A Vision of the Past:
The Life of Dinosaurs

By Evan Boneta



The first discovery of a possible dinosaur bone dates back 3,500 years ago in China. The people, unfamiliar with dinosaurs, believed that what they found, which were dinosaur teeth, came from a dragon. When Dinosaurs Roamed America, the film I watched originally aired on the Discovery Channel in 2001. Anchisaurus Since then, knowledge of and interest in dinosaurs has grown enormously. One and a half hours long, the documentary was directed by Pierre de Lespinois, narrated by John Goodman, and premiered to an estimated five million viewers. The series is a look into life of dinosaurs millions of years ago and how they evolved. The film was nominated for and won the 2002 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Editing for Non-Fiction Programming. The narrator, John Goodman, was an actor and comedian, best known for playing Dan Conner in the television series, Roseanne. He apparently has no connections to dinosaurs or any expert background associated with the study of them; his is solely a documentary voice role. He proves a credible source for this mainly because his voice is soothing and easy to listen to. Goodman played a number of other voice roles in both documentaries and animated features and his status as an actor is notable. Pierre de Lespinois has produced many films including Alien Planet, Lost City Raiders, Walking with Cavemen, and Gettysburg: The Speech That Saved America. As an experienced producer, de Lespinois did a solid job with this film.

Unfortunately, When Dinosaurs Roamed America does not compare to its rival, Walking With Dinosaurs. The biggest downfall for the film is the production date. In 2001, technology was not nearly as advanced as it is today. In effect, the visuals throughout the movie are not up to the level of modern audiovisual expectations. In particular, the computer-generated imagery (CGI) is much less convincing and it would improve the film greatly if it were enhanced. As far as content goes, the narration by John Goodman is unmatched; however, the amount of information is too slight in relation to the length of the film. Without a doubt there are many facts and much knowledge that can be acquired from the film; if it could just should take a step forward, perhaps re-editing and a few inserts on special effects, then this film would truly be a great documentary.

The film begins by describing the Late Triassic Period which is the first period of the Mesozoic Era, occurring between 251 million and 199 million years ago. Asteroid This age began after an asteroid crashed into Earth and caused the Permian extinction, which wiped out 90% of all living things. Marine life was severely affected as about 95% of marine biota were wiped out by high C02  levels. In the beginning of the Triassic Period, most of the continents were conjoined into one supercontinent called Pangea. Most of Pangea had a dry climate resulting in widespread deserts. The Pangea Entities called Gymnosperms survived the extinction and are seen later in the Jurassic Period. As far as reptiles, Therapsids ("mammal-like" reptiles) and reptilian Archosaurs also survived the extinction. These groups would prove to dominate during the Triassic, continuing to evolve late in the period and into the Jurassic era. Goodman goes on to introduce in detail some of the reptiles that inhabited the Triassic Period and describes the period as the "hey day of reptiles". The Coelophysis was a small, slender, bipedal reptile that was extremely agile. He also talks about the Icarosaurus, which was the first gliding reptile. Soon the seafloor spread in the Tethys Sea which led to rifting in the supercontinent. Eventually Pangea began to split into two smaller continents, Laurasia and Gondwana.     

Forty-five million years after the Permian Extinction, Earth was under siege by a comet attack. Several asteroids entered the gravitational pull and struck the surface. The vaporized rock blocked out the sun and caused many species to die, thus allowing dinosaurs to become more diverse. This begins the Jurassic Period, the second part of the Mesozoic era, which occurred between 199.6 and 145.5 million years ago. By this time the supercontinent once known as Pangea was completely split. Dinosaurs on the land In the Jurassic Period, animals migrated more towards living on land rather than in the ocean. Goodman again goes through some of the dinosaurs that weren't present during this period. The Syntarsus was a small, bipedal predator much like the Coelophysis. The biggest difference between the two was that some specimens of the Syntarsus had a crest on the head. They hunted in packs and went for much bigger prey. The Anchisaurus was an herbivorous dinosaur that lived in the early Jurassic. Its name in Greek means near or close lizard. This sauropod's diet consisted of ferns and cycads. For the most part they were defenseless, with the only thing to protect them being a claw on its striking arm. The Dilophosaurus was a carnivore that competed against the Syntarsus for food. It was one of the largest predatory dinosaurs of its time and most known for the crest on its skull. Towards the end of the Jurassic Period dinosaurs were continuing to change, and they began to grow to massive sizes. The Late Jurassic introduced us to one of the most well-known dinosaurs: Stegosaurus.

Lastly addressed in the film is Ceratopcians the Cretaceous Period which took place between 145 and 66 million years ago. Although this age is thought of as being the last part in the age of dinosaurs, new species were still appearing. The ceratopsian and pachycepalosaurid  dinosaurs made their first appearance in the Cretaceous Period. The most famous extinction marked the end of this period 65 million years ago; considered to be the era when dinosaurs once and for all "died out." Science may never truly know the final cause of dinosaur extinction, but resources such as fossils are helping science achieve a better understanding.

Dr. James T. Kirkland One important person who contributed to mankind's understanding of how dinosaurs became extinct was paleontologist Jim Kirkland. He worked with dinosaur remains from the South West United States and made some astounding discoveries. Along with the fossils he found, he is responsible for naming multiple species. He was an expert in the Mesozoic era and spent many years digging fossils in the United States and Mexico. He also studied the Cretaceous period, specifically the middle cretaceous of Utah. There he was able to conclude the origins of Alaska date back about 100 million years ago. Dr. John Philip Currie Another significant individual in the field of paleontology was Philip John Currie, a Canadian paleontologist and co-founder of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. Much like Jim Kirkland, Currie made groundbreaking contributions with regards to dinosaur's fossils. As a part of the joint China-Canadian team conducting the Dinosaur Project, Kirkland described two of the first specimens of Protarchaeopteryx and Caudipteryx. His theory was that birds descended from dinosaurs and his discovery of Sinosauropteryx was a huge stepping-stone in proving his idea.

Not mentioned in the film is William Buckland. He is essentially one of the biggest names in the game of dinosaur discovery. He fell in love with paleontology when he was young and eventually went on to become a Professor of Geology at England’s prestigious Oxford University. He holds the record for the world's first description of a dinosaur fossil, even though the term "dinosaur" was not even recognized as a word at the time. He consulted with Georges Cuvier, an expert on the anatomy of animals, who went on to accept Buckland's discovery; he found the very first mammalian fossil from the Age of Reptiles.

Cover for When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth In conclusion, this film was educational, interesting, and provided background knowledge about the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods, but only scratched the surface on the many different types of dinosaurs that existed during each period. While at times the documentary was strictly animated, there was still enough information to make it worth watching. This is an excellent film for people who are just beginning to explore the realm of dinosaurs. It was intriguing to research and observe the findings of famous paleontologists. What makes the study of dinosaur fossils unique is the possibility of undiscovered species and the information their bones can reveal and will remain an exciting field for decades to come.


Recommended Readings:

Gregory S. Paul; The Princeton Field Guide of Dinosaurs

Steve Brusatte; The Field Guide of Dinosaurs: The Ultimate Dinosaur Encyclopedia

Barry Cox, R.J.G. Savage, Brian Gardiner & Colin Harrison; The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Pre-Historic Creatures

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