Joined: Wed Feb 22, 2006 1:31 pm
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
I watched Fox's Terra Nova this past year, by the end finding myself enjoying the program and hoping we might see another season in 2012. (Still no word from Fox on this front, BTW)
One of the things that kept me interested was the surroundings, the creatures and science of the program. It got me thinking, How much did they get right?
Well, I'm no expert in the Late Cretaceous Epoch so I had to find someone who was to get some answers.
Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. is a vertebrate paleontologist and Senior Lecturer of the Department of Geology, University of Maryland. He was kind enough to answer some questions via email:Jonja.Net
Terra Nova is a science-fiction(fantasy) series about a human traveling back in time 85 million years, the cretaceous period. (We will forgive the leaps in logic and science that would allow this to occur)Thomas Holtz
The Earth, as it is portrayed, is a mix of lush jungle and forest. Is that the climate that we could expect?
Well, (and this is a BIG problem with the show), they never say where on Earth they are! There certainly were rain forests in parts of the world in the Santonian Age (the particular part of the Late Cretaceous Epoch they are in), but the whole world wasn't jungle any more than it is today.JN
Here (http://cpgeosystems.com/090Marect.jpg) is a world map at 90 mya, and here (http://cpgeosystems.com/namK85.jpg) one of North America right at 85 mya. If we assume that:
- The time portal in the 22nd Century is in Chicago (the family is from there, but they never specifically said (at least in the first few episodes) that the time portal was as well) and
- Somehow the Santonian end of the portal is also in Illinois (disregarding the motion of the plates over the mantle, the solar system through the galaxy, the galaxy through space, etc.)
then a well-forested area near a mountain range (as we see on the show) isn't unreasonable.
A more important climate issue was only touched upon, though. Regardless of how nasty the CO2 levels were in the 22nd Century, they were much higher in the Cretaceous. Oxygen levels seem to have been slightly higher than present (although this is more of a debate). A common myth is that there is some "normal" atmosphere from which industrial CO2 has moved us away. CO2 and O2 have both varied greatly over Earth History, and as far back as the Cretaceous things were considerably different than the late Cenozoic in which our species and our crop species arose.
Some of the creatures they have encounter include Ankylosaurs, very large Sauropods, some small but very nasty flying reptiles, a Velociraptor-like dinosaur with a razor like appendage on it's tail called an Acceraptor and Nykoraptors. How many of these if any truly existed at this time?TH
The Terra Nova producers specifically chose 85 mya because it is a poorly known time in dinosaur history: this gave them more freedom than if it were well-sampled times like the Late Jurassic or the last 15 million years of the Cretaceous.JN
Some of the dinosaurs and other fossil creatures referenced were real, although some were well out of time (and--if this is Chicago--space):
- They mention "allosaurs" (and once Allosaurus). Allosaurus proper was long dead by this time (dead for 65 million years by the Terra Nova time. In other words, just as far from the TN colonists as Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops are from us!) However, there were "allosaurs" (that is, members of Allosauroidea) around 85 mya, or at least they were around shortly before at 90 mya. In fact, the big skull on the boss-man's table is an allosauroid, modified from the skull of Allosaurus and Acrocanthosaurus (a 110 mya North American allosauroid).
- There are "brachiosaurs" around. True Brachiosaurus dates from the same time as Allosaurus, and was thus long gone. A shame they didn't go with titanosaurs instead, which were very VERY common sauropods throughout the mid- and Late Cretaceous.
(The reason why not is likely also the reason why the brachiosaurs have out-of-date, misplaced nostrils: it seems pretty likely that the animators just modified the old Brachiosaurus CG models from Jurassic Park rather than building something entirely new. The British show Primeval does much the same: taking their CG models from Walking With Dinosaurs and its sequels and using them in their time travel story.
- Carnotaurus is very specifically named, and is WAY out of place. It is from the end of the Cretaceous (66-65.5 mya) and known only from South America. It is kind of like having pandas or kangaroos walking around a cowboy story set in Montana.
- Ankylosaurs showed up, in a story I didn't see. If it is Ankylosaurus itself, it is far too early: Ankylosaurus was among the very last of the dinosaurs other than birds. But ankylosaurs as a group had a long history and global distribution.
- Some of the pterosaurs flying around--in particular, the long-crested Pteranodon--are in the right time and continent, although not necessary the right environment. (Pteranodon is a sea-going fish eater; but it wouldn't be impossible to find it coming inland). Sadly, the pterosaur with most screen time was totally made up and in the wrong time. "Malcolmus", the made-up genus of long-tailed flocking pterosaurs were clearly based on the models on Rhamphorhynchus, but the whole group of rhamphorhynchoid pterosaurs were long dead by 85 mya.
- Acceraptor (Slashers) ugh! It is an odd mix of primitive, advanced, and improbable. For one thing, the only bipeds that could reach speeds of 45 mph would be something built like an ostrich or rhea (part of the invidious influence of Jurassic Park! In fact, Velociraptor would have been among the SLOWEST carnivorous dinosaurs of its body size!!) Also, that razor tail: that's appropriate for a Dungeons & Dragons monster, not an actual animal. The three small theropods (Nykoraptor, Ovosaurus, Gallusaurus) are made up, and not bad as such. Given that they seem to be coelurosaurs, they should be entirely fuzzy or feathered.
A somewhat related question, In one episode it was discovered that the colony was on the breeding grounds of a pterosaur that only migrated every 10 years or so. Have we discovered anything to suggest that creatures of this, or any pre-history era, migrate in the ways that modern animals do or are we making assumptions based on their modern equivalents?TH
For that matter, do shows and movies like this and the Jurassic Park films have make up the behavior of the creatures, like T-Rex not being able to see you if you don't move? Can we make guesses on behavior and attributes like this on fossil records?
Actually, the question of seasonal migration is a good one. It is not improbable that migrations occurred (and there is isotopic evidence for seasonal migrations in some Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs). However, the particular migration pattern here is an odd one: once a decade or so rather than once a year.JN
For shows like this, the vast majority of behaviors are thrown in for plot reasons, not for scientific ones. Even the "filmed in the past" documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs or Dinosaur Revolution have to make up a lot of stuff. In some cases we can infer behavior from direct fossil evidence (marks on bones; footprints on trackways; etc.). In other cases we can use reasonable inferences from close relatives (for instance, any behavior shared by most modern birds and most modern crocs was almost certainly present in extinct archosaurs like dinosaurs and pterosaurs). Less securely, we can compare dinosaurs to living (but more distantly related) ecological equivalents, such as mammals. The problem with all these shows is you don't see the "error bars" on these, so you can't see what is securely known, what is reasonable inference, and what is pure speculation.
Assuming modern or near future humans did travel to the Cretaceous period, What would the biggest threat most likely be? Do you think there would be an issue with "dino-germs" that we would not be able to defend against or are the flora and fauna of the time more in danger of OUR "future-germs"?TH
Pathogens are going to travel both ways, but the local critters will theoretically have much the worse of it. After all, every living thing in the 22nd Century had ancestors that survived the diseases of the past, but most of the pathogens of modern/future times evolved AFTER the Cretaceous critters lived (and thus they have no defenses). In principle, though, since pathogens tend to mutate pretty damn quickly, it might be that the 85 million years time in between has evened things out.Dr. Holtz went on to bring up some his less scientific and more "fan boy" type qualms with the program:
I have some problems with the series from a science fiction rather than science perspective. And that is basically this: we are given a glimpse at the world and society of the 22nd Century, but the colonists show no signs of having grown up in that society. Instead they (surprise, surprise) act just like early 21st Century suburbanites! To give two examples:
- Our Hero (and indeed a lot of the people) are shown as being relatively okay with simple hand tools and camping out in the woods and going swimming in forest pools and the like. Yet we have seen in the opening acts of the pilot that there IS NO FRICKING WILDERNESS LEFT! The 22nd Century world is an environmental hellhole. Forests seem to be extinct. So I don't care if you might expect a modern day cop to have been a Boy Scout or Weekend Camper who knows his way in the wilderness; no one (probably not even the old folks) from their world would have much idea what that would be like. At best they might have seen videos or done interactive games or something simulating these conditions.
- 21st Century Suburban North American prudishness. We saw in the first show the living conditions of Our Hero's family: a crowded apartment with not too many rooms. So the parents have almost certainly had sex with the kids in the apartment before. This has been normal for the vast majority of human history and human societies. But no, they make a plot point of the two of them trying to not have sex when the kids are around.
Yes, I know they make Our Hero a modern day Good Ol' Boy for the Holy Cause of "viewer identification". But that isn't in keeping with the society from which he sprang.
(I'm with Alan Moore on this, though: the idea that viewers/readers won't identify with characters from different cultures is ludicrous. If people only recognized themselves in people of their own society and its standards, than it is hard to explain the popularity of Lord of the Rings and any other number of highly successful fantasy, science fiction, and super heroic settings.)
I want to give a huge "Thank You!" to Dr. Holtz for giving up his time and giving his input on this. Some really interesting answers and some great points brought up about the show.
Despite the fact that it appears they got more wrong than right, (or at least took some pretty big leaps in the art of assumption), I'm still holding out hope for the program's return.
(All photos made courtesy of http://terranova.wikia.com
"Too Soon from the Cave, Too Far from the Stars"