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Terra Nova: thoughts



First, a news article:
http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/09/26/7973577-terra-nova-gives-dino-fans-something-new-to-chew-on

Synopsis (superbrief): Colonists from a dystopian mid-22nd Century populated 
entirely by early 21st century suburban Americans
facing environmental catastrophes flee via a rift in time to the early 
Santonian (85 Ma), where they have to deal with dinosaurs,
intra-colony rivalries, and Steven Speilberg.

My Facebook observations are a) kids love the show and b) those who have been 
around the block more often find it tedious, poorly
placed, and a poor execution of some halfway decent ideas.

Now, my thoughts:
Plot/setting: "Political refugees and misfits escape via stable oneway timerift 
to a parallel past" is a combination of science
fiction tropes that work fine for plot reasons. Parallel past allows for people 
to actually act and do things without consequences
for the future (Utley's Silurian short story cycle and Stirling's Nantucket 
series both used this premise). The "political refugees
and misfits escape via stable oneway time rift" is the same background of May's 
Saga of Pliocene Exile, and plenty of good stories
(Steele's Coyote colony books) [and, of course, reality!!] have been written 
about misfits and other refugees as pioneers.

The idea of using the Santonian is a good one: it is largely a "twilight zone" 
in terms of our paleontological knowledge, which
gives greater freedom to the writers. It stands between the pretty well known 
communities of the Cenomanian and the extraordinarily
well known faunas of the Campano-Maastrichtian. If the writers were clever (ah, 
if only...) they could draw upon both time slices to
create late survivors of the Cenomanian faunas and early precursors of the 
latest K. But more about what they actually did below...

I am not quite certain if they established WHERE on the Earth the colony is (I 
missed it if they said). This is an issue, because by
the Santonian you are getting regionalization of faunas to some degree, and 
that is going to effect your taxon choice. Or at least,
it SHOULD affect your taxon choice.

The mountainous setting has multiple uses: From the point of view of the 
audience, it is pretty. From the point of view of
characters in the story, it makes sense: running fresh water, and the potential 
for hydroelectic power. From the point of view of
the writers, the fact that montane faunas basically don't wind up as fossils 
gives them additional leeway in creating taxa.

The critters:
* Brachiosaurus. Umm, Brachiosaurus. Apparently a very late surviving 
population... And they obviously went back in time prior to
the 2000s to find these ones, because they hadn't heard about the repositioning 
of the fleshy nostrils! (My suspicion: they modded
the CGI models from Jurassic Park, and didn't correct this issue). Nice aspect: 
they make reference to the fact (in our world,
possibility) that they occasionally chomped on small animals, too: hat tip to 
Greg Paul. On the other hand, they referred to
"incisors" on these guys...

* Carnotaurus. A very early population of these... (Redated, Carnotaurus is one 
of the youngest of the abelisaurids. But it was once
considered Aptian/Albian. Maybe this is a population in transit due to the 
redating...) Utterly failed to get the forearms right on
them (again!): so far Dinosaur Revolution and Planet Dinosaur's models are the 
only correct abelisaurid arms in CG. While we do not
have Carnotaurus' metatarsi, they gave it feet that are probably far too long 
and slender based on other abelisaurids.

They could have said "brachiosaur" and "abelisaur" and it would have been fine: 
we might get both of these 85 Ma. Specifying the
genus name (okay, I know that etymologically that phrase is inaccurate!) sets 
them up to be wrong. If I were a consultant on this
(which I'm not), I would encourage them not to use particular known genera.

Also, this is where knowledge of where on Earth they are is important. If North 
America or mainland Asia, the presence of an
abelisaurid is just contradictory to our current information on dinosaurian 
biogeography! Any other continent, not so bad.

* Acceraptor. An invented dinosaur, nicknamed "the slasher". Inventing new 
dinosaurs isn't a bad idea, so long as the invention is
reasonable, given that new species are named at a rate of about 1/week or more. 
This thing, though: it looks something like a
toothed oviraptorosaur (or an oviraptorosaur-crested dromaeosaur) with Jurassic 
Park "bunny hands" syndrome and a slashing tail
weapon. If it were me, I'd have suggested some sort of megaraptoran 
neovenatorid. (And jeez, if you want a pack hunting predator,
you are smack dab in the middle of Eudromaeosauria's stratigraphic range!)

* Giant centipedes. Yes, you read me right: giant freaking scolopendrid 
centipedes. Maybe 2 m long. What is next: giant man-eating
plants with mobile tentacles?!? Shades of bad "lost world" movies of yore...

The colony:
Fleeing to the mid-Cretaceous  to escape high CO2 levels, is like trying to get 
out of the cold by heading back to the Last Glacial
Maximum! It is NOT going to be like a "breath of fresh air". They do make 
reference to people and crops suffering from hyperoxic
conditions, but it is not certain if this is because they are using the model 
where mid-Jurassic through Cretaceous atmosphere have
higher-than-present pO2 concentrations (still a matter of debate in 
paleoclimatology), or if it is supposed to be the reaction of
people from the craptactular atmosphere of the mid-22nd Century breathing clean 
air for once. Sadly, I expect the latter. Just a
reminder: the atmosphere of the past is no more the same as the present 
atmosphere anymore than the geography of the past is like
the present.

That said, at least it would lack all the industrial pollutants, so there are 
plenty of reasons to want to go back.

However, food may be an issue: most grains use the C4 metabolic pathway, and 
these plants do poorly in higher CO2 conditions. They
will probably have to mostly live off the land.

SPECULATIONS (you are warned): There are mysterious writing (equations) left on 
rocks that the colony leader has forbidden people to
see. Given these, and some other comments, I suspect that the secret mission of 
the colony is actually to set up a reverse time rift
to ship back natural resources to their home timeline. Or maybe not, we'll see.


Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Email: tholtz@umd.edu   Phone: 301-405-4084
Office: Centreville 1216                        
Senior Lecturer, Vertebrate Paleontology
Dept. of Geology, University of Maryland
http://www.geol.umd.edu/~tholtz/
Fax: 301-314-9661               

Faculty Director, Science & Global Change Program, College Park Scholars
http://www.geol.umd.edu/sgc
Fax: 301-314-9843

Mailing Address:        Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
                        Department of Geology
                        Building 237, Room 1117
                        University of Maryland
                        College Park, MD 20742 USA