Hello Biologists/Palaeontologists,

How accurate are the prehistoric creatures in the television show "Primeval?"  I noticed that one of the writers is Tim Haines, who was one of the creators of "Walking with Dinosaurs," so I assume "Primeval" adopts the same high standards. 

How can we determine behavior from the fossil skeletons and trace fossils?

Thanks,
Peter

"Primeval" is likely to be as accurate as it can be with the information that we have available to date. However, to appeal to a wide audience, it may be that sometimes the sounds, behaviour or stories surrounding the animals are more exaggerated.

Fossil skeletons and trace fossils can tell us a lot about the animals they represent and how they may have behaved. Everything from the shape of the bones, the size of the skeleton, the position of the bones, the stomach remains, etc can give vital clues to how prehistoric animals once stood, moved, ate, etc. The fossils may also be compared to animals alive today that live in similar environments or have similarly positioned bones in the skeleton.

While it is very rare, dinosaur skin is occasionally preserved as a fossil. Here at Bristol's City Museum & Art Gallery, we have the fossilised skin of a Scelidosaurus. While we may never know the colour of the skin for sure, we are able to determine its texture from the fossil. The colour of the skin is guesswork, helped by examining the skin of similar animals that are alive today, eg other reptiles, in similar environments. By also looking at the bone structure of prehistoric animals, scientists can discover how the muscles may have been positioned on the skeleton. Using this method, scientists have an idea of how prehistoric animals may have looked on the outside with the skin attached!

Dear Peter, having only seen one episode (though featuring my favourite group - the pterosaurs) I can't answer about much of the programme.

With Pteranodon at least the anatomy was about 90% accurate - enough to annoy me, but much better than many I have seen. However, often the interpreted behaviour is very out of line with what is known about the pterosaurs that were featured.

Similarly, I know in one episode that giant insects made a reappearance on modern times. Although these animals certainly existed, they could only survive in the ancient atmospheres that had much more oxygen than now. If they did arrive in the modern world they would die almost instantly.

Of course its hard to be too nasty to the programme - it is science fiction and designed to entertain,  but as a picky expert I think they could have had just as much fun with more accurate creatures. There are more than enough bizarre dinosaurs and ancient bests to go around!


EDIT:

I have just been on the Primeval website and discovered their 'information' about the other pterosaur in the episode - Anurognathus. Everything about this was wrong! Wrong time, wrong place, wrong shape, wrong postrue, wrong habits, you name it, it was wrong. So on that one at least, it was very, very bad.

Last edited by David Hone (7th Apr 2007 08:03:26)

I have recently watched the first two series of Primeval on DVD just to be able to answer this question and others like it.

The animals in the show tend to be rather exaggerated - bigger, faster, smarter and more vicious than the real animals were likely to be. They also tend to behave in rather dubious ways (particularly when it comes to hunting and feeding). However, behaviour can be quite freely interpreted since most of what we 'know' is based on living relatives, the occasional piece of preserved behaviour (trackways etc.) and interpretation of how morphology might be used. I would argue that most of what is 'known' about fossil organisms is actually derived from clues that have a variety of interpretations. If the reconstruction accounts for the clues it cannot be considered wrong, even if it falls outside the currently accepted range of interpretation.

Then again, the human behaviour in the programme is rather unbelievable at times, so I have my doubts about the other animals...

I also have problems with the scientists and their half-baked pseudo-scientific philosophising. For experts in their field they really have a poor grasp of logic and basic scientific principles and as for some of the outfits...

Although I greatly enjoyed Primeval and am not ashamed to admit it, I thought that the creatures in the second series abandoned all pretense to realism, and left the first series looking all the better in comparison.  In particular, the giant , carnivorous pre-Cambrian worms were risible, the giant burrowing scorpions were contemptible, and the increasing reliance of future-monsters looked awfully like just giving up.  Given the inventive premise of the program, it's a real shame that the producers have given up so quickly on the core idea of mining the past for interesting creatures.  Could they really only think of half a dozen worth using?

On the positive side, I thought the series debuted strongly with the gorgonopsid, the mosasaur was pretty awesome, the dodo-and-worm episode was pretty good sci-fi even if it was horrible science, and the mammoth was a joy.

I'll be watching series three when it comes out.

BTW., does anyone else think that those pre-Cambrian worms were meant to be priapulids?

To be honest, I also enjoyed Primeval, although I am slightly ashamed to admit it. The second series is the reason I feel some sense of shame, because it was substantially weaker than the first.  I just don't get why they don't have a team of physicists working out what causes the anomalies, rather than having a 'scientifc' team doing a bad job at damage limitation - why don't they just plug the hole with a giant golf umbrella or something? I agree that the gorgonopsid was great though.

Apparently, the worms were not based on any particular organism according to the website, although their jaws are supposed to be like a ragworm's. I think they look like sea-cucumbers myself, although priapulids would make more sense.