It takes just a few minutes into episode one of Apple TV+'s Prehistoric Planet for the first of many heartstring-tugging moments to land. If monsters are how you’ve historically viewed dinosaurs, then the opening scene serves as a reminder that life 66 million years ago was perilous, even at the top of the food chain.
Dinosaurs are arguably an easy sell, something that's been demonstrated by the epic and enduring successes of related movie franchises (though not all – we’re looking at you, VelociPastor). However, while fanged behemoths with a taste for blood make for dramatic viewing, it’s a simplistic view of the role of even the most predatory of prehistoric creatures, which had a lot more going on in the Late Cretaceous than just eating every living thing in sight.
Now, in the upcoming TV series Prehistoric Planet, David Attenborough and Apple TV+ are showing a very different side to dinosaurs as we see them – arguably for the first time – as what they really were: animals. The series’ footage, filmed in modern-day locations, frames dinosaurs like Mononykus and Deinocheirus in the same way you might expect to see a roadrunner or water buffalo, and as these charismatic species navigate the dramas of the day, like real animals is exactly how they start to appear.
With marine and terrestrial predators all around, dinosaurs still needed to tick off the same checklists as living things today: eat, sleep, procreate, repeat. From hatchling pterosaurs making their first, frantic flights to the plight of an adult female who must choose between feeding herself and protecting her bite-size eggs, it quickly becomes apparent that staying alive in the Late Cretaceous was no easy task.
Even scratching an itch was tough for Deinocheirus.
As the series moves through episodes on Coasts, and Deserts to Ice Worlds and Forests, we see that even the environment was hard work. Families of duck-billed Secernosaurus had to travel great distances across arid gypsum dunes for precious pockets of vegetation, while extreme weather on the opposite end of the spectrum called for truces between the predatory polar tyrannosaur Nanuqsaurus and its prey as intolerable blizzards stormed through (yup, there were dinosaurs living in snow back then).
One of Attenborough’s latest offerings from the BBC, Green Planet, recently demonstrated the ferocity of plants and this too was true of Prehistoric Planet. In the series, we follow herds of triceratops by way of cleverly-recreated camera traps and night-vision footage as they venture deep into the darkest depths of a cave to gnaw on clay that protects them from plants’ toxins. Elsewhere, Ankylosaurus faces the residual embers of a forest fire to swallow lumps of charcoal to the same end.
Each adaptive behavior revealed across the series – of which there are many – is a hat-tip to the increasing crossover between paleontology and animal behavior. Far from a study that’s just about bones, fossils now form just one part of the rich puzzle that enables consulting scientists like Darren Naish to piece together clues from the past and interpret not just the species that went extinct, but also the behaviors they exhibited when they were still alive.
Here, Naish said during a press preview, something called “phylogenetic bracketing” was used – for the first time in the making of a TV series, no less – to answer questions about how dinosaurs behaved, looked, and sounded by looking to their closest relatives.
“If you have any question about an extinct animal, where does it fit on the family tree? For example, what kind of sound did T. rex make?” he posited. “Well, we don't know, but we can look at the living animals that surround it in the family tree. Crocodilians are on one side of extinct dinosaurs and living birds – which are living dinosaurs – are on the other side.”
“If you find a sound that’s similar in a crocodilian and a bird, and you think it's about right for the anatomy and size of a dinosaur like Tyrannosaurus, then it's a really strong scientific deduction.”
Rocks being used as ballasts and gizzard stones is a behavior still seen in species alive today.
Phylogenetic bracketing was used in this way to inform some of the series’ most unforgettable scenes, from courtship interactions that see T. rex purr like Predator while Carnotaurus windmills, to the way mosasaurs monopolized on the generous grooming of reef fish as Tuarangisaurus swallowed pebbles to mash up unchewed food.
“Mother Nature's been putting the same challenges in front of animals since the beginning of time, and animals keep coming up with very similar solutions,” said executive producer Mike Gunton, “and that story has played out for 200,000,000 years…”
Thanks to the insights of consulting scientists like Naish, the combined eyes-for-production of Jon Favreau, Gunton, and Tim Walker, plus the magic hands of some seriously skilled animators (we'll have a behind-the-scenes on this coming soon) you can watch that story – or 6 million years of it, at least – play out in a five-day documentary event as Prehistoric Planet airs on May 23, 2022, on Apple TV+.
If the outpouring of praise, excitement and fan palaeoart that’s rushed in before the series has even aired is anything to go by, it seems folks have long been waiting for a thrilling and visually-captivating documentary series about what science has so far told us about dinosaurs. That, then, surely makes Prehistoric Planet a natural history documentary for the ages.
Update: This article was updated 19/05/22 to say that Tuarangisaurus, an extinct genus of elasmosaurid, is seen swallowing rocks in the series.