So many of the best things about childhood seem to vanish when you become a grown-up and nobody asks you to name your favourite dinosaur anymore. But this July, DStv is airing a host of shows featuring grown-ups who’re climbing mountains, studying glaciers, swimming with sharks, digging up dinosaurs, beating swords out of flaming metal and thinking about how gross the past was all day long. They’re basically living out our childhood fantasies and with TV, we get to join them for the best parts of it.
Cowboys vs dinosaurs
The Discovery Channel’s (DStv 121) brand-new show, Dino Hunters, combines two awesome things – cowboys and dinosaurs – to create one incredible show. The series focuses on ranchers in the United States who’ve become fossil-hunting pros as they scour the Badlands of Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, uncovering dinosaur specimens – some of which could even be of previously unknown species. A good haul in fossil hunting season could help to pay their children’s school fees, or even save the family ranch. But it means months of painstaking, backbreaking work in scorching heat for an uncertain payoff at fossil auctions, where private bidders compete with museums and universities to secure the best specimens.
While the cowboys transport their carefully dug-up specimens to professional fossil preparation experts to do the delicate work of finding the best presentation for their finds, Dino Hunters uses 3D modelling and Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) to simulate an X-ray visualisations of the fossil. From there, they use the computer models to show what the dinosaurs might have looked like in real life, how they moved, and how they hunted or foraged. Many of the fossil finds shown in Dino Hunters are adding startling new evidence to our understanding of dinosaurs.
Rancher and cowboy Clayton Phipps’ discovery nicknamed “Duelling Dinosaurs” is considered one of the finest fossil specimens on record. It shows two dinosaurs who died together in the middle of a battle. A juvenile T-Rex (or possibly a dwarf species of tyrannosaur) or therapod about the size of a polar bear was in the middle of attacking an elephant-sized ceratopsian, possibly a triceratops (possibly even a new species), when they were both frozen in time. Their bodies were preserved down to the skin, with two therapod teeth found broken off in the throat and pelvis of the ceratopsian. Clayton speculates that the ceratopsian was on its last legs from the battle when it kicked the therapod with one of its back legs, splitting the therapod’s skull and stunning or killing it. In falling, one of the animals took down a sandbank above the battle site, burying them both instantly. “It’s exquisite. It’s one of the more beautiful fossils found in North America, ever,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Love for the game
Dino Hunters digs into the thorny legal battles raging over ownership of fossils and the ethics of selling to private collectors, which means that any discoveries that could be made from the fossil are lost to science.
But it also uncovers a priceless treasure: the passion and incredible depth of knowledge that amateurs in the field can bring to palaeontology, and a look at how far you can go and how much you can know in a field without a scientific degree. Clayton and his fellow dino hunters, including his 12-year-old son Luke, and father-and-son cowboy team Mike and Jake Harris, show how families can pass on a love for science along with fossil hunting skills and knowledge. Aaron Bolan of Wyoming grew up digging for fossils on his uncle’s ranch and went on to study to be a homicide detective. Now he’s back on the land using his forensic education to study his fossil finds.
They all share a lifelong passion for science and storytelling. Dino Hunters allows them to express their wonder at their fossil discoveries, and showcases their ability to look back across the vast gulf of time to imagine their ranch lands as they must have been when they were covered in herds of grazing dinosaurs, stalked by fierce predators.
Watch Dino Hunters S1 from Thursday, 16 July on Discovery Channel (DStv 121) at 20:55