Scientific accuracy is overrated: A paleontologist weighs in on The Good Dinosaur

Published November 30, 2015
ARLO (left) and Forrest Woodbush (aka The Pet Collector) in The Good Dinosaur.—The Washington Post
ARLO (left) and Forrest Woodbush (aka The Pet Collector) in The Good Dinosaur.—The Washington Post

The latest film from Disney and Pixar isn’t exactly a bastion of scientific accuracy: in The Good Dinosaur dinosaurs and early humans co-exist. But dinosaurs are dinosaurs — even when they’re animated — so we asked a paleontologist to review the film. Below is a Q&A with Vincent Santucci, a geologist and paleontologist with the National Park Service.

Q: First things first: as a paleontologist and a dad, how did you like the film?

A: First, I really was drawn to how the film adopted qualities of an old, classic western movie. The story, characters, landscapes, and especially the music, were very reminiscent of a John Ford western film. I do not think the young children viewing The Good Dinosaur will have this same connection, but certainly Disney movies know how to connect with people of all ages.

The other aspect of the film that captivated me was the beautiful and detailed landscapes, which were clearly inspired by locations in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming.

As a National Park Service geologist who worked and studied at Yellowstone, the scenes of the geysers, hot springs, canyons, mountains, and even columnar jointing stirred my geologic passion to race my heart a few beats faster.

Q: The plot of the movie hinges on dinosaurs being saved from extinction — and then meeting up with early humans millions of years later. What did you think of that?

A: There are some paleontologists who argue that dinosaurs are still around in the form of birds, their descendants.

But if (big) dinosaurs survived, would the Great Apes have evolved to live alongside them — or did we need the ecological niche they left behind?

The fossil record reveals many extraordinary changes in life over geologic time. Along with the extinction events, we observe periods which reveal the appearances of new groups of organisms. One of the best examples of this adaptive radiation of new life involves the evolution of flowering trees and plants we can think of as a Cretaceous Bloom. The new deciduous flora yielded seasonal changes from springtime flowers and fruit to colourful leaves in the autumn. Along with the flowering plants, pollinating insects appeared in a biologically essential partnership which spread across the landscapes and the globe.

Geologist and paleontologist Vincent Santucci was captivated by scenes of geysers, inspired by Yellowstone National Park, in Disney and Pixar’s latest film The Good Dinosaur.
Geologist and paleontologist Vincent Santucci was captivated by scenes of geysers, inspired by Yellowstone National Park, in Disney and Pixar’s latest film The Good Dinosaur.

The new forests provided new homes, habitat and food for animals to discover and benefit. Thus with the loss of the dinosaurs, new opportunities became available for other creatures to thrive in what would in many ways be a new world. The fossil record preserves a rich record of mammals and birds, which found success in this new world — after the dinosaurs.

In some ways, we can view our modern world, including all the plants, animals and even humans, as shaped by the sum total of all those physical and biological events that happened in our past. The loss of some groups through extinction created opportunities for new life forms to emerge, including humans and our ancestors.

Q: Obviously The Good Dinosaur wasn’t meant to be scientifically accurate. In your experience, can movies like this one get kids interested in science anyway?

A: We should leave the “scientific accuracy” debate to the serious-minded paleontologists. For the rest of us kids, young and old, we have many other rewards to be gained from viewing The Good Dinosaur.

My grandfather always shared with me the thought, “Never lose your childhood enthusiasm about life and learning.” I hold onto this thought and life practice — as my secret to happiness. So I attended The Good Dinosaur both as the eight-year-old boy and as the 58-year-old National Park Service paleontologist, twice the fun for the price of one!

As a parent, as someone who loves to talk with kids about fossils and dinosaurs and as a kid at heart, it is always great to see another movie about dinosaurs. Each time another sequel to Jurassic Park or another movie features dinosaurs hits the cinemas, the public interest in fossils peaks again. This is especially true for children and The Good Dinosaur will certainly leave its mark with this generation children and Disney fans.

Going into a classroom of third-graders to talk about dinosaurs and fossils is one of the most rewarding experiences you can imagine. Unlike the pre-med students in the university, who only want to know what will be on the test, the third-graders are passionate to talk about dinosaurs. Recognising this fact, the National Park Service and over 325 partners across the country established National Fossil Day in 2010 as a partnership to promote the scientific and educational values of fossils, especially for children. Additionally, the National Park Service has created a Junior Paleontologist Educational Activity Programme, for children to learn about fossils in the national parks. The programme helps children to learn about fossils, to earn a Junior Paleontologist badge after taking a pledge promising to learn about and protect fossils. Over 80,000 children have taken the Junior Paleontologist pledge.

We recognise that not all the children who love fossils as a child will grow up to be paleontologists. However, we recognise that children’s innate interest in dinosaurs is a way to get children interested in science and learning. Our National Fossil Day partnership motto is: “One child at a time, one classroom at a time, one community at a time, one nation.”

We are grateful for the film The Good Dinosaur to have another generation of children excited about fossils and asking questions. Each generation of children need their classic Disney movie to watch over and over, to laugh and recite lines, and to share with their children when their turn as a parent arrives.

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2015

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