A 1980s Look at Smithsonian Dinosaurs

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I thought that I had seen just about every major dinosaur documentary from the 1980s, but I just found out that I missed at least one: the Smithsonian Video Collection's Dinosaurs. It was one of many programs—like A&E's miniseries Dinosaur!—that were inspired by deep changes to what we thought dinosaurs were like, and the show acts as a snapshot of a vibrant time in paleontology just before Jurassic Park kicked dinomania into full gear.

Narrated by James Whitmore, Dinosaurs was a typical look into the science of bringing dinosaurs back to life. There were no computer-generated dinosaurs to be found. Instead, paleoart old and new was mixed in with interviews of paleontologists to give viewers a general understanding of dinosaurs. The show was the video equivalent of the innumerable books on dinosaurs that I pored over as a kid.

Dinosaurs followed the standard documentary format of its time. After briefly mentioning the pop-culture appeal of dinosaurs, the show proceeded through a number of video chapters that touch on the great "Bone Wars" of the late 19th century, how fieldwork is almost the same today as it was a century ago, and how paleontologists reconstruct dinosaur anatomy, before touching on the debate over dinosaur extinction. All pretty standard stuff, but what makes it worth another look is that it contains interviews with a few Smithsonian paleontologists rarely seen in other programs.

During the time Dinosaurs was created, paleontologists were fiercely debating the physiology of dinosaurs. Did dinosaurs maintain high, constant body temperatures and have active metabolisms like birds and mammals? Or did they have lower metabolic rates and variable body temperatures, like crocodiles? Even though most paleontologists agreed on the new image of agile, dynamic dinosaurs, the actual physiology of dinosaurs remained hotly debated, and Dinosaurs featured a unique head-to-head argument between Robert Bakker—the primary advocate of "hot-blooded" dinosaurs—and Smithsonian curator Nicholas Hotton. The two scientists did not actually debate each other on camera, but Hotton was given the chance to respond to each of the lines of evidence Bakker proposed. My favorite moment is when Bakker argues that the rapid rate of dinosaur evolution is evidence for bird-like physiology, and Hotton incredulously responds, "for cryin' out loud, that's the silliest argument I've ever heard!"

Hotton passed away in 1999, but some of the other Smithsonian paleontologists are still at the National Museum of Natural History. Early in the show we meet Hans-Dieter Sues, the current curator of vertebrate paleontology, and in a later segment current collections manager Michael Brett-Surman takes viewers on a tour through the maze of cabinets containing most of the Smithsonian's dinosaurs. Together the paleontologists explain the historical importance of the Smithsonian collections and the way scientists are finding new ways to look at old bones. Even though much of Dinosaurs will be familiar to dedicated dinosaur fans, the peeks behind the scenes at the Smithsonian are a treat.

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