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'Prehistoric Planet' shows complex dinosaur behavior. But how do we actually know?

https://ondemand.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/wesat/2022/07/20220723_wesat_prehistoric_planet_shows_complex_dinosaur_behavior_how_do_scientists_actually_know.mp3?orgId=1&topicId=1138&d=281&p=7&story=1111681799&ft=nprml&f=1001

In the TV show Prehistoric Planet, where computer-generated dinosaur images are presented like any other nature documentary, "filmed" as they hunt and mate, there is one scene where an atrociraptor picks up a burning twig. The feathered raptor raises the branch to its coat, and Sir David Attenborough explains that the raptor is using the smoke to expel parasites that hide in the feathers.

The field of paleontology has jumped by leaps and bounds over the past three decades since Jurassic Park first screened to audiences, but using the fossil record to determine appearance is one thing. Determining the specifics of behavior – what evidence is there to back that up? How can scientists peek into the minds of creatures dead for millions of years? There's even another scene later in the show where another raptor uses a burning twig to actually spread the forest fire further, driving prey out of their hiding spots.

Although it may seem a stretch of the imagination to depict these dinosaurs as capable of using tools like fire, the veracity of these behaviors is supported by a multidisciplinary approach, according to Prehistoric Planet's executive producer Mike Gunton.

"The worst thing that could ever happen in this is that someone says, 'Oh, well, this is all made up. Why should I bother watching this?' " Gunton said.

"To make the picture that you see on the screen, we are pulling on dozens and dozens of separate threads, and trying to weave them together," Gunton said. "There's paleo-ecologists, there's paleo-climatologists, there's paleo-ethologists, there's fossil people, there's every single thing you can imagine."

So once the team was assembled, a global squad of experts in all different time zones and specialties, the next step in figuring out how these prehistoric animals behaved was putting the world's best data on the dinos in front of this team.

Luckily for the team behind Apple TV's Prehistoric Planet, there hasn't really been a better time to dive into the records, according to consulting paleontologist Darren Naish.

"We're really in a golden age of dinosaurs," Naish said. "People are finding just so many new species all over the world, but then also in terms of the information we have about their biology, their sensory ability, what they actually looked like."

Naish said this information comes in three main buckets – the traditional fossil record, which grows by a fossil every week, computer-generated models of these animals, and observations of living creatures. In the case of the pyromaniac raptor, Naish said that the assumptions about its behavior were made by watching the raptor's closest living descendants – hunting birds.

"Quite a long list of predatory birds – kites and falcons and hawks – they've been reported to pick up burning sticks and move them around to spread fire, and these birds have also been reported to grab burning sticks and deliberately treat their feathers with smoke," Naish said.

"It is an extrapolation to show in an extinct dinosaur, but it's one that we can justify."

Gunton added that the conversation between the team of paleontologists and the CGI artists rendering these dinosaurs is not one-way by any means. He said that there have been moments during the making of the show where a computer model will be so realistic, so grounded in biomechanics and physics, it will actually help scientists make assumptions about the dinosaurs that they couldn't before.

" 'Maybe it can't turn that quickly, oh well, that's interesting. Maybe it's a stalker rather than an ambusher, or a sprinter,' " Gunton said.

"So there's some really interesting extrapolations and cross-fertilizations between the filmmakers, the animators and the scientific community, which is something we'd love to develop more."

Victoria Arbour, another consulting paleontologist on the show, agreed with Gunton.

"What I really love is just all the creative ways we can pull all of these different lines of evidence into creating a sort of holistic picture of dinosaurs as living animals," Arbour said.

Arbour focuses on ankylosaur, a beast of a dino covered in armored scale and wielding a hammer tail. In the show, one of these ancient creatures munches down on some charcoal left smoldering the wake of a forest fire – a scene pulled from the contents of a fossil's stomach and the knowledge that tasty young ferns are among the first to sprout up after a blaze.

Arbour said that she rarely gets to see the focus of her work in such complete detail.

"I often say I work with bits and pieces and individual bones, sometimes I get to work with really exceptional specimens that are really complete, but it's not the same as looking at a living animal."

Gunton said that he hopes the sum of these multidisciplinary approaches is greater than the separate parts, adding up to what he calls "a fuzzy picture of the truth."

"There are so many slip-catchers, if you like, in this procedure that we almost can't go off the tracks, because there's so many things keeping us true," Gunton said. "We wanted to try and see if we could effectively make the 21st century template for how we, the public, see this world."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a moment on Apple TV's "Prehistoric Planet" - for which BJ Leiderman does not do the theme music, but he does ours - where a CGI raptor picks up a burning twig from a forest fire and waves it underneath its feathers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PREHISTORIC PLANET")

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Smoke is an insecticide.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTENBOROUGH: And it can help an animal to get rid of its parasites.

SIMON: Sir David Attenborough sounds convincing, but reporter Alexander Tuerk has some questions.

ALEXANDER TUERK, BYLINE: Now, don't get me wrong - dinosaurs using fire is very cool, but I was skeptical. And later in the show, a different raptor even spreads the fire further using another twig. I can get why we know so much about what the dinos looked like, but how can we look inside their minds? I called up the folks behind the show, and it turns out I picked the best time to ask.

DARREN NAISH: We're really in a golden age of dinosaurs.

TUERK: That's paleontologist Darren Naish, one of the show's scientific consultants.

NAISH: People are finding, you know, just so many new species all over the world - but then also in terms of the information we have about their biology, their sensory abilities, what they actually looked like.

TUERK: Naish says there's three main buckets of new data - fossils, computer models and observing living creatures.

NAISH: There's also been a great overturning of thinking about the behavior of the living animals that are related to dinosaurs. So dinosaurs aren't extinct. Birds are living dinosaurs.

TUERK: Turns out, watching the closest-living descendants of the dinos we know and love is how they came to the conclusion about the pyromaniac raptor.

NAISH: Quite a long list of predatory birds - kites and falcons and hawks - they've been reported to pick up burning sticks and move them around to spread fire. And these birds have also been reported to grab burning sticks and deliberately treat their feathers with smoke.

TUERK: OK. That's one mystery solved.

NAISH: It is an extrapolation to show on an extinct dinosaur, but it's one that we can justify.

TUERK: But how do you coordinate five episodes of dead dinos and their quirky behaviors and make sure it all holds up to snuff? Here's Mike Gunton, executive producer of this show and "Planet Earth 2."

MIKE GUNTON: To make the picture that you see on the screen, we are pulling on dozens and dozens of separate threads and trying to weave them together. So there's paleoecologists. There's paleoclimatologists. There's paleoethologists. There's fossil people. There's every single thing you can imagine.

TUERK: Ecologists were crucial to one scene where a triceratops herd eats nutritious but toxic plants. They have medicine, though, underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PREHISTORIC PLANET")

ATTENBOROUGH: This is the antidote - a special clay. These are known as clay licks, and they're visited time and again.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINOSAURS VOCALIZING)

GUNTON: Gathering this multidisciplinary approach means that the sum is far, far greater than the parts.

TUERK: Gunton says that the computer models of the dinos can be so realistic it actually helps scientists make conclusions they couldn't before.

GUNTON: Maybe it can't turn that quickly. Well, that's interesting. So maybe in its - it did a - you know, it was a stalker rather than an ambush. Or it was a sprinter or a - you know, so there's some really interesting extrapolations and cross-fertilizations between the filmmakers, the animators and the scientific community, which I think is something that we would love to develop more.

TUERK: All this adds up to what Gunton calls a fuzzy picture of the truth.

GUNTON: There are so many slip catchers, if you like, in this procedure that we almost can't go off the tracks because there are so many things keeping us true.

VICTORIA ARBOUR: What I really love is just all the creative ways that we can pull all of these different lines of evidence into creating a sort of holistic picture of dinosaurs as living animals.

TUERK: I asked Victoria Arbour, a paleontologist and another consultant on the show, what it was like to see the object of your studies come to life on a screen in front of you.

ARBOUR: I often sit, and I work with, like, bits and pieces and, you know, individual bones. Or sometimes, I get to work with really exceptional specimens that are really complete. But it's not the same as looking at a living animal.

TUERK: That's what Gunton says he hopes viewers take away from "Prehistoric Planet," too - a new perspective on some old bones.

GUNTON: We wanted to try and see if we could effectively make the 21st-century template for how we, as the public, see this world.

TUERK: So the bottom line, says paleontologist Darren Naish...

NAISH: These animals weren't boring. They weren't, like, behaviorally simple. They were almost certainly - no, no. They were doing complex things.

TUERK: Case closed. For NPR News, I'm Alexander Tuerk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.