Measured Against Reality

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dinosaurs, Documentaries, and Sex

I watched a little bit of the documentary “Walking With Dinosaurs” yesterday. It’s a really good documentary, if you get a chance to watch it, you should.

But I noticed that it tended to say things that we probably couldn’t know. Like how long early mammals stayed with their young, or that they mated for life. How can we possibly know if something that lived 200 million years ago mated for life? I don’t see how the fossils could tell us that, and it’s not the kind of thing where comparisons to living animals would be particularly applicable. Even if they were comparing to modern animals, what reptiles mate for life? None I know of.

In my experience documentaries tend to present speculation as fact far more often than they should. I’ve seen entire History Channel documentaries that are nothing more than rampant speculation presented as though it’s good history, and it’s just irresponsible. I realize that controversy sells, but some people don’t have the background to realize how stupid the hypotheses they’re presenting actually are, and the producers should at least present the more traditional view (which has the evidence for it). But I’ve complained about this before.

Speaking of positions that have evidence, here’s an article about Dinosaur sex. This is one of those things that we can’t completely determine with just bones. But we’re nearly positive that Dinosaurs would reproduce similarly to birds and reptiles, lining up openings called cloaca.

But as the article points out, these openings would be tiny, even on huge dinosaurs. Positioning two smalls holes right on top of each other when tails and legs the size of trees - and about as maneuverable - are in the way would be no small task. In the words of L. Beverly Halstead, a paleontologist, "Their mating had to be done with great delicacy and great precision. It must have been utterly charming to watch, quite unlike our own species."

The article goes into some more specific detail. It’s about dinosaurs and sex, so you know it’s a worthwhile read.

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  • "I don’t see how the fossils could tell us that, and it’s not the kind of thing where comparisons to living animals would be particularly applicable."

    In my anthropology class, I really REALLY wanted to know how they could tell the gender of fossils. She talked about the "size and shape of the skull" and other things that sounded like medieval gender mumbo jumbo that also produced such gems as "women are dumber than men because their brains are smaller".

    I did a little research elsewhere and still couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer to "how do they tell if the skeleton is a boy or a girl?" thing.

    Anyway, love your blog. :)

    By Anonymous Emily Nashif, at 9:26 AM, November 07, 2006  

  • Emily, I just asked my roommate (who's a History Major and has done some archeology) and he said "pelvis size". I think that the detailed shape of bones can help too.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 10:05 AM, November 07, 2006  

  • Nice article. I also posted a blog back in April after watching 'walking with dinosours'. In my blog i pointed out that maybe palientology should be considered more entertainment than science because of all the stuff they appear to make up. Here's my article:

    By Blogger Brett, at 1:02 PM, November 09, 2006  

  • If you were in an anthropology class where the professor actually said "Women are dumber than men because their brains are smaller," you should ask for your money back for the course. I just googled "deteriming sex by bones," and came up with pages of interesting information on the process. Just because you don't understand the words and concepts, the "mumbo jumbo," as you call it, doesn't mean the concepts have no merit, or that they haven't been scientifically tested and shown to be accurate.

    As for how paleontologists are able to piece together the behavior of dinosaurs, that is actually rather simple. Sort of the same as how forensic crime scene investigators are able to put together what happened at a crimes scene. Many recent advances in paleontology help as well; there are now devices that can scan a fossil, and "see" the finer tissues, such as scales, hair, skin, organs, so that paleontologists can determine things they never knew before, like that the Cynodant laid eggs (because they found a nest), that the parents both stay with the nest (they found both parents near the nest, probably in more than one occasion), that the young were nursing (the fossil scanner showed the glands, or perhaps fossils were found where the young were still nursing when the mother died, perhaps when the den collapsed, thus burying her for later fossilization).

    Brett, Saying that paleontology should be considered "entertainment" is ridiculous. Just because you don't understand how paleontology works doesn't mean it doesn't work. That's like saying that since we can't make sense out of gravity, the theory must therefore be considered to be "made up" and as wrongheaded as any other science.

    Granted, the data Paleontologists have to go on is between 65-160 million years old. New discoveries happen all the time, and thus ideas are constantly shifting. The fact is, without a time machine, we would never be able to tell exactly how dinosaurs behaved, how they mated, how they fed, hunted, slept, or any other number of things. In fact, if we did get our hands on such a device, we'd probably find ourselves absolutely surprised by what we didn't know, what we weren't able to put together.

    However, if you were a paleontologist (around the time "Walking With Dinosaurs" was produced), you likely would have had much the same concept of how the relevent animals behaved. Perhaps you would disagree with some point or other on the program, but your idea would be just as much educated speculation as the program itself, and perhaps the next documentary made would include your idea, tossing out some of the ideas and concepts that were present in the BBC program (in fact, just after "Walking With Dinosaurs" came "When Dinosaurs Roamed North America," which changed many previously held ideas and concepts). In fact, if you look back at some of the books from just a few years before the movie was made, the information was different still. The CGI crew working on the program was actually responsible for working out much of the way that dinosaurs moved, since they were responsible for getting them moving on screen. They took the bones and put them together digitally, and were able to work out movements that paleontologists hadn't really considered before--like how the Pterosaurs moved when they were on the ground.

    No doubt the future will bring even more changes in how we think of Dinosaurs, their behavior, their habits, the way they looked, etc. The point is, just because we don't know everything about them, and probably are wrong about many points, this doesn't mean that the process of discovery is invalid. Nor does it mean that Paleontology is mere "entertainment" and not science.

    By Anonymous Mike, at 11:16 AM, March 09, 2010  

  • i like your blog. it is great. I'll be back on your post hope will get new update.

    Bernard Jordan

    By Anonymous Bishop Jordan, at 4:20 AM, October 20, 2011  

  • I heard that it was a great documentary that they started with one animal to explain them all.

    By Anonymous viagra online pharmacy, at 7:41 AM, January 03, 2012  

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