March 2, 2011
In 1991, the cable channel A&E ran a four-part prehistoric extravaganza hosted by Walter Cronkite and simply called Dinosaur! I was only eight when it aired, and I remember begging my parents to stay up to watch the episodes. Irrepressible little dinosaur fan that I was, I even convinced my third grade teacher to play a tape of the first episode in class one day.
The shows made quite an impression on me. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but for years afterward I could recall seeing paleontologists like Stephen Jay Gould, James Farlow, Dan Chure, David Weishampel, Bob Bakker, John Ostrom, and others explain the latest fossil discoveries. From time to time, puppet dinosaurs popped up in the show. Until Jurassic Park opened two years later, Dinosaur! seared the mid-1990s image of dinosaurs onto my brain, and I was delighted when I was able to dig up the series on YouTube.
What we have learned about dinosaurs in the 20 years since I last saw the show is astounding. Viewed from our current perspective, the show is something of a cultural fossil—a preserved trace of dinosaur science just as dinomania was sweeping the cultural landscape. There is perhaps no better way to ascertain how far we have come than by watching the final episode of the series, “The Tale of a Feather.”
The final episode focused on two interconnected themes: the dinosaurian origin of birds and the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. If only the paleontontologists in the show knew about the discoveries that were just around the corner. Dinosaur! debuted five years before feathered dinosaurs began pouring out of China, and today we know that many traits once thought to be unique to birds—from air sacs to nesting behaviors—were actually widespread among dinosaurs. The difference can most readily be seen in the dinosaur puppets used throughout the show. The puppets were generally drab colored and awkward. They weren’t giant lizards, but they were not especially dynamic or bird-like either, existing in a space between the lumbering hulks of earlier restorations and today’s extremely active dinosaurs. The evidence connecting birds and dinosaurs has far surpassed anything anyone thought possible and forever changed how we reconstruct dinosaur lives.
The show’s treatment of dinosaur extinction is also telling of the time it was made. In 1991, the idea that the end-Cretaceous mass extinction was caused by an asteroid strike was still highly controversial. Scientists could not even agree whether the extinction was sudden or gradual. Today the exact details of dinosaur extinction are still being debated, but the “death from above” hypothesis has become widely supported and defended. In a more subtle shift, two of the paleontologists on the show suggested that the sex of dinosaurs was determined by the temperature of their eggs, and that temperature shifts caused overwhelmingly male populations to be born. This idea—extinction due to a lack of females—has since been tossed out, and a forthcoming paper suggesting this same idea has rightly been panned by paleontologists.
It would be a mistake to deride the A&E program for what we now perceive as mistakes. At the time, it presented some of the latest discoveries about dinosaur lives, and in twenty years I am sure that I am going to look back at some of the things I have written and say, “oh geez, if I had only known then…” Old programs like Dinosaur! allow us to see how far we have come and gauge the evolution of dinosaur restorations over time. Who knows how Walking With Dinosaurs 3D or Reign of the Dinosaurs will look two decades from now?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.