All about dinosaurs, fossils and prehistoric animals by Everything Dinosaur team members.
/TV Reviews

Reviews, comments and feedback on television programmes featuring themes of interest to dinosaur fans and fossil collectors by Everything Dinosaur team members.

14 06, 2008

Real Life “Jurassic Park” not too Far Away

By | June 14th, 2008|Everything Dinosaur News and Updates, Main Page, TV Reviews|0 Comments

TV Documentary Explores Dinosaur Genome

A TV programme being shown for the first time in the UK (Discovery Channel over the weekend) aims to demonstrate steps taken by scientists to bring Dinosaurs back to life.  The programme to be shown on the Discovery Channel is entitled,  “Dinosaurs: Return to Life”; highlights the work done to date to explore and identify the DNA signature of Dinosauria.

A team of scientists from Montana State University, a part of the Western USA with geology dating form the Age of Reptiles, aim to unlock the secrets of the dinosaur genetic code and if they are ultimately successful this could lead to the creation of dinosaurs once again.  The Jurassic Park, of the Michael Crichton novel would become a reality.  The progress the team have made on this remarkable project will be revealed in the TV documentary, receiving its premier in the UK.  The question is posed; will scientists be able to reverse an extinction and ever be able to resurrect a dinosaur?

For Jack Horner, a professor of palaeontology at Montana State University and one of the consultants on the Jurassic Park films, the answer is a definite yes.

Professor Horner commented: “Of course we can bring them back to life. Their ancestral DNA is still present.  The science is there. I don’t think there are any barriers, other than the philosophical.”

As genetic research has developed over the last twenty years or so, there have been numerous attempts to unravel the genetic make-up of a number of organisms.  Professor Raul Cano, professor of microbiology at California Polytechnic State University, attempted to extract DNA from the preserved remains of insects trapped in amber.  The Californian team claimed that they had extracted strands of DNA from a 40 million year old bee.  In a similar programme of research at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, a group of scientists claimed that they had extracted the DNA from a fossilised termite.

However, the initial results could not be replicated and it is now thought that the samples had been contaminated with modern DNA.  Attempts have been made to recover genetic material from frozen Siberian Mammoths and from fossil Neanderthal bones, but to resurrect a dinosaur, scientists will need to be able to recover DNA from a fossil of an animal at least 65 million years old.

Many scientists believe that DNA being an organic substance would not be able to last 10,000 years under ideal preservation conditions, so finding valid dinosaur DNA would be impossible.  However, both American and Russian teams claim that they have discovered fossils that have permitted the extraction of dinosaur proteins.  This could lead to a breakthrough in this form of genetic research.  The Russian team claim to have extracted proteins from a Ceratopsian (horned dinosaur) and identified it to be similar in structure to the DNA of an ostrich.  This would be somewhat expected as birds are thought to be close relatives of dinosaurs.  Indeed, some palaeontologists have speculated that the Dinosauria clade should be re-classified along avian and non-avian forms.

Work by Hans Larsson, a palaeontologist at McGill University in Canada, has begun to unravel the links between the birds and dinosaurs.  He conducted an experiment in November 2007 into the evolution from the long tail of dinosaurs into the short, stubby tails of birds.  Advanced birds, such as the Ornithothoraces and the modern Neornithes have a much reduced tail structure.  This is called the pygostyle and it consists of the last five tail vertebrae fused together into a plate of bone.  The anatomy of the tail is one of the diagnostic characteristics that scientists use to differentiate between birds and Maniraptoran dinosaurs such as Velociraptor.  If a tail is found to contain less than 25 caudal vertebrae then this feature is used to help classify this organism as a bird.

Archaeopteryx for example had this shortened tail and so it is classified with the Aves clade.

A Picture of Archaeopteryx (Ancient Wing)

Archaeopteryx model

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture of Archaeopteryx is a 1:5 scale model from the Museum Line range and other dinosaur models: Dinosaur Toys for Girls for Boys – Dinosaurs

Working with chicken embryos that were no more than 48-hours old, the McGill University team discovered that there were 16 vertebrae developing in the embryonic spine, effectively evidence of a reptilian tail.  As the embryo developed the “tail” became shorter and shorter, until the young bird hatched with just the five vertebrae of a modern bird (Neornithes).

Larsson and his team claim that this research indicates that the blueprint for a dinosaur remains dormant within the genetic make-up of birds.  Taking their study further, the team have hatched mutant chicks with three extra vertebrae, providing evidence that they have been able to partially switch back on dormant genetic processes.

A group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin have also been attempting to manipulate the genome of chickens, not an easy task when it is considered that chickens have 78 chromosomes compared to just 46 in humans.  Although the number of chromosomes does not seem to be related to the complexity of the organism, it is more directly related to the time a species has existed, with older species accumulating more chromosomes.

This American team attempted to turn on the processes for constructing teeth within the beaks of chickens.  Early birds had teeth, but just like their long tails, they evolved toothless beaks in order to lose weight so that this would assist with flight.  The team have reported some success, with embryos producing a form of dentition similar to the teeth of embryonic Alligators, another indication of the close relationship between Crocodilians, Aves and Dinosauria.

Professor Horner and his fellow scientists have speculated that within 100 years the knowledge and the techniques will be available to produce a dinosaur from a bird embryo – a sort of deconstructing one advanced Theropod to produce a Dinosaur.

Whether or not this is the right ethical approach has yet to be debated, after all, look what happened in the Jurassic Park movie!

10 05, 2008

Fossil Detectives Coming to Television

By | May 10th, 2008|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, TV Reviews|1 Comment

New BBC Television Series set to Inspire next Generation of Geologists and Palaeontologists

Coming to BBC4 in June is a brand new television series that highlights the rich fossil legacy of the British Isles.  The new series is to be called “Fossil Detectives” and its aim is to explore the various ancient landscapes that make up the British Isles, visiting some of the best fossil locations in the country.

Using a similar format to highly successful Open University/BBC format on “Coast” which took viewers on a tour of the coastline of the British Isles, Fossil Detectives will transport viewers from the north of Scotland down to the Isle of Wight, as well as taking them back in time hundreds of millions of years.

When it comes to enthusing the British public about rocks and fossils few people are better suited than Hermione Cockburn, the presenter chosen to front this set of programmes.  Hermione has a background in Earth sciences and has studied landscapes all over the world including Africa and Antarctica.  Although heavily involved in television work since she won the BBC Talent “Science on Screen” competition in 2002, she is still an Open University tutor on the OU science course S216 (Environmental Science).

Hermione Cockburn – Fossil Detective Presenter

Picture Credit: BBC

Currently residing in Edinburgh, a city famous for its fantastic geology, this latest BBC series involved Hermione travelling the length and breadth of the country to illustrate the rich fossil and Earth Science heritage of Britain.  For fossil hunters there is no need to invest in expensive equipment, a keen pair of eyes and a little bit of knowledge is all that is required to uncover traces of our ancient past.  Naturally, famous fossil sites such as the “Jurassic coast” of southern England and the Isle of Wight will feature in the TV series as well as some of the less well known but just as spectacular finds such as the West Runton Elephant.

For Hermione making the series was great fun, but even though she got to travel to some amazing places the highlight for her was when she met her hero David Attenborough and viewed his private fossil specimens, collected on his travels all over the world.

She commented: “we spent an hour talking through his fossil collection.  I was so excited – I almost feel that I can retire happily now”.

The fossil detectives will be shown next month, with so many new discoveries it might not be too long before a second series is required.

8 02, 2008

Primeval Team visit the Silurian

By | February 8th, 2008|Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, TV Reviews|0 Comments

Saturday Night and a Trip to the Silurian

The ITV science fiction series Primeval (ITV1 7.20pm) takes viewers back to the Silurian period on Saturday night, the team of time travellers take on some very nasty Arachnids based loosely on the giant sea scorpions – animals such as Brontoscorpio which could grow to nearly a metre long.

Brontoscorpio means “thunder scorpion” it was certainly a fearsome predator of the late Silurian.  It is related to modern scorpions, but the huge arthropods such as Pterygotus which could grow to nearly 3 metres long would not have posed much of a threat to Professor Cutter and his team on land.

In this particular episode, the A.R.C (Anomaly Research Centre) team go through a time portal to around 420 million years ago to rescue a young girl and her dog.  However, some team members get stuck on the other side, trapped in the Silurian when the anomaly closes and they are left to deal with attacks from giant scorpions who erupt out of the sand beneath them.

Scientists have been impressed by the size and scale of some of these early arthropods, particularly the Eurypteridae such as Pterygotus and recent discoveries have shed further light on these fearsome ancient beasts.

It seems that these particular predators got even bigger during the Devonian, feeding on the early vertebrates, the ancestors of modern fish.

To read an article about sea scorpion discoveries: Claws! Giant Sea Scorpion of the Devonian

In reality, as far as we can ascertain from the fossil record, these arthropods would have been extremely cumbersome and awkward on land.  It has been speculated that these animals ventured out onto land to scavenge on the shoreline and to shed their exoskeletons but their primitive breathing apparatus would have had to be kept moist all the time so they would not have ventured far from water.  As the vertebrates evolved so the large species of Eurypteridae went into decline perhaps they were no longer able to compete with new predators such as the larger Placoderms (armoured fish) such as the fierce Dunkleosteus.

13 01, 2008

Review of First Episode of Primeval (Series Two)

By | January 13th, 2008|Main Page, TV Reviews|0 Comments

Review of the Start of Primeval Series Two

When Primeval first aired on UK television back in February 2007, it was billed as the independent networks attempt to lure away part of the Doctor Who audience and help ITV win back the key demographic of Saturday night family TV viewing.

Yesterday saw the first episode of series two, with ITV once again hoping that this programme would help attract something like the 7 million viewers each episode achieved during the first series.

The storyline although a little contrived, allows the CGI experts plenty of scope.  Unexplained phenomena are ripping holes in space and time permitting prehistoric creatures from the past and the Earth’s future to roam the UK.  A team of misfits (but very good looking misfits nonetheless), struggle to deal with these monsters before they are unleashed onto an unsuspecting public.

Headed by the intriguingly entitled evolutionary zoologist Professor Nick Cutter, the first episode in series two (one of seven programmes due to be shown on Saturday nights on ITV1),  kicks off with an encounter with some dinosaurs.

The first series had been criticised in some quarters because there were few dinosaurs shown.  There were Pterosaurs, mammal-like reptiles, Mosasaurs and even giant Arthropods but the dinosaurs were relatively scarce.  This is a little surprising as one of the collaborators on the series – Impossible Pictures; were responsible for the special effects in programmes like Prehistoric Park and Walking with Dinosaurs and one of the pretences for Primeval seems to be to use up the stock footage of prehistoric animals from these earlier programmes.  Dinosaur models may also have been used in some of the close up shots.  Not sure if ITV had a stock of Deinonychus dinosaur models available, but the “raptors” in this programme did seem to be roughly the size of Deinonychus.

Dinosaur fans did not have to wait long for their favourite monsters to show up in series two.  The opening episode is set in a shopping mall, one that is visited by a family of Dromaeosaurs unwittingly transported there by an anomaly presumably from the middle of the Cretaceous.  On first observing these carnivorous dinosaurs, Connor Temple (played by Andrew Lee Potts), calls them “raptors” a fairly generalised term popularised by the Jurassic Park films with the depiction of over-sized Velociraptors.  The CGI models are well created, nice to see the proto-feathers and modified scales on backs of these animals, although how quickly Dromaeosaurs could make progress on the shiny, slippery floors of a shopping mall is open to question.  Professor Cutter and his team have to be congratulated for making up the correct dose of anaesthetic to dart these creatures without any knowledge of dinosaur metabolism, perhaps they have been studying dinosaur models and they do well to stand their ground against a decidedly angry parent, hell-bent on trying to tear them to pieces.  They tend to fair better than the hapless security guards who quickly end up as dinosaur fodder.

It is not made clear what type of dinosaur the “raptors” actually represent, although reference to the makers notes on episode one indicate that these dinosaurs were based on Deinonychus (the name means terrible claw).  This dinosaur was named and described by the American scientist John Ostrom in 1969, although the fossils of this dinosaur had been known for the best part of forty years.  Ostrom caused controversy when he used Deinonychus as the basis for a theory that dinosaurs were much more bird-like and active.  At the time, the common held view was that these animals were cold-blooded and sluggish.  About a dozen specimens of Deinonychus are known, all of which come from the Western USA and date from approximately 100 million years ago.

A Model of Deinonychus

Ostrom inspired Deinonychus replica

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows a 1:30 scale model of Deinonychus in a typically active pose.  The model is made by Bullyland of Germany and is one of their museum line of hand-painted prehistoric animals.

To view the model: Dinosaurs for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models and Toys

Expect more monsters to make an impression over the next few weeks including giant worms (episode two) and a Sabre Tooth cat which will be seen roaming around the English countryside the week following.  Perhaps this could be the “Beast of Bodmin Moor”?

9 10, 2007

National Geographic 3-D Feature “Sea Monsters” Premiers in USA

By | October 9th, 2007|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, TV Reviews|0 Comments

Cretaceous Sea Monsters Captured on Film!

National Geographic in association with Kansas University aided and abetted by a number of US palaeontological institutions have premiered – “Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure”.

The film shot using a mixture of footage of digs and computer generated imagery, has been designed for screening at IMAX theatres and shows life in the sea at the end of the Cretaceous in glorious 3-D.

The action is set approximately 82 million years ago (Campanian stage), in the Western Interior Seaway, a shallow sea that covered much of what was to become North America, specifically the locations are in Kansas.  This is due to the rich marine fossil record of this state, coupled with the fact that as modern Kansas is a flat and dry landscape the shots of a prehistoric sea contrast nicely.

The film centres around a school of Dolichorhynchops or “Dollies” as palaeontologists have affectionately named them.  These were Polycotylid plesiosaurs, spending their time feeding on fish, molluscs and squid.  Reaching lengths of approximately 4 metres they would have been dwarfed by their Mosasaur contemporaries, many of whom were the dominant predators in these waters.  Indeed, the school encounters a Tylosaurus an 8-10 metres long relative of snakes who if it caught one would make short work of a Dolichorhynchops.

This informative documentary style film features a wide range of Cretaceous inhabitants including Hesperornis (a 2-metre long flightless bird) and the fearsome Xiphactinus a 6-metre long, predatory fish that makes piranhas look like wimps.

The film makers consulted a number of palaeontologists to help make the scenes and the animals as realistic as possible, turning to Industrial Light and Magic (the company behind the special effects in the Star Wars movies), to bring these amazing creatures to life.

“Sea Monsters” unites parts of the story with real palaeontology, for example, in the movie’s narrative if a Xiphactinus eats a Dolichorynchops, it cuts to a palaeontologist examining bones and fossils showing evidence of just such an encounter.  This is a really good way to get science over without people realising it.  However, the film crew do resort to exploiting the 3-D effects to give a few more thrills and spills.

I bet you will jump back from the screen when you see a 20 foot killer fish charging straight for you!

Sadly, there are no Ichthyosaurs, these wonderful animals were well on the way to becoming extinct by the Campanian.  No one knows for sure why they died out, perhaps they were not able to compete with the long necked Plesiosaurs such as Styxosaurus, which also features in the film.  You are treated to a shot of one of these magnificent long-necked fish hunters swimming gracefully overhead.

Tyrannosaurus rex does have a cameo appearance, I suppose the Director – Sean MacLeod Phillips felt compelled to put him in, although technically this feature is set too early for a T. rex, but that does not detract much from this 40 minute spectacle.

Good to see the marine reptiles, getting their share of the limelight, after all, much of the land that we now know as the familiar modern landscape spent the Cretaceous as seas and oceans, the home of some pretty amazing animals.

There are a few marine animals available as models, although, sadly many have been withdrawn and are out of production.

To find books about sea monsters: Dinosaur Books for Kids

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