Paleontologists Dig The New Walking With Dinosaurs Movie–And So Will You!

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Walking With Dinosaurs: The Movie.
Walking With Dinosaurs: The Movie. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox – TM and © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

One of the great joys of childhood is learning about dinosaurs for the first time. Gigantic beasts with fins, claws, sharp teeth and long tails that were as big as a school bus?! AWESOME!! It is no wonder that dinosaurs are one of the most lasting pop-culture science themes (next to space and time travel). The latest installment is a big-screen 3D movie incorporating late-breaking science with cutting-edge technology in Walking with Dinosaurs.

We are fascinated by dinosaurs. From Primeval to Dinosaur Train and Jurassic Park to Ice Age, we surround ourselves with dinosaurs. Usually this ends up as either a mashup of sharp claws and scared humans or cute dinos and their funny friends. Neither is really true, but is an accurate portrayal even possible? Would it be fun? I talked with Dr. Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist with the University of Edinburgh, to find out!

Dr. Brusatte is one of the dozens of scientists brought in to consult on Walking with Dinosaurs to help guide the animators and filmmakers in creating the most accurate portrait of prehistoric life possible. I chatted with him to find out what a paleontologist does and whether the new movie would be a hit.

Me: What does a paleontologist actually do?

Dr. Stephen Brusatte: “I go out into the field and look for new fossils. I talk with other researchers and visit museums all over the world to see fossil specimens. Being a paleontologist means spending a LOT of time doing research!”  Sadly, paleontologists do not wear cargo pants  every day, nor do they seem to have dashing adventures very often. Perhaps not good for showing in movies, but very good for science!

(Dr. Brusatte also spends a lot of time doing outreach to talk about dinosaurs, including writing books. He published his first dinosaur book when he was still in high school!)

What new science will we see in this movie that we haven’t seen before?

In a word: FEATHERS. “There has been a lot of science done since the 90’s when movies like Jurassic Park came out. We had a strong suspicion that feathered dinosaurs were common, but we didn’t have confirmation until recently.” Expect to see a lot more colorful, feathered dinosaurs than ever before!

Fossils are extremely old. How can there be such radical new discoveries after centuries of looking at these fossils?

“Fossils represent only a fraction of the species that have existed on this planet. Animal remains rarely have a chance to be come a fossil. Anything other than fossilized bones are almost impossible to find because the skin and organs decay (or are eaten!) pretty quickly. Any new fossil finds offer immense new clues to what really happened in the past.

“A huge amount of new fossils were recently uncovered in the Liaoning region of China. The entire region was quickly covered in ash, preserving more than just the bones. This gives us a unique snapshot of the past” almost like a dinosaur Pompeii.

Amazing! Are the feathered dinosaurs from Liaoning the only updates to the concept of dinosaur life?

“We also worked really hard to ensure that the late Cretaceous Period was represented accurately: the dinosaurs that would have lived at the same time, the plants were available, and the environment of the Earth at that time. Walking with Dinosaurs really is the most accurate picture science can paint of these amazing creatures!”

So much is still unknown about dinosaurs. What isn’t verifiable that we’ll see in the movie?

“There is no way to know, definitively, what sound a dinosaur made. We can only estimate based on neck and throat sizes along with sounds from modern animals. There is certainly no evidence of the conversations you’ll see in the movie!

“Some of the movements and personality traits shown in the movie are also extrapolated from existing, limited data. We can tell what dinosaurs moved in herds, but not why the moved or whether they designated a leader.

I’m sure my daughter will love the movie. If we need more dinosaurs after seeing Walking with Dinosaurs, what do you recommend?

“Museums are a wonderful place to see dinosaur fossils. The American Museum of Natural History in New York has a fantastic collection. The Field Museum in Chicago is great, as is the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

“We have a wonderful website and app we built to accompany the movie. They both have information on a lot of dinosaurs and went through the same meticulous verification we used for the film. You can also ask me questions directly on Twitter @SteveBrusatte. I love talking with people about dinosaurs!!”

 

Thanks to Dr. Brusatte for the interview! Check out the trailer for the movie below and be sure to see Walking With Dinosaurs, opening December 20, 2013!

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