August 10, 2012
Whether it’s The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity, there’s one thing that unites all “found footage” films–the protagonists are idiots who blindly blunder into danger. More often than not, we meet an unsuspecting group of contented, naive teens or twenty-somethings just before something awful happens, and the addlepated idiots just make things worse. (If they made sensible choices and made it to safety, there wouldn’t be much of a movie.) According to an IGN review, the same can be said of The Dinosaur Project.
I mentioned the dinosaur-ridden pseudo-docudrama a few weeks back. The film’s trailer didn’t inspire much confidence. Between the tired format and the poorly-rendered prehistoric creatures, The Dinosaur Project looked best suited to a late-night drinking game. Every time you see a malformed dinosaur, take a shot! Even worse, IGN reports, the film’s acting is absolutely atrocious. “It’s probably bad to want the protagonist to die throughout a movie,” the review says, “but such is the grating nature of the main character in The Dinosaur Project, that it’s impossible to not wish ill upon him.” Even in fiction, where anything is possible, expeditions to find mythical dinosaurs in Africa end up being terrible disappointments.
July 23, 2012
All the non-avian dinosaurs are gone. The last of them died out 66 million years ago. All the same, living dinosaurs – birds – aren’t exactly a substitute for Apatosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, and Stegosaurus. We miss the truly spectacular, bizarre dinosaurs that lived and died so long ago. At least we can catch brief glimpses of our favorite prehistoric creatures in the ever-increasing list of dinosaur movies, and among the upcoming titles is a film that uses actual legends for its launching point.
When I was young, one of the first dinosaur movies I ever saw was Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. Drawing from myths and unsubstantiated rumors, the film imagined what would happen if scientists discovered living sauropods in the Congo Basin. Indeed, this part of Africa has been the frequent focus of cryptozoologists and creationists who believe that some sort of swamp-dwelling brontosaur is hiding in the swamps and lakes of the region. There’s not even a single shred of evidence that there are sauropods or other dinosaurs in those wetlands, but that hasn’t stopped naive and self-styled explorers from trying to bring a prehistoric beast back alive.
We can still have a little fun with the idea of living sauropods in the realm of fiction, though. Now, almost 30 years after Baby debuted, The Dinosaur Project is taking a darker spin on the same legend.
According to Empire, The Dinosaur Project is another found-footage horror flick that follows a television crew who ultimately stumble upon dinosaurs that were thought to have disappeared millions of years ago. The movie’s official website doesn’t reveal much – it’s just a fake landing page for the “British Cryptozoological Society” with a plea for any information about the missing expedition – although the film’s trailer offers a few glimpses at the various prehistoric creatures that will thin out the cast. Sadly, though, the dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts look like stiff plastic toys come to life. This isn’t the awesome dinosaur movie we’ve been waiting for, but another piece of stinky movie cheese.
The Dinosaur Project debuts next month in the UK.
May 23, 2012
There aren’t any sauropods in the Congo Basin. There’s not a scrap of evidence that long-necked, swamp-wallowing dinosaurs are hiding somewhere in the jungles of Africa, or anywhere else. And I say that as someone who was enthralled when I saw the puppet brontosaurs of 1985′s Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (see the clip above), arguably the best movie dinosaurs before Jurassic Park stomped along. After seeing that movie, I really, really wanted there to be living sauropods, but the evidence simply doesn’t exist.
Rumors that there might be an Apatosaurus-like dinosaur in the Congo Basin have circulated for years. Young earth creationists have been especially enamored with the idea, as they wrongly believe that finding a living, non-avian dinosaur will discredit evolutionary theory. (The existence of a living sauropod wouldn’t be any worse for evolutionary theory than the discovery of modern coelacanths. These archaic fish were thought to be extinct, but once living fish were discovered, they fell perfectly well within what scientists have understood about evolutionary patterns since Darwin’s day.)
Numerous expeditions have been launched in search of the legendary animal. None have come back with evidence that some Cretaceous holdover is hanging out in Lake Tele or anywhere else. You’d think that a population of huge, amphibious dinosaurs would leave plenty of tracks, scat and skeletal remains behind, but—surprise, surprise—apparently not. There is a collection of stories, fuzzy photos, audio recordings and supposed footprint casts, but none of this adds up to anything. The last of the sauropods died more than 65 million years ago. If they had survived beyond that time, we would have certainly picked up the trail of the survivors in the fossil record.
Even modern field ecology argues against the existence of large dinosaurs in the Congo Basin. Zoologists often conduct multiple searches for species that went extinct during recent history. Sometimes a few hold-outs turn up, and the search intensity is key here. In a study tracking the rediscovery of presumably extinct mammals, zoologists Diana Fisher and Simon Blomberg found that still-extant species were often found again after three to six searches were conducted. After that point, the likelihood of success plummets. Given that there have been over a dozen unsuccessful expeditions to the Congo Basin looking for sauropods—immense creatures that would leave plenty of evidence in the landscape if they existed—the conclusion is clear. There are no amphibious dinosaurs to find.
But the facts haven’t discouraged Stephen McCullah. A few months ago various news services reported that the wannabe biologist launched a Kickstarter page to fund a three-month expedition to the Congo Basin in hopes of capturing Mokele-mbembe, the name by which the mythical sauropod is often called. Sure, McCullah mentions that the trip’s goal will be “categorizing plant and animal species in the vastly unexplored Republic of the Congo,” but the focus of his pitch is clearly the search for a dinosaur that doesn’t exist. Not surprisingly, McCullah and his team don’t seem to have any formal qualifications to speak of. (McCullah’s bio says he studied biology at Missouri State University and UMKC, but that’s all.) Passion is great, but the Kickstarter page for the project gives no indication that he and his team are trained in field techniques or are approaching the trip with a scientific attitude. (See this video from Chicago’s Field Museum to see what responsible field biology really looks like.) It just seems like a kid’s bid for fame on someone else’s dime.
McCullah’s expedition recently hit its funding goal. It looks like the expedition is on, and rumor has it that the trip will be turned into another crummy basic cable documentary. If the program is anything like the MonsterQuest episode about Mokele-mbembe, it will be another hyped waste of time.
Throughout all this, many journalists have handled McCullah with kid gloves. The fact that someone says he intends to capture a living sauropod is apparently much more important to some media outlets than the fact that such a creature no longer exists. Some of the worst coverage has come from the Huffington Post, which, as science writer Seth Mnookin has commented, has featured plenty of bad science and facile reasoning. Lee Speigel, a journalist focused on UFO-related stories and a self-professed “truth seeker,” concluded his first article about McCullah’s expedition with: “One thing’s for certain: [McCullah] will have to bring enough equipment. Capturing a living dinosaur may require some very big nets.”
Speigel’s follow-up was even more credulous. After acknowledging that paleontologists have not found any indication of modern or recent sauropods, Speigel cites an ambiguous 5,000-year-old pictograph found in the Amazon as evidence that humans and non-avian dinosaurs overlapped in time. Speigel omits the fact that the two “researchers” who make the grand claims about the ancient art—Vance Nelson and Harry Nibourg—are creationists who have a strong bias in favor of modern dinosaurs because of their fundamentalist beliefs. In another evidence-free portion of the piece, Speigel writes, “Many previous expeditions have attempted to follow up on these reports [of living sauropods] by tracking the dangerous, swampy Likouala region of Congo, which has a climate not much changed since dinosaurs roamed in large numbers millions of years ago.” Never mind that the continents have shifted and the climate has in fact fluctuated widely over the past 66 million years—Speigel is setting up the Congo Basin as a pristine lost world where Cretaceous monsters still lurk.
The coda to the article is even better. Speigel reported that McCullah’s team planned to bring firearms on the trip, with the implication that expedition members might slay any dinosaur they find. McCullah wrote back: “Killing a creature like mokele-mbembe is really not an option as far as the team is concerned. If it were a life-threatening situation, that could change, but our plan for a confrontation with a mokele-like creature as of now is to chemically subdue the animal.” The plan is to bring “mokele-mbembe back alive,” McCullah said. Clearly he hasn’t seen 1925′s Lost World—sauropods and cities don’t mix. But it’s all absolutely absurd. McCullah’s team is carefully planning to use firearms on an imaginary animal. You can’t tranquilize a dinosaur that doesn’t exist.
Reports like Speigels are why I wish ill-informed journalists would just leave dinosaurs alone. It’s so easy to quickly and foolishly regurgitate fantastic claims, and when reality isn’t as wonderful as the claims being made, some writers aren’t above just making stuff up as they see fit. In this case, McCullah’s expedition was really a non-story. “Wannabe-adventurer seeks dinosaur that doesn’t exist” isn’t much of a headline. Some writers bought into fantasy to sell the story, leaving all those inconvenient facts behind.
October 28, 2011
In the annals of science fiction, humans and non-avian dinosaurs have been brought together in a variety of ways. Genetic engineering experiments and time travel are probably the most common these days, but I have always had a soft spot for tales of “lost worlds.” What could be more fantastic than dinosaurs that somehow escaped extinction and persisted in some isolated spot for 65 million years? My childhood self really wanted someone to find a living Tyrannosaurus, Apatosaurus, or Triceratops in some remote locale, and that wish was fed by reports that one elusive dinosaur was hiding in Africa.
First thing first—living dinosaurs certainly do exist. We know them as birds, and a combination of fossil discoveries and laboratory research has confirmed the evolutionary connection between birds and feather-covered maniraptoran dinosaurs. But from time to time, people have proposed that non-avian dinosaurs may also still be hanging around.
The most famous of the supposed living dinosaurs I heard about was Mokele-mbembe. This unknown creature—often restored as a swamp-dwelling, tail-dragging sauropod akin to old restorations of “Brontosaurus“—is said to inhabit the dense jungle in what is now Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At least, that’s the way I was introduced to the legendary animal in the late 1980s. A blurry photograph of a lump in a lake and an ambiguous sound recording made by Herman Regusters during a 1981 expedition to find the animal were cited as possible evidence that a semi-aquatic sauropod was swimming around Lake Tele, and the feature film Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend fleshed out the hypothetical dinosaurs. Tall tales and legends of Mokele-mbembe had been circulating for decades before, and sensationalist basic cable television programs still fund expeditions to try and find the animal from time to time.
Is there any good evidence that a sauropod still wades through the muck of African swamps? Sadly, no. I would be thrilled if a living, non-avian dinosaur really did turn up somewhere, but such a fantastic find would have to be backed up by equally fantastic evidence. Despite the fact that multiple expeditions have been sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo over many years, there is no solid evidence that Mokele-mbembe is a dinosaur or even a real, unknown species of animal. I seriously doubt anyone will ever find any evidence of such a creature at all, and part of the reason why related to a paper published by University of Queensland zoologists Diana Fisher and Simon Blomberg last year.
The major message of Fisher and Blomberg’s study was positive: Some modern mammal species thought to be extinct may still survive in small, hard-to-find pockets of their former ranges. But the researchers also noted that the effort put into finding supposedly extinct species makes a difference as to whether we should expect to find those animals. The researchers found that species that still survived were often found after three to six searches, but if more than eleven searches were made with no results—as is the case for the Tasmanian tiger and Yangtze river dolphin—then the species is probably actually extinct. Since so many searches have been made for Mokele-mbembe with no solid results, I don’t think that there’s actually any large, hidden species there to find.
There is a flipside to that argument, although it also doesn’t bode well for the rumored dinosaur. Many of the searches for Mokele-mbembe have been made by self-described explorers who have little to no relevant field experience in tracking and studying wildlife. Some of these folks are even religious fundamentalists who are striving to somehow undermine evolutionary theory. Their credibility is highly suspect, but you would think that at least one group would have blundered into the animal by now. After all, there has to be a population of animals which would be leaving tracks, scat and occasionally bodies. The evidence for huge creatures living in the swamp should be readily apparent, and the best the many dinosaur hunters can come up with are tall tales and misshapen globs of plaster that look nothing like the tracks the casts are claimed to be.
But the most obvious problem is that there’s no trace of sauropods in the fossil record—at all—in the 65 million years since the end-Cretaceous extinction. Nothing. The last of these dinosaurs died out long ago, and there is not even a scintilla of evidence that sauropods survived past the close of the Mesozoic. If sauropods survived at all we would expect to find some indication of their existence in the fossil record. These were not small animals or creatures that were hidden away in the deep sea. Given the number of terrestrial fossil deposits and they way they have been sampled, Cenozoic sauropods would have turned up by now if they had survived.
There are plenty of other problems with the idea that there’s a sauropod trundling around in the swamps of the Congo Basin. One of the most ridiculous aspects of Mokele-mbembe stories is that the supposed dinosaurs resemble what the searchers expected sauropod dinosaurs to look and act like based on inaccurate restorations. The hypothetical dinosaurs act just like their counterparts in old Charles R. Knight and Zdeněk Burian paintings. Actual, living sauropods would have looked markedly different from those old restorations, and according to recent research, sauropods would have been really lousy swimmers due to the considerable volume of air-filled spaces in their bodies. A sauropod would not be able to act like a crocodile and hide underwater as Mokele-mbembe supposedly does. The weakness of the “Mokele-mbembe as sauropod” hypothesis is underscored by the fact that the supposed anatomy and behavior of the animal is clearly based on outdated images of dinosaurs. As Darren Naish pointed out in his brilliant April Fool’s Day post on Mokele-mbembe from this year, the idea that the animal was an old-school, tail dragging sauropod grates against everything we have learned about sauropods during the past three decades.
Paleontologist Don Prothero also took a few good whacks of Mokele-mbembe in a recent Monster Talk episode. Not surprisingly, Prothero points out that many of the reports about the animal are extremely inconsistent. A number of supposed sightings don’t refer to anything dinosaur-like at all, and even those that do are inconsistent and ambiguous. On top of that, Prothero and the show’s hosts bring up the fact that fanatics in search of Mokele-mbembe can easily misconstrue what local people might be saying about the animal because of a lack of shared cultural background and other translation problems. While visiting explorers often use the term “Mokele-mbembe” to refer to a supposed dinosaur or similar animal, the word can also refer to something that is not real or has no physical manifestation. If film crews and self-described explorers keep passing through and spending money in the region, it’s not surprising that people will tell the monster hunters what they want to hear.
The take-home lesson is this: If you want to find sauropods, sign up to volunteer on a professional fossil excavation with well-trained scientists.