Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dino Gangs

I’m late to the party again with the recent spate of dino documentaries, but I thought I’d review a couple here on the blog over the next few weeks. Today I wanted to take a look at Dino Gangs, a documentary featuring my PhD supervisor Dr. Phil Currie as well as several scientists from the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

Dino Gangs explores the idea of gregariousness in tyrannosaurs, and especially the idea that some tyrannosaurs may have engaged in cooperative pack hunting. There are two versions out there, the one shown in the UK and the shorter one aired in the US, and I think I have watched the UK version.

Whether or not you agree with the gregariousness hypothesis, I think Dino Gangs does a bang-up job of showing the process of the science of palaeontology. It introduces a fairly contentious topic (gregariousness in dinosaurs) and the reasons why this idea exists, and then shows the various lines of evidence used to support this idea. We see palaeontologists working in two different field localities (Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park in Alberta, and Bugin Tsav in Mongolia). We see the prep lab in Hwaseong-si, South Korea, where I spent much of last summer. We see Dr. Larry Witmer’s lab in Ohio, and how we use CT scanners and 3D visualization software to learn more about the anatomy of dinosaurs. We see great footage of komodo dragons in Indonesia and lions and ostriches in South Africa, showing how we use extant animals as analogues for behaviour in extinct ones. We even get to see an ostrich leg dissected to examine the muscles. There’s discussion of ontogeny and allometry, taphonomy, and the great variety of social behaviours in extant animals. We also see dissenting opinions from scientists like Dr. David Eberth and Dr. Don Henderson, both from the Tyrrell. That’s a lot of fairly sophisticated concepts to deliver in a Discovery Channel special.

Brian Switek of Dinosaur Tracking has criticized the documentary for making overly bombastic claims that are as yet unsupported in the scientific literature. I think part of this stems from the fact that most people do not know that tyrannosaur is not synonymous with Tyrannosaurus, and unfortunately the documentary does not do a great job explaining that there are several species of tyrannosaurs presented in the film. In addition, I see some problems with the emphasis on the Mongolian finds. The documentary discusses at great length the large number of Tarbosaurus skeletons that have been found, and although they discuss the taphonomy of the Nemegt Formation at Bugin Tsav, there does seem to be some conflation with the Albertosaurus bonebed at Dry Island. The Albertosaurus bonebed is a true bonebed, containing more than 20 individuals in a relatively small area. In contrast, the Tarbosaurus skeletons at Bugin Tsav are generally separated from each other by some distance and do not really form any bonebeds (unless there have been some recent finds which I have not heard about). I was actually kind of disappointed that there was not more evidence on the Dry Island bonebed, which has been excavated extensively by Dr. Currie and formed the basis of a special volume in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences last fall. There are certainly a great number of Tarbosaurus known from Mongolia, and the unusually high ratio of Tarbosaurus to other dinosaurs in the Nemegt Formation is an area of active research. But to me, there is less evidence for sociality preserved in the Nemegt specimens than at the Dry Island bonebed. I suspect the emphasis on Mongolia over Alberta in the documentary is because of the more exotic setting offered by the Gobi Desert.

And that brings me to perhaps a less obvious but equally frustrating aspect of the documentary. I have written before about the absence of female palaeontologists in the popular media (and sadly, Dino Gangs is no exception to this), but also true is the absence of non-Caucasians in many documentaries. All of the Mongolian footage was shot during the Korea-Mongolia International Dinosaur Project’s recent expeditions, but Dr. Yuong-Nam Lee, the leader of the expedition, does not receive any name credit even though he appears on screen frequently. Nor is he featured in any of the interviews. I was particularly surprised by the description of the Gobi Desert, which is apparently “completely isolated from the outside world” and is “such a hostile environment that not even the local tribespeople can survive there”. The Gobi is rugged and relatively unpopulated, but to say these things overly romanticizes Mongolia. The Mongolians who continue to live the nomadic lifestyle certainly live very different daily lives than those of us in North America, but to use the word ‘tribespeople’ makes them sound primitive. Nearly every traditional ger that we passed had several dirtbikes, a satellite dish, and solar panels in addition to the horses, goats, and camels hanging around.

A final quibble: there was far too much reusing of animation from Clash of the Dinosaurs, Dinosaur Planet, and even When Dinosaurs Roamed America. Two abelisaurs, which are NOT known from Mongolia, were featured during a discussion of Tarbosaurus, Triceratops was presented as Protoceratops, and Parasaurolophus and ?Maiasaura stood in for Mongolian hadrosaurs. I know animation is expensive, but perhaps a nice illustration would do instead? For people interested in dinosaurs, it’s really, really jarring to see Triceratops, the last of the ceratopsians, presented as Protoceratops, one of the earliest.

In the end though, I liked Dino Gangs. I think the focus on the single question “were tyrannosaurs pack hunters?” was a real strong point for the documentary, since in essence this is what we do in science. We ask a question and then try to answer it. It was really nice to see this question explored in depth using many different lines of evidence, including counter arguments from dissenting voices. The Gobi desert looked great on film, and it was awesome to see Brian Cooley’s sculptures of Albertosaurus in the Cretaceous Alberta gallery at the Tyrrell get so much screen time. I would definitely be interested in hearing what non-palaeontologists took away from Dino Gangs.

1 comment:

  1. I similarly found the 3D animation quite jarring. Incorrect use of taxa aside, I was put off by the strikingly different styles and quality of the animation, much of which was often played one after the other, making a stark comparison.

    I would also agree with you, though, that the way the controversy was presented was pretty well done.