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Prehistoric Creatures: the Liopleurodon

Posted by samgr on January 8, 2007

UPDATE: Read this post.  Enjoy it.  But if you LOVE liopleurodons (and who in the name of Sam Hill doesn’t), you should check out my new blog project here:

You will not regret it.  Now back to your regularly scheduled post.

This will be the first of a series of entries on prehistoric creatures that I think are relevant to modern life.


Liopleurodons will probably never be as popular as woolly mammoths and t-rexes, and their name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but this giant sea reptile seems to have entered the public consciousness a bit more lately. This can probably be traced to two things:

1. The inclusion of a big scary liopleurodon in one of those BBC-produced “Walking With Dinosaurs” TV-shows a few years back; looking cool and doing improbable things like leaping out of the water and devouring large dinosaurs.

2. A recent cameo in a upsetting cartoon.

This is all well and good. I like liopleurodons. I am skeptical, however, of the sloppy science that the “Walking With Dinosaurs” people employed to make their liopleurodon size estimates. Based on the liopleurodon fossils that people have found, the animals probably got to be about thirty feet long. This is pretty respectable, I think. However, the “Walking With Dinosaurs” folks depicted their liopleurodons as seventy-five feet long, based on a chain of dubious logical leaps. (A sea reptile fossil was found in Mexico in 2002 that was about forty-five feet long. It probably wasn’t even a liopleurodon, but people briefly thought that it might be; what’s more it seemed to be a juvenile, so whatever it was might have gotten even larger with full growth. This was good enough for the television show to report with the appearance of authority a wildly inflated size estimate for their liopeurodon.)

This sort of thing bugs me. I think that giant sea reptiles are cool enough already without dumbing down the science to tell me that they were far bigger than they actually were. Prehistoric monsters are more interesting to me than the Abominable Snowman, say, because prehistoric monsters were real and the Abominable Snowman is not. So I want to know about scientists’ best guesses about what is true. If these shows are ostensibly about education, they should use good science, and not cave into the principle of stating whatever sounds coolest from the range of what is conceivably possible. And it’s not like giant toothy sea reptiles are lame or garden-variety if they are ONLY thirty feet long.

And now in sources like the web, misinformation will propagate, because most people will write down and repeat the most impressive version of the facts they hear. A similar thing happens with another real, but non-extinct animal: the giant squid. Since stories about giant squids tend towards hyperbole anyway, even sources that proclaim to be scientific throw around inflated size figures more or less solely because people think that bigger monsters are cooler monsters. They’re cool enough! I think there is no need for exaggeration.

(The author Richard Ellis has written two very good books — one about giant squids and one about prehistoric sea reptiles — that provide rigorous and non-flighty looks at both of these very large sea creatures. Fun to check out, and they stick to real science.)

In a weird way, this relates to what bugged me about Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. I should get it out of the way that I think the film was extremely well-motivated and provided a vitally important public service. But at the same time, it bothered me that it dumbed down the science: showing graphs without labeled axes, and not going into any depth about how the data being talked about was obtained. After seeing the movie, I read the book The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery, and the contrast was quite striking. The book made pretty much the exact same points as Gore’s film, but made them by letting the reader in on the science that can get us to those points. When an author or filmmaker assumes intelligence on the part of the audience, a better and more thorough case can be made.

On the other hand, Gore’s film seems to have made an impact where many other projects simply could not, clearing away some of the manufactured arguments against the crisis of human-influenced climate change. So am I giving the public too much credit? Am I just being a snob? What do you think?

And that’s why I like liopleurodons.


4 Responses to “Prehistoric Creatures: the Liopleurodon”

  1. Nightstrike said

    What the hell dude. You’re the first hit for “prehistoric liopleurodon”… Oh well, hopefully I’ll be stealing all of your hits.

  2. carola001 said

    You can get as cranky as you choose about “Walking with Dinosaurs”. And you can get cranky about their overestimation of Liopleurodon length and weight and such, but the fact remains….. they made the study of prehistoric creatures far more available to those of use that love them. More important….. they introduced this field to young minds that had nothing other than Transformers or GI Junk cartoons or X-Men comics to think about. Go them.
    And to defend those good folks at BBC….. (yeah, I love the ellipsis….. sorry), they DID say that that particular Liopleurodon was huge even for his kind.
    They did similar small fudging for some of the other critters.
    I don’t consider this “dumbing down.” After all, for those of us that are familiar with the statistics, we know the difference. For those getting into it for the first time….. they will find our that it is exaggerated soon enough.
    And again, the exaggeration? Not so much. I may be speaking out of the corner of my mouth here, but wasn’t there a recent find (admittedly after the “Walking with” material) of a fossil nearly that size….. of another marine reptile? If so, that settles the Liopleurodon – Kronosaur size debate, and kind of legitimizes the “Walking with” fudging. Well just a little if you squint.
    I guess the point of this ramble is: don’t be so cranky with BBC’s production. It did a lot more good than the tiny amount of fudging did harm.

  3. brittany steele said

    how did lioplerurodon go die out? i AM doing a report on him and i knda need to know.

  4. […] Tratto dal Fiji Times. Immagine da Sam’s Blog […]

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