Science Marches On: Walking with Dinosaurs

While generally accurate for when it was made, it was over 15 years ago. New evidence of creatures that we can have no real idea on behavior, color and other details are always emerging. So, there are inaccuracies.

Walking With Dinosaurs

In general

  • Most coelurosaurs certainly had feathers. The several dromaeosaurid species surely had them, but in the franchise they are all shown featherless, see further): this, rather than Science Marches On, might be interpreted more as Rule of Cool, or rather, Artistic License Paleontology, since feathered raptors would have appeared "too cute"? In Real Life dromeosaurids had WING-shaped forelimbs just like their famous relative, the "ur-bird" Archaeopteryx...
    • This might be nothing compared to what is seeming to come: most small-sized dinosaurs had probably some sort of covering. This is a very recent theory led by the discover of the primitive herbivore Tianyulong in China: the theory is that some kind of covering was present in the last common ancestor of all dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and then it was partially lost by its largest descendents because of the surface area to volume ratio. Some think the "spikes" on Diplodocus have the same common origin of feathers, as well as the quill of the small herbivore Psittacosaurus and even the horny bumps lined on the back of several hadrosaur mummies. See Dinosaurs for more infos about that. Whatever the case, the old "gigantic lizards" seem to have their days numbered now.
      • With the discovery of multiple dinosaurs like Yutyrannus, it seems that multiple dinosaur groups didn't just have hair-like filaments (protofeathers), but full blown feathers.
      • Kulindadromeus has finally settled that ornithischians were feathered, and by extension all dinosaurs that had not lost feathers secondarily (like sauropods and hadrosaurs).
  • They tried to partially remedy all the issues by showing Walking with Dinosaurs again in 2008 with updated narration. Unfortunately, the visuals remained untouched, so the small carnivore Ornitholestes still had a horn, coelurosaurs were still scaly, so on and so forth.
  • Any and all shots of pterosaurs taking off bipedally became inaccurate after it was discovered that they launched quadrupedally.
  • All the non-avian dinosaurs have pronated hands, a position that is impossible in reality.

New Blood

  • What was thought to be evidence for "cannibalistic Coelophysis" has been discredited.
  • As the now-synonymous Megapnosaurus indicates, Coelophysis was nocturnal.
  • The early long-necked dinosaur Plateosaurus could not walk on four legs.
  • The pillar-limbed croc-relative Postosuchus was most likely a biped, or at least semi-bipedal, rather than an obligate quadruped. It would be a pursuit predator, not a slow ambush predator.
  • There were no cynodonts of the size depicted in the program in the late Triassicnote . This is an example of Science Marches On rather than Artistic License Paleontology because at the time the series was produced it was assumed that cynodonts of that size did live in Late Triassic in North America. This assumption was based on the discovery of two teeth from Chinle Formationnote . However, post-WWD study indicate that these teeth can't be confidently referred to Cynodontia (or any other known group of Triassic amniotes, for that matter).

Time of the Titans

  • Allosaurus was only one-fourth the size it was depicted. This may have resulted from confusion with a close relative called Saurophaganax which actually did grow to 6 tons and was at one point considered a synonym of its smaller cousin.
  • Sorry, Ornitholestes, you didn't actually have that horn-thing on your nose. The nasal bones in your otherwise impressive type skeleton were broken and flattened during fossilization.
  • Recent studies suggest that Anurognathus and its ilk were nocturnal and caught insects on the fly, like bats or swifts, making the "Mesozoic oxpecker" idea presented on the show highly unlikely.
  • Post-WWD studies indicate that sauropod dinosaurs probably didn't grow to adult size within more or less ten years as shown in the series, although exactly how fast they grew is still debated (current estimates range from less than four decades to up to 70 years of growth necessary to reach maximum adult size).
  • The idea that sauropods could only hold their necks horizontally - which influenced the WWD reconstructions of Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and Argentinosaurus, which in turn probably popularized the concept - is questioned nowadays as well.
  • "Iguana-spike-backed" Diplodocus: Some researchers now argue these spikes were spread across on Diplodocus' back rather than put in a single line as shown in the program.
  • Footprints from a baby bipedal sauropod have been recently found: Perhaps Littlefoot and the WWD sauropodlets walked on two legs and become quadrupedal only when they grew larger (an ancient heritage from their ancestors, the "prosauropods" such as the aforementioned Plateosaurus)! However, most paleontologists are skeptical of this interpretation. Even the trackways of adult sauropods often leave just the prints from just one pair of feet, thus is even more likely about the younger ones.
  • Brachiosaurus is no longer considered the largest land animal; the exact species of sauropod that was is not clear but it wasn't Brachiosaurus.

Cruel Sea

  • Biomechanical studies have shown that skim feeding (as Rhamphorhynchus is shown doing) was not possible in known pterosaurs.
  • Plesiosaurs gave birth to alive newborns just like the fish-like ichthyosaurs; and they perhaps could not crawl onto land because the shape of their chest.
  • Rhamphorhynchus has since been found to likely have been nocturnal.
  • Evidence of pliosaurs as large as the one in the episode has now been discredited. The largest known pliosaurs were probably "only" around 15 metres or so at the most. The fragmentary remains initially identified as that of Liopleurodon are now regarded as an unknown and yet unnamed genus.
  • Ophthalmosaurus could actually give birth to more than five pups at a time; apparently at least eleven.

Giant of the Skies

  • The Tapejara species featured has now been reassigned to Tupandactylus. We also now know that the head is too small and the males had a flat crest rather than a ridged crest.
  • The giant Ornithocheirus was based on a specimen now assigned to Tropeognathus. Though it was indeed very large for an ornithocheirid, the show chose high-end, improbable estimates for its stated size. In reality, the specimen probably had around an 8m wingspan. Additionally, the claim that Ornithocheirus would have to keep himself dry at all times in order to fly has also been proven wrong, as there is now substantial evidence to suggest that ornithocheirid pterosaurs were actually quite good at swimming.
  • The "American Iguanodon" from the fourth episode would probably be placed in the genus Dakotadon today.
    • It's doubtful the European Iguanodon was actually Iguanodon and not, for example, Mantellisaurus, Hypselospinus or Barilium.
  • Most enantiornithines are now known to have lacked tail fans, contrary to the Iberomesornis shown in the series. Some enantiornithes also seem to have 2 long feathers at the end of the tail, which the birds in the show lack. Known enantiornithines nests show that they also nested on the ground.
  • Utahraptor's anatomy was extremely different from what we saw on the program. It had much shorter legs, making it a poor runner, a shorter tail (closer to an oviraptorid than a deinonychosaur) and more outward facing teeth.

Spirits of the Ice Forest

  • Some argue Leaellynasaura needs plumage.
  • The "dwarf allosaur" seen in this episode may or may not be the theropod now known as Australovenator. It actually wasn't an exact scaled-down version of the North American Allosaurus. It was the size it was depicted and had longer arms with devastating claws.
    • If the dwarf allosaur was indeed Australovenator then it may not be an allosaur at all, as some evidence suggests megaraptorans (the group of which Australovenator belongs) are coelurosaurs.

Death of a Dynasty

  • The evidence for female Tyrannosaurus being larger than males is inconclusive at best.
  • The giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus is shown as a fish eater hunting prey on the wing, while we now know it was actually stork like in habits. In fact, it probably wouldn't have hesitated to eat juvenile tyrannosaurs, like the ones in the program! We now know Quetzalcoatlus actually had a much larger head and neck.
    • Additionally, pterosaurs were probably not "on the decline" at the end of the Cretaceous. Indeed, Azhdarchids like Quetzalcoatlus were among the most successful animals at the time.
  • It's been theorized that Triceratops and Torosaurus (which were featured in Death of a Dynasty as seperate genera) are actually the same animal in different growth stages. However, research on this is still ongoing and has been doubted by some recent studies.
  • The accompanying book briefly mentions the possibility that Anatotitan is synonymous with Edmontosaurus. As of September 2011, this is the majority view.
  • A full Didelphodon skeleton found in an ancient riverbed shows a slender, long-tailed otter-like animal with aquatic adaptations, different from the compact badger/wolverine/opossum-like oportunistic carnivore seen in the series. The strong jaws and teeth (i.e. what was basically known of Didelphodon before this discovery) might have been an adaptation to crush freshwater molluscs.

Walking With Beasts:

New Dawn

  • Debatable with the brief shot of a tamandua, likely meant to represent Eurotamandua from the Eocene of Messel, which was initially identified as an anteater. More recent studies indicate that it probably wasn't an anteater and quite likely it wasn't a xenarthran at all. However, the alternative is that it was a primitive, arboreal pangolin with no armor. This makes sense (since anteaters originated in South America while pangolins appeared in Eurasia, and other pangolins are known in Europe at this time) but also means that Eurotamandua, in the flesh, would look very much like a tamandua even if it wasn't a real tamandua. The use of a tamandua as a stand-in should be perfectly excusable. The use of a coati as a stand-in for the giant platypus Steropodon in WWD, on the other hand... not so much.
  • Whether the robust beak of Gastornis was to crush large nuts or small animals has been a matter of debate since its discovery. WWB went with the animals and presented Gastornis as the top predator in the Eocene European jungle. However, the latest study on calcium isotopes found that Gastornis' data was more similar to herbivorous mammals and reptiles (such as dinosaurs). There goes the show's iconic line about the Eocene being a time when birds ate horses. More likely terrestrial crocodilians such as Boverisuchus would have been the apex predators.
  • It's not completely agreed up whether leptictids hopped like modern kangaroos, or walked bipedally like theropod dinosaurs. A close relative of Leptictidium, Leptictis is currently believed to have walked rather than hopped, but differences between the skeletons make it insufficient evidence to suggest either way for Leptictidium.

Whale Killer

  • Andrewsarchus, known only from the skull and a few fragments of bone, was assumed at the time the series was produced to be closely related to mesonychids, and modeled after them. However, later phylogenetic studies indicate that it might have actually been a close relative of entelodonts.
  • Basilosaurus was a shallow-water predator, while the show had it as being forced into shallow water from the open sea.

Next of Kin

  • While not entirely conclusive, the results of a 2002 study on the calcium isotopes of fossil carnivores that lived alongside australopithecines found that their sample of Dinofelis was typical of an animal that fed solely on grass-eating animals like large ungulates, and not omnivores like primates. However, the same study did find that the smaller sabertoothed cat Megantereon sometimes ate omnivores, and a skull of Homo georgicus from Dmanisi has bite marks of Megantereon. So even if Dinofelis didn't hunt hominids, we have at least proof that other sabertoothed cats did.
  • The Deinotherium model subscribes to the theory that deinotheres had shorter trunks than elephants. This was based on the fact that deinotheres separate early from the proboscidean family tree, and that their skulls lack the attachment marks corresponding to some trunk muscles, which were interpreted as deinotheres lacking these muscles, and as a result having shorter and more primitive trunks. It has been later found that elephants don't have these marks either, because the muscles attach to other muscles in the trunk rather than the skull. If deinotheres didn't have them, it could be because they had long, advanced, elephant-like trunks, rather than the opposite. Finally, authors of the later study appealed to common sense: while deinothere necks are slightly longer than elephant's, their legs are also longer, and they are not better at kneeling than elephant legs are. This means that if deinotheres had trunks as short as proposed, the animals would be almost unable to drink.

Sabre Tooth

  • Smilodon was a terrible runner and would not be able to chase prey in the manner shown, or even at all.
  • If Smilodon lived in packs, they would likely not have a lion-like structure (1-2 or so males with a lot of females), due to males and females being similar sizes. Wolf-like packs have been suggested (1 main male/female pair, with a mixed group of other members), although the evidence for any sort of pack is thin.
  • The species of Smilodon shown in the episode had not evolved yet when the show was set.

Mammoth Journey

  • Ancient DNA studies have found that Europeans retained dark skin tones until the arrival of paler people from the Middle East and Siberia about 7,000 years ago. This means the episode's Homo sapiens should be of darker complexion than the neanderthals.
  • The interpretation of the Jersey cliffs as killing sites where neanderthals drove mammoths over the edge and butchered them bellow has been questioned. The mammoth bones might have just rolled downhill and accumulated there naturally, long after their owners died.

Walking With Monsters:

  • Arthropods DO have brains, DO use them and CAN think, contrary to what the show explicitly stated.
  • The Giant Spider in the Carboniferous was based on Megarachne, which ultimately turned out to be eurypterid ("sea scorpion") rather than spider.
  • The lineage that gave rise to mammals split to the one that gave rise to reptiles and birds before those developed the reptilian scales. The show represents perhaps the first time that Dimetrodon and its herbivorous "twin" Edaphosaurus have skins similar that of modern hairless mammals, instead of the classic scaly one. However, some think now that they would have the skin texture of a salamander, and the belly of a fish.
    • Surprisingly, Dimetrodon may have been nocturnal.
    • Interesting to note that the giant, Angry Guard Dog-looking Gorgonopsid from the show has scent glands (a typical mammalian feature).
  • The armoured plant-eating near-reptile Scutosaurus wasn't probably the ancestor of turtles. Recent research suggests that the latter were closer to modern reptiles than to Scutosaurus.

Chased by Dinosaurs:

Land of Giants

  • This special portrayed the largest land animal of all time, Argentinosaurus, being hunted by the largest land predator, Giganotosaurus. Both have been supplanted since then: New evidence found that Spinosaurus was the biggest land predator, while Argentinosaurus has been surpassed slightly in length by 2006-described Turiasaurus (Argentinosaurus is still heavier, though).note 
  • Subsequent stratigraphic studies have shown that Giganotosaurus did not live at the same time as Argentinosaurus, although a close relative, Mapusaurus, did.
    • There is also no evidence that Giganotosaurus hunted in packs, although there is some indication that Mapusaurus did.
  • A biomechanical study cast doubt on the ability of Sarcosuchus to roll over like modern crocodiles. Though the authors are cautious in this regard, the implication is that Sarcosuchus was a strict fish eater and did not attack drinking animals on the shore, like modern gharials (similarly long snouted). Deinosuchus, seen in WWD and Prehistoric Park, did not have such problems.
  • The South American Iguanodon is now named Macrogryphosaurus.
  • Later studies suggest that Pteranodon caught fish by diving into the water and swimming for their prey rather than snatching it up on the fly.

The Giant Claw

  • Feather issues aside, Velociraptor was likely nocturnal.
  • No trace of Therizinosaurus skin has been found, but the fact that its human-sized relative Beipiaosaurus had a complex feather cover makes it likely that Therizinosaurus had one too. The result looks like a cross between a goose and a ground sloth, much different from the show's naked model.

Sea Monsters:

  • The enormously long-necked Tanystropheus was potrayed as capable of losing and regenerating its tail like a lizard. In the past it was indeed suggested by palaeontologist Rupert Wildnote  that this creature was capable of autotomy, but other scientists who studied its fossils didn't find evidence for that. It has also been portrayed as an accomplished swimmer, but we don't know for sure if it really was such - its body-shape was all but hydrodynamic, and some think Tanystropheus was a shore animal who used its neck as a fishing rod, catching small prey a bit like a heron.
  • In the accompanying book there is a Deleted Scene where female nothosaurs (primitive Triassic sea reptiles related to the more famous plesiosaurs) leave their eggs on the beach at night (see What Could Have Been on the Trivia page). However it turns out that nothosaurs might have been viviparous.
  • The show was made in 2003, and as a result missed out on the discovery of Livyatan melvillei. Its fossil was discovered in the same area as the C. megalodon episode, and had they set it just a bit earlier, both of these monsters would have appeared. Also of note is the fact that period had even more marine carnivores than the Cretaceous.
  • A number of mosasaur fossils have been found with shark like tail impressions (one long fin, one short fin). These fossils, and various other arguments, suggest that most or all mosasaurs would have looked more fishlike than the ones shown on the show.

The Complete Guide to Prehistoric Life:

  • Othnielia and Leaellynasaura do not appear to be ornithopods, but more primitive ornithischians.
  • Page 122 claims that therizinosaurs are known from "a lone species" from North America, probably referring to Nothronychus. Enter the ancestral therizinosaur Falcarius in 2005...
  • To quote page 125, "Scientists cannot agree on whether Mononykus was a bird or a [non-bird] dinosaur." The 2010 discovery of the ancestral alvarezsaur Haplocheirus confirms that Mononykus and other alvarezsaurs were not birds.

Walking with Dinosaurs 3D:

  • Just after they finished the Gorgosaurus models, Yutyrannus (a feathered tyrannosaur) was found.
    • However it should be said that this does not mean that the Gorgosaurus was inaccurate; Yutyrannus was a more primitive tyrannosaur, and only distantly related to Gorgosaurus.
      • It should also be noted that phylogenetic bracketing says that Gorgosaurus and kin were as likely feathered as, say, Utahraptor. And adding Tianyulong and Kulindadromeus, it's becoming more plausible that feathers were the original dinosaur skin, and not full-out lizard scales or crocodile scutes.
  • Mere days before the movie premiered, it was discovered that Edmontosaurus had a small fleshy crest on its head.