Monday, August 29, 2011

All Aboard!

Readers of this blog will definitely be familiar with all the standard complaints about dinosaur documentaries these days. Even old classics like Walking With Dinosaurs were heavily criticized by paleontology enthusiasts at the time for being too heavy on drama and too light on science. As a paleoartist, I love shows that attempt to reconstruct prehistoric life in a natural way, and all the necessary speculation that entails. But people are justified in pointing out that this doesn't exactly do wonders for public understanding of science.

Sure, shows like WWD or even more sensationalist 'monster movie' type programs like Jurassic Fight Club create plenty of interest in paleontology and foster enthusiasm in young paleo fans, who can certainly be forgiven for being into the 'cool factor' and less into the hard science, which may well come with time. But these documentaries also blur the line between science, educated speculation, and pure fantasy. Use of talking head segments helps, but without weaving the science behind the entertainment into the body of the program, many people simply disregard it.

Worse, producers have a tendency to edit the token scientist sound bites in a way which fosters stereotypes of scientific authority - talking heads are shown explaining that "yes, what you just saw is true" rather than explaining how we know this stuff in the first place, which is where the actual science is. Science is a process, not a set of facts spouted off by guys sitting in labs. Most dinosaur documentaries pay lip service to science as an excuse to sell entertainment, plain and simple.

There is one very surprising exception: By far, the best dinosaur show produced in the last ten years in terms of actual science content is a cartoon aimed a preschoolers.

Produced by Craig Bartlett with the Jim Henson Company for PBS and first airing in 2009, Dinosaur Train has now clocked in 40 episodes over two seasons. The aim of the series is to present science to young children in a way that is accessible and entertaining, and in that DT succeeds where pretty much every other dinosaur TV show in the past has failed.

Each episode features two separate stories, all following the adventures of a Pteranodon family (included their adopted sibling, Buddy the T. rex, which is, based on the opening credits sequence, apparently the first recorded instance of nest parasitism in a non-avian theropod). The adventures consist of daily rides on the Dinosaur Train, a Doc Brown-esque vehicle which is capable of travelling to any time or place in the Mesozoic era (even under water in later episodes). Right off the bat, this provides ample opportunity to teach kids the basic (yet still occasionally missed or messed up in other media) idea that dinosaurs were often separated from each other by huge spans of time. I particularly liked the clever bit in one episode where the kids go to visit the one of the first dinosaurs, Eoraptor; reaching the end of the track somewhere in the Late Triassic, they have to get out and transfer to an old-style push-handle rail cart to go the rest of the way!

The geographic separation of different dinosaurs is also emphasized, and in another cute touch dinosaurs are often given accents based on their country of origin. This theme of, essentially, biostratigraphy was the subject of an entire episode in which the Pteranodons attend a block party with their immediate neighbors (the ones featured on the show in their home time, before getting on the train). The neighbors include a Styracosaurus, Lambeosaurus, Daspletosaurus, a Euoplocephalus and Hesperornis. Savvy readers will probably recognize this as the Dinosaur Park Formation fauna, and while Pteranodon itself is the only one out of place there by a few million years, it's impressive to see a kid show try to get this kind of detail right while teaching a more basic lesson (that every member of a community has a role or niche).

It's also funny to watch how the later plays out in the middle of an anthropomorphic, cartoon universe. On one hand, it's refreshing to the large theropods treated as characters who are friendly with the herbivores and not background monsters like in Disney's Dinosaur. On the other, this fact makes it even funnier/weirder in episodes that discuss the defensive tactics of some herbivores; for example, a group of stegosaurs have to group up and fend off a comically insane-acting, marauding allosaur. This kind of kid's-TV-paradox becomes even more acute in the episodes on marine fauna. I have to hand it to the producers for featuring such obscure critters as ancient fish and ammonites as characters, but it's also disconcerting in that almost every episode features the pteranodonts devouring heaps of these same fish! A bit like the Simpsons episode with Homer in an "Under the Sea" musical number gobbling down horrified anthropomorphic sea cucumbers? The producers do a good job keeping this kind of thing segregated, and I doubt the target audience would ever notice the inconsistency.

The best thing about the format of Dinosaur Train is that nearly every episode highlights and explains the scientific process in a really very deft and simple way that I think small children can understand, or at least in a way that gets them thinking scientifically at an early age. Buddy, the main T. rex character, is a very curious type who is always bugging the smart, train-conducting Troodon to answer questions his explorations raise. In case the show made it too charming and understandable to notice what's going on here, these are the first two steps of the scientific method--Buddy explores the word and forms questions based on what he sees. With the help of the conductor, the kids then do some research for background information on the topic, and then--get this--the kids explain to each other (and the audience) what a hypothesis is: "an idea you can test!"

I don't want to sound condescending, but I've met adult science enthusiasts who seemingly have not yet grasped how science really works. Many casual dinosaur fans seem to think they need to find an idea and defend it to the death. Dinosaur Train teaches children that they should think about the world around them, then ask questions. They should think of possible answers to their questions, and then try to prove themselves wrong! This is done so brilliantly it's almost sad to realize how easy it is to teach scientific thinking to people, most of whom have no idea what science is or how it operates, let alone to little kids.

My favorite example of the show's handling of the scientific process is in the episode where the kids travel to Jurassic Germany to visit an Archaeopteryx. The conductor explains to them that Archaeopteryx is the first bird, and Buddy develops an hypothesis: if she is a bird, he reasons, she can fly and lives in a nest, like other the birds he's seen in his own time period. The conductor knowingly encourages him to test his hypothesis by talking to the Archaeopteryx. To Buddy's surprise, despite the fact that she is a "bird", and has wings, she does not have a nest and can't fly! Instead, the Archaeopteryx demonstrates how she can use her wings to run up a tree (first instance of WAIR portrayed in a dinosaur show?) and then can glide down after insects. Buddy's hypothesis was disproved, but he learned some even more interesting things by testing it. If only this kind of message could somehow be applied to standard, "adult" dinosaur shows.

If the show itself doesn't amply demonstrate scientific concepts to children, each episode is followed by an epilogue featuring paleontologist Scott Sampson (who also has a blog, The Whirlpool of Life) explaining the main points again and giving some additional facts (some aspects of the show that rely heavily on anthropomorphism are sometimes hilariously shot down by a debbie-downer type stickler who pops out and says, for example, "Fact: Troodons did NOT play hockey!" followed by a chorus of disappointed kids).

To follow in the stickler's footsteps (would it be Dinogoss if I didn't?), I did see some missed opportunities in the premise of the show. It's impossible and silly to criticize a cartoon for accuracy ("Daffy Duck does NOT fold his wings correctly!"), but paleo fans will no doubt notice some glaring ones in the main cast. The Troodon are conspicuously lacking in feathers, and the Pteranodon appear to have bat-like wings (a condition not shared by other pteorsaurs in the show). This is a little baffling as the science consultants must have a very big hand in the production--most aspects of each episode, from colorful, feathered Velociraptor to Styracosaurus using their spikes for display rather than combat, are obviously based on the kind of up to the minute research only people active in the paleo community could provide.

I'm betting that the main cast were designed and set in place before the consultants effectively took over--some later episodes show that the conductor is feathered, his feathers are just under is hat. His catch-phrase is the rather belabored "Bless my scales and feathers!", probably modified at the behest of Sampson or another consultant taken aback by a Troodon, of all species, exclaiming "Bless my scales!" The family life of the pteranodonts rings false not for blatant inaccuracy, but for the fact that it's just the kind of interesting facts the bulk of the episodes would fall over themselves to include--the sexual dimorphism that could have been present between mom and dad, the fact that the eggs were likely buried rather than laid in a bird-like nest, etc. But none of this really takes away from the core value of the show as a tool for teaching science.

For paleo fans, there seem to be some 'inside joke' type moments as well. Buddy was elated in one episode to be inducted into the "Theropod Club" . The club basically consists of a bunch of theropods getting together and patting themselves on the back for being by far the coolest dinosaurs - to the consternation of his friends. Nick Gardner could sympathize! Even here, though, the educational message is clear; it not only teaches kids what a theropod is, but often makes a point to explain why birds are also considered to be members. Buddy, apparently a budding comparative anatomist, is also prone to getting really excited over "comparing features", to the point that in at least one episode, when the kids were suggesting games to play during a long train ride, his suggestion to compare features with other dino passengers was met with groans and eye-rolls (maybe the pterosaur kids are more in the geological school--they do like to collect rocks, and at least one entire episode has been dedicated to geology rather than dinosaurs themselves).

At any rate, this is in my opinion the best science show made for young kids, at least those still too young for Bill Nye, and I'd encourage any dinosaur fans to check it out. Despite the target age range, it's fun to see how the new discoveries we follow on a day to day basis are being communicated effectively to the next generation.


  1. Thanks for this review! I get far too little of this show over here in Germany.

  2. I've never seen this show. Do they bother pointing out that nothing is actually known about archaeopterygid nesting habits?

  3. Great to see your review! Love the Martyniuk-ified illustration at the bottom.

  4. I must add I especially liked the bird episodes as well. Buddy wants to see a marine dinosaur? No 1970s "dinosaurs don't swim" rubbish; he gets to meet a Hesperornis. And in the Confuciusornis episode, when the Confuciusornis said, "I am indeed a theropod," that was practically music to my ears!

    This might be the first dinosaur show to specifically feature WAIR, but some of the footage in Life of Birds might show WAIR-ing modern dinosaurs ( The term WAIR hadn't been coined at the time, of course.

  5. After heard so many great reviews about the show I have had the chance to watch it in these Summer vacations and verify how surprisingly good this, indeed, is. I too specially liked how they considered what others would call a "bird" a theropod dinosaur. Just wished the dub on my country was somewhat less annoying. Lol

    Neat illustration at the end. Now I believe we all want to see a Dinosaur Train episode in that format. :P

  6. Just to heap more praise on this show, the block party episode also gets the non-ornithodiran critters correct (Adocus and Cimolestes both show up at the party).

    Also, lobed Hesperornis feet and omnivorous troodonts, anyone?

  7. Last year they broadcasted this show even in Italy, and, despite being 25 years old, i managed to watch basically all the episodes they aired ;)
    Really good stuff indeed, plus there's Scott Sampson, one of the best paleontologists out there these days IMHO.

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  9. I swear I'd be a happier person today if this show was around when I was little. You've expressed every last thing I love about it. (And see my brief review here:

    Love, love, LOVE the "realistic" take on the characters too!

  10. Many thanks for this review, especially the part about DT's inaccuracies, which explains so much (E.g. Why Deinonychus is the 1 featherless maniraptoriforme). I also really like your version of The Conductor. However, what's that thing on his head behind his hat?

    "There is one very surprising exception: By far, the best dinosaur show produced in the last ten years in terms of actual science content is a cartoon aimed a preschoolers."

    Would you count "Prehistoric Predators: Terror Raptor" ( ) as 1 of the exceptions? I ask b/c I would (In fact, it's probably my favorite dino documentary ever), but I'd like to get an expert's opinion.


  11. @raptor_044:
    Thanks! The drawing at the end is a sloppy re-color of some images I already had done. My pre-existing Troodon painting had a feathered crest, so I left it on (the Conductor does have that little tuft of feathers under his hat after all!).

    I'll have to check out the video you linked to, but with a title like "Terror Raptors" I have to say it doesn't sound promising... IMO 'raptors' would be about as terrifying as a cassowary. Not a bird to be taken lightly, but not something ou'd run screaming from.

  12. "IMO 'raptors' would be about as terrifying as a cassowary. Not a bird to be taken lightly, but not something ou'd run screaming from."

    No offense, but (based on your cassowary reference) it looks like you're mixing up "raptors" w/"ratites". I'd think a giant, ground-running eagle would be pretty terrifying.


  13. After all, Deinonychus resembles Casuarius more than Aquila. They're of similar size and flightless, bear an enlarged second toe claw... Andrea Cau calls Casuarius "The most beautiful living animal" and "A good model for reconstructing a Mesozoic maniraptoran".

    And I too love Dinosaur Train!

    P.S. Excuse me for my english.

  14. "After all, Deinonychus resembles Casuarius more than Aquila. They're of similar size and flightless, bear an enlarged second toe claw..."

    The similarity pretty much ends there. As living animals, eudromaeosaurs were basically "" ( ).

    "Andrea Cau calls Casuarius "The most beautiful living animal" and "A good model for reconstructing a Mesozoic maniraptoran"."

    While I do like ratites, Cau's iffy at best as a source.

  15. The 1st part of my previous comment was supposed to read as follows. My bad.

    The similarity pretty much ends there. As living animals, eudromaeosaurs were basically "ground-running super- hawks." ( ).

  16. "ground-running super- hawks."

    Uhg. Hyperbole much? "ground running predatory birds" is just fine. So are these:

    Granted, a 2m tall one might be more intimidating, but i wouldn't run screaming for my life at the sight of one.

  17. People often compare deinonychosaurs to ratites such as cassowaries. However, I disagree. I think that secretary birds and seriemas are better contemporary analogies; ground-dwelling, raptorial predatory birds with enlarged toe claws.