anargasaurus, for instance. Why on earth did this plant-eater have a double row of bony spines down its back? Reconstructions tend to show it with skin forming a double crest supported by those spines, but why? The only answer anyone had come up with is some kind of display crest, like the peacock’s tail.

Display organs are common, especially in today’s birds (which after all are modern dinosaurs) so I suppose it’s as good an explanation as any for such things as the plates of a Stegosaurus (which would have been potato chips to a large carnivore) or for the fanciful neck frills, often richly supplied with blood, of the Ceratopsids. Were horns used to fend off predators, of for fighting off rivals within the species? Or just for display?

In some cases the peculiarities might be associated with feeding. Take the Epidendrosaurus, for instance, a sparrow-sized dinosaur with an incredibly long third finger. Did it use its long finger as the aye-aye in Madagascar today does, to find insects in the bark of trees? Then there’s Nigersaurus, with a broad, flat head with a very wide muzzle resembling a vacuum-cleaner nozzle. Did it stand in one place and hoover up the vegetation?

This DVD is less interesting than most of the National Geographic programs scientifically, but it does show some interesting dinosaurs. If you want information on some of the animals shown, National Geographic has both an interactive site and a magazine article by John Updike.

The secondary program, which was a total surprise, should have been part of the Prehistoric Predators DVD I reviewed earlier. It was concerned with a much more recent animal, one I’d met before in Prehistoric Park—a predatory, flightless bird that could almost hold its own with sabertoothed cats and dire wolves. Certainly it seems to have taken down the same kind of prey.

These terror birds were not what you want to attract to your backyard bird feeder! Imagine an oversized ostrich with the hooked beak of a raptor, that beak (and head) enlarged to the size of a rather large war axe. With ostrich speed and taller than a man, they evolved to be the top predators on the South American continent, for many millions of years an island continent. Then a few million years ago, the isthmus of Panama joined it to North America, ending the isolation in which the terror birds had evolved. Animals crossed the new isthmus both ways. Opossums, armadillos, and porcupines moved north, but a far greater number of placental mammals moved south.

Surprisingly, a few terror birds did move north, as their fossils have been found in Florida. Did they meet with the earliest humans to colonize North America? Or were they simply unable to compete with the mega-predators already here? They did seem to survive for a long time in North America, but the jury is still out on just how long they lasted.

Tomorrow’s the day to look at quotes from Lewis Carroll, but I’ll also have a guest appearance on another blog, Christine’s Words. Stop by!

This is the first of a number of reviews of National Geographic’s DVDs on prehistoric animals, so I will start out by saying something that applies to all. They are very good in interviews with actual paleontologists. The computer graphics of the extinct animals are of moderate quality, and there are only a few clips repeated over and over again. These videos are excellent for budding paleontologists or those actually interested in the science of how we know about extinct animals, and are better than series like “Walking With Dinosaurs” in that they allow scientific arguments to be heard. They are not in the same league when it comes to the re-creation of the extinct animals.

This DVD contains two programs originally shown on the National Geographic channel: Dino Autopsy and Dino Death Trap. The first is about a rare fossilized mummy of a hadrosaur, nicknamed “Dakota,” found in the badlands of North Dakota. The fossil was found in 1999 by a teenaged paleontologist, and has supplied information on skin texture and musculature of hadrosaurs. The science is fascinating. The quality of the animation is somewhat less so.

The second program involves the excavation of a site in China. This site produced a number of near-complete skeletons from a period, the Late Jurassic, very poorly represented until now. Most of the attention is given to Guanlong, a very early form of tyrannosaurid. The skeletons are in three dimensions rather than flattened, which has been interpreted as evidence that they were trapped in soft sediments, and lie above each other in a vertical column.

There is speculation about how they died included in the video. Was a volcanic eruption to blame? Was the mud in which they were trapped due to volcanic ash falling into a marsh? Also, while these animals are the early forms of species known from the Cretaceous, the Cretaceous forms were giants, and these animals are relatively small. Guanlong’s back would about reach the waist on a standing human, yet it is an early relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex. What caused the increase in size? Did guanlong really have feathers as part of its crest? They are in the computer animation, and a relative, Dilong, is known to have had primitive feathers. The crest does appear to be a display organ (relatively thin and brittle) and feathers would have made it more conspicuous.

Overall the DVD is worth watching if you are really interested in dinosaurs. If you are looking primarily for entertainment, others are better.

(“Blue Babe” is a steppe bison that was killed by a lion, frozen and buried by silt some 36,000 years ago. He was found by a placer miner near Fairbanks, and rests today in the museum at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.)

The bison sniffed the frosty air, his head swinging back and forth as he scanned the snow-covered steppe. Vigilance was part of life, but within the herd it was a shared duty. Here, alone, he felt exposed and vulnerable. He lowered his head and pawed at the wind-crusted snow, uncovering a batch of browned grass, but he took only one bite before jerking his head up to look around.

The dead grass was harsh on his tongue, but it would be the only food available for months. And how could he feed, without others to keep watch? In the herd, at least one or two individuals at a time were always looking around, ready to sound a warning if danger approached. He swallowed the first bite, and lowered his head briefly to snatch more of the poor feed.

The wind tugged at his thick coat, but could not penetrate to his skin. He spread his nostrils and swiveled his ears, seeking warning of any predator, but the hiss of the blowing snow covered other sounds. Again he turned. Where was the rest of the herd? Sheltering from the wind? Perhaps in the valley to his left?

The narrow stream valley provided little shelter from the biting wind, and no other bison. Instinctively he knew the danger of being alone, but until he found the rest of the herd, he had little choice. Again he paced in a tight circle, seeking the source of every imagined sound.

What was that? One eye caught a blur of motion, and he bolted farther into the little valley. But the snow had drifted deeper here, and as he started to turn back, a sudden weight almost collapsed his hindquarters. Bellowing wildly he bucked and spun, the musk of lion rank in his nostrils. For an instant he was free, plunging though the snow for the mouth of the valley, but out of the thickening storm came another lion, leaping for his head.

His nose was pulled down, and again weight came on his hindquarters. He hardly felt the pain of claws and teeth. All his attention focused on the demands of his lungs for air. He tried to shake his head, to throw off the weight clamped to his muzzle, but his legs would no longer support even his own weight, and buckled under him. Redness fading to black washed across his world. He never knew when the lions began to feed.

Madagascar: DVD Review

This DVD is not about dinosaurs, though Madagascar has been isolated almost since the time of the dinosaurs. Like the rest of the world, its inhabitants evolved from small creatures that survived the non-bird dinosaur extinction – but Madagascar was separated from both Africa and India so early that its evolution was almost in isolation. Today it has an array of unique plants and animals almost unmatched in the rest of the world, but very much under threat.

This is the latest of David Attenborough’s nature programs for the BBC. There are three programs: Island of Marvels, Lost Worlds and Land of Heat and Dust. Because Madagascar has a mountainous spine, the east and west coasts are quite different. The east coast faces the trade winds and is well-watered; the west coast is a rain-shadow desert. There is also a gradient from the north to the very dry southern tip.

Much of the program is taken up with the lemurs, the fascinating primates of Madagascar. These are forest-dwelling creatures for the most part, many with highly specialized habitats, and are threatened as much by forest clearance as by hunting. If you’ve seen the animated feature, “Madagascar” you no doubt remember the fossa – taking the place of the big cats, but related to mongooses. It turns out they are very hard to find and endangered – as are most of the species native to Madagascar.

Lemurs are far from the only Madagascar endemics. Chameleons, a wide variety of insects, and even some of the birds are unique.

In addition to the three main programs, there are two others: The Lemurs of Madagascar (which follows ring-tailed lemur mothers) and Attenborough and the Giant Egg, which combines Attenborough’s first visit to Madagascar with the present, when the giant eggshell he discovered 50 years ago is carbon-dated. At one time, it seems, Madagascar had truly giant birds.

I like David Attenborough, and the photography on this DVD is up to the BBC standards — high.  Definitely worth watching if you like nature programs.

This is a Discovery Channel DVD, and a very recent one – copyright 2011, so it should be up to date. I enjoyed it, though I raised my eyebrows now and then at the speculation produced as statements. In all fairness, the DVD did include segments of talking with the paleontologists who have often conflicting opinions on the interpretation of the fossil material.

The DVD has three programs of approximately an hour each. Clash of the Dinosaurs: Extreme Survivors, the title episode, goes over what made dinosaurs so successful for so long, and contrasts the strategies of producing huge numbers of young, very few of which will survive, and producing a few young and investing in their care.

Dino Gangs examines the possibility that Tyrannosaurus rex, the iconic big carnivore of the late Cretaceous, may have hunted in groups of mixed age. The young T. rex were apparently lightly built and capable of considerable speed. The older animals were much stronger but had to move more slowly to support their massive weight. In a mixed pack, the adolescents would have chased and turned back the prey for the adults to kill. Maybe. But it is not a world I’d like to visit!

The final program attempts to reconstruct the events when an asteroid struck the Earth 65 million years ago (not 165 million years; the narrator was mistaken there.) The cataclysm makes the events of this year look mild indeed, but I doubt the accuracy of some of what they have reconstructed. For instance, they have a secondary tsunami impacting the Pacific Northwest, but never mention that the initial impact would have caused a huge tidal wave in the Atlantic.

Overall a nice balance of computer generated dinosaurs and input from paleontologists, but it should be watched with full awareness that our understanding of dinosaurs is constantly evolving.

I haven’t written much in Homecoming from an alien’s or an animal-eye view, and I really don’t know how one could ever document it. But this is about as close as one could come to what would be visible to a lion cub being carried by its mother.

(I do have a short-short, “The case of the Incompetent Police Dog” in Crafty Cat Crimes, and if I ever publish the trilogy there is a good deal from a dog’s eye view, not to mention Maungs and dolphins as characters.)

This is the third in the Walking With Dinosaurs series in terms of geologic time and the second in terms of release date. Like others in the series it is unclear what is imagination and what is fact, but the rendering of extinct animals is excellent. One comment on all the “Walking With” videos — animals make sounds for a reason. It may be to freeze or to scatter prey, to communicate with others, or to intimidate a rival — but an animal waiting for an opportunity to attack is silent.

The video is ten years old and some of the paleontology is out of date. So are some of the locations – the evidence for land-dwelling forerunners of the whales, for instance, comes mainly from Pakistan and it is somewhat questionable to put an Ambulocetis in Germany.

The first DVD has six episodes. The first “New Dawn,” is set in the early Eocene, when the earth had settled down from the K-T boundary event and the extinction of virtually all large animals. Mammals are still small, and the descendants of dinosaurs — the birds — are the dominant predators.

Later in the Eocene the mammals are beginning to take over, and the second segment, “Whale Killer,” focuses on marine and estuarine life. It also considers the climatic results of changing ocean currents due to plate tectonics.

The third episode, “Land of Giants,” is set in the Oligocene and focuses on a single type of animal, the indricothere, although others are shown as well. Imagine a rhinocerous the size of a giraffe! I’m not sure they gave their indricotheres the right environment, though.

The early evolution of our own species is covered in the fourth episode, “Next of Kin,” which centers on an australopithecine clan. Grass has now evolved, making backgrounds much easier for the filmmakers to find. This episode is relatively recent, only a little more than 3 million years ago.

The fifth episode. “Sabre Tooth,” is set in South America a million years after the Panamanian land bridge has opened, ending 30 million years of isolation. The old top predators were terror birds, much like those of the first episode. This episode focuses on the North American predator that has replaced them, the sabertooth cat.

The sixth episode, “Mammoth Journey,” takes place in Europe at the height of the last ice age, when two sub-species of humans shared the territory with a number of cold-adapted animals. Living in Alaska and knowing that mammoths did quite well here during the ice age, I am not so sure that the cold would have forced them to migrate out of the lush pastures of the North Sea, though.

Don’t forget the second DVD in the set. This has a good deal of information on how the episodes were made, interviews with the producers, model-makers and animators, and some behind the scenes information on the animals themselves and the evidence for their existence.

EMERALD: #scifi One of the younger tinerals on the isolation satellite, an emerald green male.

MEADOW: One of the nature tinerals attached to Roi. Laced feathers with bronze shafts shading out to copper, green and gold. All of Roi’s pet tinerals came from isolated islands on Riya, and are quite young.

CITRINE: #scifi The youngest tineral on the isolation satellite, a soft orange female jewel.

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