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SCIENCES

Walking with Dinosaurs/ Beasts

What we did in Bristol


Palaeontologists from Bristol were closely involved in the hit BBC TV series 'Walking with Dinosaurs' (WWD, 1999) and 'Walking with Beasts' (WWB, 2001). These documentaries, featuring animated dinosaurs and mammals in realistic scenes, have pioneered an entirely new kind of science programme. WWD broke records in most countries, achieving the highest ever viewing figures for documentaries in Britain (18.9 million) and the United States (nearly 40 million), and it has now been seen by over 200 million people worldwide.

Adviser for the first programme of WWD (the Triassic) was Professor Mike Benton, and for the fourth (pterosaurs) was Dr David Unwin, then at Bristol, now at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin. The BBC also employed an in-house palaeontology adviser, Dr Jo Wright, who had then just finished her PhD at Bristol on dinosaur tracks, and is now at the University of Colorado in Denver. Finally, Donald Henderson, studying the biomechanics of dinosaurian locomotion for his PhD in Bristol (and now at the University of Calgary), worked with the animators to get the limb motions right. We had less involvement with WWB, but Mike Benton featured in the 'palaeontology behind' the mammals programme, and in several elements of the digital TV back-up materials.

In both series, the BBC consulted hundreds of specialists on everything, from the textures of dinosaurian skin to their noises, from the bugs and beetles to the position of the sun and moon in the sky.

Some palaeontologists were very sniffy about both series when they were launched, complaining about specific details that they thought were wrong, or even suggesting that the whole idea was wrong. They suggested that it was impossible to be sure about many of the details of dinosaurian or early mammalian life: what they looked like, their colours, their sounds, how they behaved, and that it was dishonest even to attempt such animations.

Of course, no-one will ever know what colour a dinosaur was, or what it sounded like. But there is a great deal of evidence about how they moved and fed, about their nests and babies, about their footprints and dung. So why not show that, and then make sensible guesses about colours and sounds?

Both series, WWD and WWB, were major achievements, and it is right for scientists to be involved. In science, much is uncertain, and scientists work with the best current hypotheses. Scientists also have a duty to explain their discoveries and their ideas to the widest possible audience. In our opinion, the critics either misunderstand what science really is, or they have a haughty disregard for the public.

Read more in articles by Mike Benton from :

Look at Donald Henderson's amazing animations of the locomotion of dinosaurs and pterosaurs.


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