Arctic Dinosaurs

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: October 7, 2008

Most people imagine dinosaurs lurking in warm locales with swamps and jungles, dining on vegetation and each other. But a new NOVA documentary reveals that many species also survived and thrived in the harsh environments of the north and south polar regions. This program focuses on two high-stakes expeditions and the paleontologists who push the limits of science to unearth 70 million-year-old fossils buried in the vast Alaskan tundra.

NOVA takes viewers on an exciting Arctic trek as one team of paleontologists attempts a radical "dig" in northern Alaska, using explosives to bore a 60-foot tunnel into the permafrost in search of fossil bones. Both the scientists and the filmmakers face many challenges while on location, including plummeting temperatures and eroding cliffs prone to sudden collapse. Meanwhile, a second team of scientists works high atop a treacherous cliff to unearth a massive skull, all the while battling time, temperature, and voracious mosquitoes.

The hardy scientists shadowed in "Arctic Dinosaurs" persevere because they are driven by a compelling riddle: How did dinosaurs—long believed to be cold-blooded animals—endure the bleak polar environment and navigate in near-total darkness during the long winter months? Did they migrate over hundreds of miles of rough terrain like modern-day herds of caribou in search of food? Or did they enter a dormant state of hibernation, like bears? Could they have been warm-blooded, like birds and mammals? Top researchers from Texas, Australia, and the United Kingdom converge on the freezing tundra to unearth some startling new answers.

The experts featured in the program shed light on dinosaur biology as they carefully craft theories about life cycles, environment, weather, and extinction. NOVA travels with paleontologist Tony Fiorillo to excavation sites on the North Slope of Alaska, to unearth a unique skull from the lip of a cliff that threatens to slide into the Colville River far below. (See The Producer's Story for filmmaker Chris Schmidt's behind-the-scenes take on his journey to this site.) Robert Spicer, an expert on prehistoric flora, ingeniously reconstructs the dinosaurs's environment by studying fossil leaves and suggests that the "veggie" dinosaurs had a plentiful menu of plants to pick from.

More clues come from other scientists. An expert in fossil footprints and trails, Steve Hasiotis, concludes that Alaska was once a warmer, wetter, and lusher environment than previously imagined. And South African researcher Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan examines thin cross-sections of dinosaur bones shipped from Alaska to help determine whether the animals were warm-blooded, which was probably essential for them to have survived the harsh winters.

Finally, the program touches on the ultimate implications of dinosaur survival. Did a catastrophic asteroid impact 65 million years ago wipe out the dinosaurs, as most people now believe, or did more gradual ecological changes play an equally decisive role in their demise? Like a good detective story, "Arctic Dinosaurs" fingers new suspects in its search for answers to the extinction riddle, including massive volcanic eruptions, shifting continents, and a gradual climatic chill—the opposite of today's global warming. Throughout, the documentary brings the world of arctic dinosaurs vividly to life through compelling computer-generated imagery.

Program Transcript
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Arctic Dinosaurs

As their fossil remains attest, a wide range of dinosaurs lived in what is now northern Alaska 70 million years ago, including the seven kinds above.

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