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'Prehistoric Planet' shows complex dinosaur behavior. But how do we actually know?

A corythoraptor shown on <em>Prehistoric Planet. </em>
Apple TV+
A corythoraptor shown on Prehistoric Planet.

In the TV show Prehistoric Planet, where computer-generated dinosaur images are presented like any other nature documentary, "filmed" as they hunt and mate, there is one scene where an atrociraptor picks up a burning twig. The feathered raptor raises the branch to its coat, and Sir David Attenborough explains that the raptor is using the smoke to expel parasites that hide in the feathers.

The field of paleontology has jumped by leaps and bounds over the past three decades since Jurassic Park first screened to audiences, but using the fossil record to determine appearance is one thing. Determining the specifics of behavior – what evidence is there to back that up? How can scientists peek into the minds of creatures dead for millions of years? There's even another scene later in the show where another raptor uses a burning twig to actually spread the forest fire further, driving prey out of their hiding spots.

Although it may seem a stretch of the imagination to depict these dinosaurs as capable of using tools like fire, the veracity of these behaviors is supported by a multidisciplinary approach, according to Prehistoric Planet's executive producer Mike Gunton.

"The worst thing that could ever happen in this is that someone says, 'Oh, well, this is all made up. Why should I bother watching this?' " Gunton said.

"To make the picture that you see on the screen, we are pulling on dozens and dozens of separate threads, and trying to weave them together," Gunton said. "There's paleo-ecologists, there's paleo-climatologists, there's paleo-ethologists, there's fossil people, there's every single thing you can imagine."

So once the team was assembled, a global squad of experts in all different time zones and specialties, the next step in figuring out how these prehistoric animals behaved was putting the world's best data on the dinos in front of this team.

Luckily for the team behind Apple TV's Prehistoric Planet, there hasn't really been a better time to dive into the records, according to consulting paleontologist Darren Naish.

"We're really in a golden age of dinosaurs," Naish said. "People are finding just so many new species all over the world, but then also in terms of the information we have about their biology, their sensory ability, what they actually looked like."

Naish said this information comes in three main buckets – the traditional fossil record, which grows by a fossil every week, computer-generated models of these animals, and observations of living creatures. In the case of the pyromaniac raptor, Naish said that the assumptions about its behavior were made by watching the raptor's closest living descendants – hunting birds.

A baby triceratops shown in CGI.
/ Apple TV+
/
Apple TV+
A baby triceratops shown in CGI.

"Quite a long list of predatory birds – kites and falcons and hawks – they've been reported to pick up burning sticks and move them around to spread fire, and these birds have also been reported to grab burning sticks and deliberately treat their feathers with smoke," Naish said.

"It is an extrapolation to show in an extinct dinosaur, but it's one that we can justify."

Gunton added that the conversation between the team of paleontologists and the CGI artists rendering these dinosaurs is not one-way by any means. He said that there have been moments during the making of the show where a computer model will be so realistic, so grounded in biomechanics and physics, it will actually help scientists make assumptions about the dinosaurs that they couldn't before.

" 'Maybe it can't turn that quickly, oh well, that's interesting. Maybe it's a stalker rather than an ambusher, or a sprinter,' " Gunton said.

"So there's some really interesting extrapolations and cross-fertilizations between the filmmakers, the animators and the scientific community, which is something we'd love to develop more."

Victoria Arbour, another consulting paleontologist on the show, agreed with Gunton.

"What I really love is just all the creative ways we can pull all of these different lines of evidence into creating a sort of holistic picture of dinosaurs as living animals," Arbour said.

Arbour focuses on ankylosaur, a beast of a dino covered in armored scale and wielding a hammer tail. In the show, one of these ancient creatures munches down on some charcoal left smoldering the wake of a forest fire – a scene pulled from the contents of a fossil's stomach and the knowledge that tasty young ferns are among the first to sprout up after a blaze.

Arbour said that she rarely gets to see the focus of her work in such complete detail.

"I often say I work with bits and pieces and individual bones, sometimes I get to work with really exceptional specimens that are really complete, but it's not the same as looking at a living animal."

Gunton said that he hopes the sum of these multidisciplinary approaches is greater than the separate parts, adding up to what he calls "a fuzzy picture of the truth."

"There are so many slip-catchers, if you like, in this procedure that we almost can't go off the tracks, because there's so many things keeping us true," Gunton said. "We wanted to try and see if we could effectively make the 21st century template for how we, the public, see this world."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.