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REVIEW WWB EPISODE II



SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER



SPOILER (your last chance)



Episode 2 of Walking With Beasts (Whale Killer) was screened last 
night (Thursday) at 20-30. On Wednesday night, BBC screened a 
documentary that was sort of a 'making of' programme. Here are 
comments on both. BTW, I gather that the title is a witty pun of Killer 
whale. My sides!:)

'Whale Killer' is set at the end of the Eocene and is based in Pakistan, 
focusing on animals that frequent the shores and mangroves of the 
Tethys as well as the scrubland inland. The theme of the programme 
was the collapse of food chains - referred to as the 'Eocene el nino' - 
resulting from the incipient glaciation of Antarctica (a bit dodgy I 
know, but exactly what was the cause of the grand coupaire?). 

The main character was a pregnant _Basilosaurus_ (yes 
_Basilosaurus_ is known from Pakistan - the species _B. drazindai_ - 
so this is Ok). Finding it hard to find enough food to eat, she leaves the 
open ocean and takes to patrolling the channels and lagoons in and 
around the mangroves. Some scenes of the basilosaur breaking the 
surface were computed-modified scenes of actual live humpbacks or 
sei whales: if you looked very carefully you could see (briefly) the 
diagnostic features of these species.

In the ocean, the basilosaur encountered a dorudontine pod (see 
below). Don't know what genus - they just called it 'dorudont'. As 
some members of this list will know, how basilosaurs swam has been 
controversial in recent years. WWB depicted _Basilosaurus_ as rather 
unflexible except in the distal tail: so far so good, but it did not exhibit 
the thoracic/cranial lumbar undulation postulated for this animal by 
Emily Buccholtz (and seen also in extant belugas and _Inia_). 
Furthermore, I think there was too much oscillation in the distal tail. 
Curiously, I noted on the 'making of' programme that McNeil 
Alexander was the technical advisor on basilosaur locomotion for 
WWB. This seems rather odd, all due respect to Prof. Alexander, and I 
suspect the BBC tried to use palaeontologists in the Uk, even if they 
weren't the best choice for the particular role. Again, I mean no 
disrepect to Prof. Alexander - I just know that there are people better 
versed in basilosaur locomotion than he is. Frank Fish was also 
employed as a consultant however (has worked with Thewissen on 
_Ambulocetus_ swimming and the evolution of cetacean swimming) 
and the 'making of' showed him filming giant otters, as well as talking 
about locomotion in _Ambulocetus_ and kin.

The 'making of' show also featured Mark Uhen - shown in Zeuglodon 
Valley - and there was a particularly naughty scene where he just 
happened to dig up a complete in-situ articulated basilosaurid 
hindlimb! I strongly suspect that this was rigged for the camera.. I 
could be wrong. Larry Witmer posed with a _Gastornis_ skull and a 
live macaw called Riley, and dare I say there were several instances in 
the 'making of' show where the word _Diatryma_ was used. While 
WWB seems to be using _Paraceratherium_ in the literature and 
advertising, they are calling these animals indricotheres it would seem. 
Mike Benton featured heavily in the 'making of' programme (I suppose 
Mike was chosen as his all-round vert palaeo knowledge is 
outstanding).

Among the other characters in Episode 2, the basilosaur encountered 
_Moeritherium_. Depicted as an amphibious tapir-like beast that eats 
seagrass and swims among the mangrove channels. Also living in the 
mangroves were individuals of the basal anthropoid _Apidium_. 
Depicted as strongly social (which is debatable but I suppose Ok), 
there was one scene were the _Apidium_ were crossing a mangrove 
channel when one of them got killed and eaten by a shark. See below.

Moving inland, _Andrewsarchus_ was shown as a scavenger-predator 
that pestered the brontotheres. In one scene an _Andrewsarchus_ was 
foraging along a beach (no mention of the molluscivore idea) - it 
stopped to sniff a large vertebra and then killed a marine turtle. The 
colour scheme was excellent: identical I think to that of the extant civet 
_Civettictis civetta_, but with the base colour light brown instead of 
grey. It was described as a 'sheep in wolf's clothing': this would be 
clever but the exact same term was used in the David Macdonald series 
and book _The Velvet Claw_ (for _Mesonyx_).

The brontotheres did not look so good in my opinion - too much 
bending in their forelimbs and too shiny (a la dromaeosaurs in JPIII). I 
think they were based on _Embolotherium_, but, hold on... this is from 
Mongolia. The horn shape was certainly right for _Embolotherium_, 
plus it was hailed as one of the very last brontotheres, so this would fit.

Problems...

-- _Basilosaurus_ was described as being 60 tons in weight. As with 
the pliosaurs in WWD, this is probably an extrapolation based on 
extant big whales (see _WWD: The Evidence_, Martill & Naish 2000). 
Some of you may recall from way back Greg Paul contesting a similar 
estimate of mine - he argued that because they were less blubbery and 
altogether more gracile than extant whales, they'd weigh much less. 
Apparently even the biggest basilosaur would only be around 20 tons. 
To my knowledge no one has done the maths on this, but I think Greg 
is right.

-- The sharks looked to me exactly the same as the hybodonts featured 
in the marine reptile episode of WWD. In fact, I'm fairly sure that the 
graphics people recycled the hybodont for WWB. This of course is a 
no-no as hybodonts were extinct by the Eocene, plus there is no 
Cainozoic shark that really looks like a hybodont.

-- _Apidium_, I think, is earliest Oligocene - not late Eocene.

-- Brontothere subadults appeared to have horns of the same size and 
shape as adult males and females. Would have been better if the 
subadult's horns were shown as smaller and less developed.

-- The dorudontines were shown as strongly social - they moved 
around in a pod, showed clear concerted prey-encircling and mobbing 
behaviour, and altogether were depicted as being about as social as 
(e.g.) _Stenella_ dolphins. Of course this might have been the case, but 
it seems unlikely - this kind of social behaviour in cetaceans is 
apparently unique to derived odontocetes (including delphinoids and 
sperm whales) and wouldn't be predicted for basal cetaceans.

PS - to those in the UK, did anyone see Karl Shuker on _Who Wants to 
Be a Millionaire_?

PPS - speaking of 'Episode II', trailers are now showing in cinemas. As 
you'll know if you've seen Harry Potter (not guilty).

DARREN NAISH 
PALAEOBIOLOGY RESEARCH GROUP
School of Earth & Environmental Sciences
UNIVERSITY OF PORTSMOUTH
Burnaby Building
Burnaby Road                           email: darren.naish@port.ac.uk
Portsmouth UK                          tel (mobile): 0776 1372651     
P01 3QL                                tel (office): 023 92842244
                                       www.palaeobiology.co.uk