Paleoartists are Controlling what you Know About Dinosaurs! Part 2

A Tyrannosaurus and its young, as seen on Prehistoric Planet. Fuzz is clearly visible on the young, but note that the adult also has a little bit of fuzz on the top and back of its head. Are reconstructions of Tyrannosaurus with fuzz accurate?

Now, I want to steer this discussion into Prehistoric Planet. In case you have not heard about it, Prehistoric Planet is an Apple TV+ documentary about dinosaurs. It is done in the same vein as Walking With Dinosaurs, where the bulk of the documentary is computer generated models of dinosaurs set against a real world background, animated to make it look like they are real animals being followed around by video cameras with a narrator describing to the audience what they are watching.

I must confess, I have not seen Prehistoric Planet. I do not subscribe to Apple TV+ and thus have not been able to see it in its entirety. However, I have watched a few clips from the documentary on Youtube. Plus, I have also noticed that the dinosaurs on Prehistoric Planet have been hailed as the most accurate reconstructions of dinosaurs, certainly more accurate than anything Hollyword has been producing.

After having seen a few clips from Prehistoric Planet, I too think that it is pretty accurate. The first clip I saw was of a Tyrannosaurus parent swimming to shore with some of its offspring. One of the offspring gets nabbed by a mosasaur. The Tyrannosaurus barely noticed that the young was taken: it just kept swimming to shore with its remaining offspring. I thought that was accurate: a lesser documentary might have the Tyrannosaurus engage in battle with the mosasaur, or have the mosasaur quickly gobble down all of the young, or have the Tyrannosaurus balefully mourn the loss of one of its young once it reached the beach and realized it was missing. Nope, just get to shore with the remaining young and continue on with its life. Harsh, but realistic.

While I still think that Prehistoric Planet is more accurate than a lot of other dinosaur media out there, I have been noticing that there are little details here and there that are not completely accurate portrayals of dinosaurs. Rather, they portray a particular vision of dinosaurs. Let me use the Tyrannosaurus rex as an example.

Here is a good image of the Tyrannosaurus from Prehistoric Planet. Now, let us put aside the color scheme: any representation of a dinosaur’s color will be speculative,[1] so I am not here to critique the color of the Tyrannosaurus. Is this the best possible Tyrannosaurus we can reconstruct from the fossils?

Tyrannosaurus as it appears on Prehistoric Planet.

I have three comments that I want to make about this Tyrannosaurus. The first is the fuzz. It is hard to see, but there is some fuzz on the back of the head and upper part of the neck. The amount of fuzz is very limited in the adult, but it is still there. The young are given an even more noticeable, more complete covering of fuzz. What evidence is there to support fuzz on Tyrannosaurus? Ask a paleoartist, and he will probably cite Yutyrannus huali. Yutyrannus was named in 2012 and it made headlines because it was, and still is, the largest known theropod to have evidence of skin integument.[2] I am using “skin integument” as a generic term for any kind of feather, fur, or fuzz found on the skin, partially because, while there is evidence of integument on Yutyrannus, it is not preserved well enough to tell exactly what it is. Also, I want to point out that while the creationist position on feathers and dinosaurs had been that there is no evidence whatsoever that dinosaurs had feathers, that idea is starting to change.[3] I may address the issue of dinosaurs and feathers in the future, but for the sake of this post, let us at least accept that Yutyrannus had a covering of integument.

Now, what does Yutyrannus have to do with Tyrannosaurus? For one, they both belong to the group Tyrannosauroidea. Thus, they belong to the same broad group. Also, since Yutyrannus was so large, it shows that some large theropods had integument, so why not its relative, Tyrannosaurus? Why shouldn’t we put fuzz on Tyrannosaurus? Oh, I don’t know, perhaps because no integument of any kind has ever been found on Tyannosaurus![4] And that statement is not based on an “absence of evidence” argument: patches of skin on Tyrannosaurus and its closest relatives (family Tyrannosauridae) have been found on various parts of their bodies, and not a single patch of skin found on any tyrannosaurid has been found to have integument. Every patch of skin is scaly.

This is where we need to be very careful to distinguish between Tyrannosauroidea and Tyrannosauridae. It was stated a moment ago that Yutyrannus belongs to Tyrannosauroidea. That is a true statement. However, Tyrannosauroidea is a broad group that includes many animals that are quite unlike Tyrannosaurus while still bearing a general resemblance to Tyrannosaurus. One of the groups within Tyrannosauroidea is Tyrannosauridae, the family, and likely, the kind, that contains Tyrannosaurus. Thus, we should expect members of Tyrannosauridae to be most similar to Tyrannosaurus while Tyrannosauroidea would contain some variations not seen in Tyrannosaurus. So on the one hand, a research paper looking at the family Tyrannosauridae concludes that that group had scaly skin with no integument, yet paleoartists insist on putting fuzz on Tyrannosaurus because of animals like Yutyrannus, which is not even within the family Tyrannosauridae.

How do paleoartists get away with this? Partially because patches of skin have not been found on every part of the body of Tyrannosaurus. Sure, we know it had no fuzz on its face, lower neck, tail, and hips, but we haven’t found any skin from directly on top of the head, so perhaps Tyrannosaurus had fuzz up there! Frankly, when you do that, when you look for the one or two places on the body of Tyrannosaurus where scales have not been found and stick fuzz in those places because “Yutyrannus had fuzz, too,” you seem like you are sticking fuzz on Tyrannosaurus because it is “supposed” to be there, not because it is accurate to show fuzz in those places.

That is one of three. In the next post, I will talk about two more features of the Prehistoric Planet Tyrannosaurus.

Thoughts from Steven

[1]While there have been very rare cases of melanosomes (pigment molecules) being found with fossils, they only give a rough idea of the coloration of the animal, not a complete color scheme.

[2]Xu, Xing; Kebai Wang; Ke Zhang; Qingyu Ma; Lida Xing; Corwin Sullivan; Dongyu Hu; Shuqing Cheng; Shuo Wang (2012) “A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China” Nature 484: 92-95

[3]McLain, Matthew; Matt Petrone; Mattchew Speights (2018) “Feathered dinosaurs reconsidered: New insights from baraminology and ethnotaxonomy” Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Creationism pp. 472-515

[4]Bell, Phil; Nicolas Campione; W. Cott Persons; Philip Currie; Peter Larson; Darren Tanke; Robert Bakker (2017) “Tyrannosauroid integument reveals conflicting patterns of gigantism and feather evolution”

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