Saturday, February 1, 2014

Documentary review: Jurassic Fight Club

I have a special connection to this week’s documentary being reviewed. When it first came out in 2008, I was eagerly anticipating it. You see, it reminded me of a series I was really interested in as a teenager. It was on Discovery, a show called Animal Face-Off, which discussed possible battles between coexisting species such as lion vs tiger, elephant vs rhinoceros, bear vs alligator, etc.  While the execution was terribly done, I liked the premise. When I heard what sounded like a dinosaur version of the show was coming to TV, I couldn’t wait.  
This is Jurassic Fight Club. When I did watch it, it wasn’t as good as I hoped, but still a very enjoyable show.  The premise is extrapolating from fossils about prehistoric conflicts. The discovery is first shown, then the species involved, the environment, and then a comparison and finally an action sequence showing the conflict. The host is George Blasing, a paleontology expert and teacher who has a roadshow in Texas, educating at schools on fossils and prehistoric animals. George is a great personality, dynamic and funny on the show, and with a vivid imagination he describes, blow by blow, the incidents implied by the fossil finds.  When my birthday came this past week, I immediately bought myself the DVD set for this review.  

The format uses a lot of repeated footage in quick cuts as well as static and diagnostic shots of the animals involved. This fortunately never gets quite as bad as Clash of the Dinosaurs;  the editing  can take an episode’s final sequence and cut it into tiny slivers spread throughout the program so the reused footage is never too obnoxious. More unfortunate are the still tableaus shown both as backgrounds to the “talking heads” and as 3-dimensional tracking shots that show pretty critical spoilers on the outcome. To be fair the outcome for most of these is a given revealed by the fossil evidence. My favorite party of most episodes is when Lawrence Witmer reconstructs the brain of each animal and interprets their function. 

The first episode is on the 1996 discovery near Mahajanga of a Majungasaurus (called Majungatholus in the program) that was cannibalized by another. The experts here are Phil Currie of the University of Alberta and Theropod authority, biomechanical pioneer Lawrence Whitmer of Ohio University,  theropod authority Tom Holtz of the University of Maryland, Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute and Mark Loewen of the University of Utah.  The interesting part is that while Majungasaurus is speculated to be extremely sexual dimorphic despite the lack of material to establish it, this is not shown for Ceratosaurus, Albertosaurus, and Allosaurus, where dimorphism may not be established but is certainly a valid interpretation.  The extrapolation is that the cannibalism resulted due to a male courting a female, killing its offspring, and in turn being killed himself.  Alas, the amusing anecdote that Majungasaurus was named Majungatholus due to a mistaken identification as a pachycephalosaur due to its thick skull is left unmentioned.  The giant snake Madstonia, the sauropod Rapetosaurus, the strange theropod Masaikosaurus, the crocodile Mahajungasuchus and the dromeosaur Rahonavis are also no-shows, probably due to animation costs. Still, it’s great to see Majungasaurus make its debut.

The second episode is based on a find near Belle Fourche of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus with flattened theropod teeth around it. The teeth resemble that of the specimens Jane and Clevelandotyrannus and so Blasing speculates that the juvenile was a victim of a Nanotyrannus. Witmer’s scan shows very different brain shapes and positions, leaning him towards Nanotyranus as its own species. The debate on Nanotyrannus’ validity is discussed; Phil Currie, Peter Larson, and the late great Larry Martin take the position for validity while Tom Holtz disagrees.  I personally am leaning towards a distinct species, but I can be convinced otherwise if intermediates between specimens like Jane and Sue are found.  Now, an obvious question emerges-does the juvenile Tyrannosaur resemble the Nanotyrannus or is it distinct? This would clearly end the debate right then and there, but it is never mentioned. Mark Norell doesn’t seem to have taken a stance-he prefers to talk about Tyrannosaurus. In addition to the usual hyperbole (including the questionable assertion that Tyrannosaurus was the most aggressive dinosaur) , there is also the hypothesis that Tyrannosaurus had toxic bacteria in its teeth. This septic bite hypothesis was based on similarities in tooth structure with Komodo Dragons.  However, recently herpetologists have found that Komodo dragons are actually venomous and so this idea has been mostly abandoned.   A final note is that both animals shown probably had plumage to some degree based on the groundbreaking discovery of Yutyrannus, a feathery tyrannosaur from China.  At any rate, Nanotyrannus is a rare sight in dinosaur media and it’s a welcome addition.

The third episode is centered on the Bridger bonebed excavated by the Yale Peabody Museum.  This find was of a Tenontosaurus surrounded by Deinonychus. This association has been known since the 1960s and Tenontosaurus and Deinonychus are almost always depicted in battle.  Larson, Martin, Currie, Holtz, and Norell return, with Whitmer’s examination of Deinonychus’ skull revealing an excellent sense of balance, excellent vision and hearing, and high intelligence compared to other dinosaurs.  The traditional conclusion shown here has been disputed by Roach and Brinkman, who argue that what happened was that the Deinonychus had feeding frenzy over a carcass. However, this would require bite marks on the Deinonychus bones, while the documentary states that the crushed Deinonychus bodies were results of their battle with Tenontosaurus. Like the previous episode, it’s a mystery still under discussion.  The main scientific gaffe here is that Deinonychus is shown with scaly skin rather than feathers, which have been found on most members of the Dromeosauridae. There is also a mismatch in narration-at the end of the episode, a preview is shown for the next one, but the narration describes the first episode instead.

The fourth episode takes place at the Cleveland Lloyd Quarry in Utah, where Allosaurus dominates the dinosaur fauna but shares it with Camarosaurus, Stegosaurus and Ceratosaurus. The best part of this episode is the discussion of taphonomy, the critical study of how fossil remains got to where they were found.  Martin, Holtz, and Currie return, joined by Utah paleontologist Jim Kirkland of the University of Utah and his mentor the late great James Madsen.  The scenario here is complicated-with an adult Stegosaurus and her offspring first becoming stuck in the mud of a dried lake, a Ceratosaurus killing the offspring, a trio of Allosaurus arriving and killing the Ceratosaurus, the mother Stegosaurus killing one of the Allosaurs and driving the others away, who then attack a trapped Camarosaurus which kills both of them. Seven dinosaurs die in a long, epic battle.  This episode is action packed, but the sequence of events is entirely speculative and based only on the presence of these dinosaurs in the quarry. The number of dinosaurs involved unfortunately cuts their screen time and discussion-most episodes discuss two species, but this one has four. While Stegosaurus and Allosaurus have been pop culture perennials, the common sauropod Camarosaurus is fairly unique in its appearance here. Unfortunately, Camptosaurus, the common prey to both Ceratosaurus and Allosaurus makes no appearance and would not show in a dinosaur documentary until 2011.

This fifth episode is a huge change of pace.   Larry Martin of the University of Kansas is the only scientist joining George from the previous episodes.  Instead of Holtz, there is another University of Maryland scientist-Brett Kent, entomologist and shark paleontologist.  The other shark paleontologist is Michael Gottfried of Michigan State University.  Lawrence Barnes, paleontologist of whale evolution from the Museum of Los Angeles, represents the opposing species.  Rounding out the cast is the science fiction author, Steve Alten, writer of the “Meg” series. This is the equivalent of inviting Michael Crichton for the dinosaur episodes.  Instead of a specific fossil, whale fossils from around the world are the focus, showing deep gashes and marks.  As you’ve probably guessed by now, the star is Megalodon. I’m personally tired of “Megalodon” (which is the generic name of an early Mesozoic bivalve by the way). The great white shark is a magnificent and tragically endangered animal, but the endless hype and sensationalism of the giant shark C. megalodon is very tiring. Suffice to say, I defied the inevitable and backed the opposing whale Brymygophyster. Brymygophyseter is far more obscure, but part of an impressive lineage of raptorial sperm whales. Its TV debut was impressive, and I daresay should have killed the shark if not for popular demand. At any rate, we should see less of C. megalodon and more of the raptor whales. The gaffes in this one are bizarre;the whales use sonic booms against the shark, a behavior known from modern sperm whales but not from others, a mosasaur skeleton is shown when the whale is discussed, denticles are described by the narration as taste buds rather than sharp-edged armor skin , and Steve Alten brings up the scientifically ludicrous idea of the animal’s survival (an idea so ridiculous that Discovery made a special on it). The extinction of both animals is reasonably surprised to be from competition from the intelligent, gregarious orcas.

The sixth is a return to form. The fossil site is the Canon City fossil site, more specifically the Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus skeletons near each other.  In addition to Martin, Witmer (here to compare Ceratosaurus and Allosaurus brain sophistication), Holtz, and Currie, George is joined by Mark Loewen, John Foster, Jim Kirkland, and Robert Gaston.  The scenario is how an Allosaurus could invade territory held by two Ceratosaurus and kill them.  I admit, it’s a weaker episode, especially considering how this matchup was dealt with in a previous episode in less than 20 seconds, but the good news is that the fight is well-choreographed, the dinosaurs are analyze in depth as opposed to the quick descriptions of the previous fight, and Allosaurus (George’s favorite dinosaur) is given an excellent treatment on why it was so successful.  There’s another narration mismatch at the end.

Episode 7 is another change of pace, being a clip show more than anything else.  There’s not much else to say, but it’s basically an overview of the apex theropods in each program. Allosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, and Majungasaurus are described from previous episodes, and Utahraptor and Albertosaurus are previewed from upcoming episodes. Oddly enough, Deinonychus, Dromeosaurus, Nanotyrannus and Ceratosaurus are not included.  Sadly, there’s not much in the way of comparisons between animals or discussions of prey.  Its best point is the previews of the Utahraptor and Albertosaurus. Other than that, there’s not much to this episode.

This episode is a step up. The story here is based on the discovery of two species of dinosaur found at Gaston Quarry near Moab, Utah in 1991. There’s no evidence for a fight at all-no broken bones or scratches. There is evidence for a drought, however,  and George uses it to explain how a confrontation between these two animals could occur. Both discoverers, Robert Gaston, producer of fossil casts, and Jim Kirkland, Utah-based paleontologist, appear to talk about their babies in the episode, giving it a bonus in my opinion.   Holtz and Larson return, and are joined by Colorado paleontologist Brooks Britt. Lawrence Witmer’s segments contrast the two animals- Gastonia’s very basic brain function, bad eyesight, and excellent smell and hearing is compared with Utahraptor’s more sophisticated brain, inner ear adapted for fast movements and balance, and excellent eyesight.  Interestingly, there is a disclaimer before the final fight as George explains that the scenario described is scientifically based speculation on how a confrontation could have occurred.  This possibly my favorite episode, despite the gaffes of a scaly-skinned Utahraptor (due to animation budget), and tiny Azdarchid pterosaurs (the only Early Cretaceous Azdarchid in North America, Bennettazhia, was more likely fairly large) and the unexplained assertions of Utahraptor being able to leap 15 feet in the air and that the tail and hip spikes of Gastonia evolved an anti-dromaeosaur shearing action. Fortunately the extinction of the species is well-explained citing Tenontosaurus and Acrocanthosaurus as replacements (oddly enough,  Utahraptor’s smaller  successor Deinonychus and Gastonia’s much larger successor Peloroplites are not mentioned)

Episode 8 is a return to the Neogene, and again only Larry Martin joins George from earlier episodes.  The setting is Natural Trap Cave, Wyoming, discovered in 1971. There’s no mention of prehistoric humans, despite their environmental impact that would have doubled the Ice Age’s stress.  .  The experts here are Pleistocene experts Blaine Schubert of East Tennessee University and Chris Shaw, specializing in the La Brea site.   The stars here are the predators Arctodus simus and Panthera atrox, both found at Natural Trap Cave. Their motivation to fight is the setting of the late ice age where prey is scarcer and predators more obliged into conflict.  Arctodus is controversially said to be a super predator, 15 feet long, 12 feet tall, 2500 lbs, and running at 45 mph. These assertions have been challenged in the past, but there’s no specific rebuttal to the doubters. Arctodus, again controversially, is portrayed as both an active predator and a kleptoparasite (bullying other predators from their kills). A mammoth calcaneus marked with bear tooth marks is given as proof. Arctodus’ diet and ecological role is still hotly debated-the legs are alternately long enough for swift running and too delicate for fighting, the body alternately too bulky to run or used to overpower prey. A morphological analysis argues for omnivory, while an isotope analysis argues for carnivory.  One claim about the bite forces of both the bear and lion being twice as much as their extant relatives sounded fishy, but quick research showed that it was true!  The best parts of this episode are the focus on Pleistocene megafauna, and the well-choreographed fight. Yes, the fight is not supported by any of the bones in the cave, but it is an interesting question and very fun to watch.  Blasing gives an excellent analogy of Arctodus as the Tyrannosaurus of the Americas and Panthera as the Nanotyrannus.  The bad news is that the sabertooth cats Homotherium and Smilodon are not seen or mentioned, despite being potential rivals to both animals. There is a gaffe showing Arctodus in South America, but a bigger, heavier, and more vegetarian sister species Arctotherium pick up the slack.   Other problems include the horrible CGI (like feathers, the low budget and time of the documentary led to very bad fur animation and the models of the animals just look awful).  Other gaffes include saying global warming killed both animals despite Panthera being found in Chiapas and Arctodus being found in Florida and Aguascalientes.  The narration mentions leopards replacing the lions, confusing them with Jaguars. Finally, there’s a shot showing modern African mammal bones during discussion of megafauna.  Still an excellent episode in my opinion

This next episode is based on a mass burial found at Pipestone Creek in 1986, where a herd of Pachyrhinosaurus was found with Albertosaurus teeth among them.  In the most embarrassing gaffe in the program, George says Pachyrhinosaurus had a keratinous horn on the nasal boss. Witmer objects to this, and Holtz seems to be skeptical about it.  Interestingly, Witmer also notes that there is some individual variation between Pachyrhinosaur skulls in terms of nasal bosses.  We see very similar variation in Triceratops horns, which has led to the extremely debatable suggestion that Triceratops also encompassed Eotriceratops, Torosaurus, and Nedoceratops as variations, but I digress. Peter Larson says the frill was a protective object. The main argument against this function is the lightness and the massive apertures of ceratopsian frills (by the way, neither is true for Triceratops, which has a solid frill). I am of the opinion that, like a lion’s mane, it was primarily a sexual display and provided minor protection against neck bites.  Once again, Taphonomy is discussed, and the reason given for the herd’s drowning is a stampede caused by Albertosaurus.  The late great Wann Langston makes an appearance, joining Currie and Holtz to talk Albertosaurus. Holtz makes a priceless comparison of Tyrannosaurus as an SUV and Albertosaurus as a sports car, while Currie explains that the specimens of Albertosaurus outside the Horseshoe Canyon formation may represent a different species.  As usual, there’s brain comparison-while both animals are gregarious, the Albertosaurus is smarter.  Inexplicably, there’s mentions of Leallynasaura and Timimus, two Australian dinosaurs at the other pole. Even during a fight between one of the Albertosaurs and a Pachyrhinosaurus (a fight unsupported by the fossil record), there’s a digression of global warming at the end of the Cretaceous. The fight is rather poor, unfortunately. The Pachyrhinosaurus is poorly animated, and a direct horn thrust to the thin of the Albertosaurus is dismissed as a shallow cut. Somehow the Albertosaurus, already established to be gracile and must lighter than the massive ceratopsian, is able to throw the prey.  Pachyrhinosaurus is a rising star in dinosaur media since 1999, but this isn’t their show. Albertosaurus is the star, and it’s great to see so much attention and praise placed on a tyrannosaur other than Tyrannosaurus itself. It’s a mediocre episode, ending with a preview stating that Dromeosaurus and Tyrannosaurus hunted side by side. Oh boy.

This episode is both a very good and very bad one. It’s based on a mummified Edmontosaurus tail found in South Dakota in 1996. My favorite part of the episode is the initial focus on Edmontosaurus, which is usually relegated to Tyrannosaurus chow (which, ecologically, it would be) in media. Witmer goes into the senses of hearing, while Currie, Larson, and Holtz discuss the success of the hadrosaurs.   Interestingly enough, Blasing states that hadrosaurus probably expelled males, something that is done in modern mammals.   Instead of the more reasonable idea of Tyrannosaurs and Dromeosaurs scavenging on the same carcass-a Tyrannosaur would logically eat the organs first and leave the tail, George proposes that the Edmontosaurus was killed by a pack of Dromeosaurus. By the way, Dromeosaurus is not known from the Dakota formation or Hell Creek formation, but the name was used as a placeholder for dromeosaurian teeth. Recently, more remains have been found and the genus Acheroraptor has been erected.  As usual, the dromeosaurs have only very few feathers.   Martin and Currie talk Dromeosaurus, and Witmer describes their complex brains, inner ears adapted for agility, and excellent vision.  The dromeosaurs are called raptors, annoyingly enough, and the raptor hype is back in full spades. They attack the Edmontosaurus for invading their territory, but the problem with this is that mobbing birds today aren’t trying to kill the invader, just drive them out, and that as soon as one is killed, the rest fly.  I’m still skeptical about the ability of “raptors”, the size of Labrador retrievers attacking an elephant-sized Edmontosaurus, but they take him down. The only thing stranger is that the narrator stating that dromeosaurs  “communicated using quick hand gestures”.  Now, the title of the episode is “Raptor vs T. Rex” (I blame Jurassic Park for these now very tired terms). Guess how long the title fight lasts? 2 seconds. The Tyrannosaurus roars, and the Acheroraptors do their next impression: Jesse Owens.  It’s very anti-climactic.  I did enjoy seeing Edmontosaurus and the idea of a three-way conflict, but said conflict never happened and Tyrannosaurus is just an overblown cameo.

I admit it; I put off seeing the last episode. You see, a pet peeve of mine is dinosaur extinction programs.  Not just because they’re depressing, but because they’re boring. There’s only so many times you can see Tyrannosaurus get smacked by a meteor.  It’s especially inappropriate for this episode, which pads out the running time with no, if any, new footage. Instead, they reuse old clips from the previous episodes and tint some of the Cretaceous scenes red to simulate the impact. I don’t know if the asteroid footage was made for this episode or from another show, but there is no new dinosaur material. One shot of the impact is actually taken from Walking With Dinosaurs.  Cleverly (and cheaply), existing footage is edited to show impacts and fires and earthquakes.  Holtz , Currie, and Martin return, with Mark Loewen returning to talk about the Jurassic extinction while astronomers Dan Durda and William Bottke explain the astrophysics. The good points of this episode are the physiological explanations for dinosaur success (brains and hips, basically), discussion of the Jurassic extinction,  and some good moments from the experts. Brett Kent describes how sea life has suffered more extinctions than land, while Holtz gives a wonderful line that not all the dinosaurs died out, just “all the really cool ones”. Gaffes include the footage re-use,  using Pachyrhinosaurus and Albertosaurus despite the fact that they went extinct before the impact, and placement of Deinonychus in the Triassic to cover up the fact that no animals before 170 million years ago are shown in the program.  They do their best to spruce up the extinction event; George describes it as making modern Hollywood pyrotechnics look like an Ed Wood effect in comparison, while the editing and writing shows the impact and catastrophe in the same style as a regular fight.  There’s a good comparison of the effects-a Tyrannosaurus family is killed by impact of intense heat and pressure, while the Majungasaurus is wiped out by a tsunami.  Still, despite all this, this is the worst episode.

It’s hard to judge this series-it’s not factually perfect, and the repeated footage can get very obnoxious. On the other hand, it’s fun to watch. I love the idea behind this story-using dramatic examples of how paleontologists reconstruct prehistoric animals and their lives. I love the idea of using an elaborate action scene as a hook and centerpiece to the usual scientific deduction and analysis.  The “talking heads” selection is excellent, and it would have just as excellent if it was just Blasing talking with paleontologists. The effects are dated and the “raptors” are embarrassingly nude, but the colorful patterns look good. The focus is primarily Cretaceous North America, with no animals featured from before the Late Jurassic  or from outside North America other than Brymygophyseter and Majungasaurus.  However, only Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Edmontosaurus, Utahraptor, Deinonychus, and Stegosaurus are commonly seen species in the media, with the rest being second tier or entirely obscure. I had never even heard of Brymygophyseter before this program.  Two episodes, the clip show and the finale, were wastes of time, but the rest were entertaining from beginning to end.  This show informed (especially the Larry Witmer segments), inspired (I’ll be doing something similar myself), and entertained (when the show is terrible, it’s fun to make fun of and complain about). So, all in all, I give it a 70/100. Not a great show, but good fun.

Bonus:  George Blasing is on Facebook, and he’s very open to questions. He has a Youtube Q&A on paleontology here: He was nice enough to answer a few of my questions on the making of the show.
Q:  There's a number of writers involved-how much were you and the paleontologists involved in the writing?
A:  At first, I would create an overview for each episode and then the writers would write the outline for the show. Then the writers would call me to discuss various questions to insure they were as scientifically accurate as possible. But very soon into the series I was approached by the Network and the head writer and asked if I would be willing to just write each show. So I took the writers outlines, or entire scripts, and added, changed or rewrote each episode. I am not a television writer, so it was a bit of a challenge. But I enjoyed it.

Q: Was there any ideas for episodes or scenes left on the cutting room floor?
A:  Yes. One of the shows that I really, REALLY pushed for was a "Tyrannosaurus vs Giganotosaurus" episode. Other than the specifics of each dinosaurs, this show would be based purely on fiction. The Network fought the idea because they wanted the basic premise of each show to be rooted in actual fossil evidence. But after months of asking, they were finally ready to give in. But then they cut it at the last minute.

Q: Was the show your idea? If not, who?
A: Originally Gerard Lodico, Debra Fazackerley and I had created a concept for a show that would have me as the host. Through the production company where Gerard worked, they pitched our show idea to the History Channel. The network was not interested in our concept, but asked us about altering our show concept into something that the network would be more interested in. Head writer Arthur Drooker and I, along with an employee of the production company, came up with the basic concept for the show. From there I created each episode, chose the paleontologists I wanted to interview, decided what dinosaurs to use and then designed each battle scene. And Jurassic Fight Club was born.

Q; Is there any other trivia or behind the scenes information you can remember?
A: We had such a great time filming the series. It was such an amazing learning experience for me and allowed me to meet, and work with, some of the worlds leading paleontologists. And it also gave me some insight into the magic of television. For instance; in the show about Megalodon, some of that under water footage was filmed in my 30 gallon fish aquarium. I am the only person on earth who can say that he had a whale and giant shark fighting in the aquarium that sits in my living room. Another thing that I laugh about is how my interviews were shot. When the paleontologists were being interviewed, I would sit in a chair next to the camera and ask them questions. They would look at me and answer. But whenever I was on camera, there was no one there who would ask me questions, so in order to keep myself focused, I had to look at a mark on the back wall of the studio and "talk to it" like it has asked me a question and I was answering. I actually do the same thing today when I'm shooting my Q&A videos for Youtube. I lean a mop against the camera tripod and look at it as if I'm looking at a person. It's pretty funny actually. Although I loved making the show, I was really surprised at the number of people who could not understand that the first part of each episode was fact based, while the "fight scenes" were completely fabricated. I heard from so many people who would ask how we could possible know what each dinosaur was doing or thinking. Heck, there was even a group of educated paleontologists who didn't get it. Yet many of them liked the original Walking with Dinosaurs, which was nearly 100% based on fictional storytelling. I learned that the field of Paleontology is a rather small industry, and so it breeds a sort of "club" mentality where some of the members want it to remain private. So part of the dislike of the show by the science community was based on petty jealousy because I am not part of their group. A few others who joined the chorus of complainers probably did so because afraid of being ostracized by the handful of those leading the charge to disparage the show. But in the end, hundreds of millions of people enjoyed the show for what it was intended to be; factually based science along with fictionally based storytelling. And for me, the most rewarding part of the show came when those paleontologists, who I consider the top in the world, said they liked the show and still stand by it. If the show is liked by them, and a few hundred million other people, then I feel it was a success.

You can find up what George Blasing is up to here.

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