Jurassic Fight Club

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A female Majungasaurus as envisaged by the creators of Jurassic Fight Club.

Imagine, just for a moment, standing in the middle of a Cretaceous forest 70 million years ago. The sunlight streaming through the canopy catches dust motes in the hot Madagascar grove, the calls of birds making the scene feel familiar despite being from another time. Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, they cease, the undergrowth just beyond your line of vision creaking and cracking with the footfalls of something monstrous. The predator slowly comes into view through the trees, a male Majungasaurus with a bright red wattle and something like a cock’s comb adorning his knobbly head. He can’t see you (this is a fantasy, after all) but what he does see excites him; a female in his territory. Slightly smaller and drab green in color she is not as visually impressive as the male but it would be dangerous to underestimate her ferocity. She is protecting a newborn, too small to fend for itself, and the male poses a direct threat to her offspring. The situation is set to explode, and that is precisely what happens in the History Channel’s new series Jurassic Fight Club.

Created (and primarily hosted) by science popularizer “Dinosaur” George Blasing, Jurassic Fight Club takes a familiar concept and infuses it with plenty of scientific content. Anyone who grew up loving dinosaurs will recall making plastic toys fight each other to the death on playmats or in sandboxes (one of my favorites was a Triceratops with a mean set of fangs) and the new show takes advantage of precisely this fascination. Dinosaurs in general are cool, but how much cooler are the ones that bit, clawed, slashed, disemboweled, gored, and otherwise pulverized other dinosaurs? This type of show has been done before, the Discovery Channel’s Animal Face Off being the foremost example, but Animal Face Off was marred by horrible cgi, an inordinate amount of time spent on mechanical replicas chewing on surfboards, and attempts of the show’s creators to get scientists to trash-talk each other. Fortunately

The first episode of Jurassic Fight Club, set to air this coming Tuesday (July 29), focuses on Majungasaurus, a theropod dinosaur about 20 feet long that lived during the Cretaceous in what is now Madagascar.* Although it is hardly a household name it has quickly become one of the best-known theropods, a treasure trove of fossil finds generating a string of papers on nearly every aspect of this ancient predator. This makes it a perfect for a starring role in this show, although it is the marks that individual Majungasaurus left on other dinosaurs that is the scientific bedrock of this episode.

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Majungasaurus chevron bones with parallel tooth-marks. The only known predator with jaws that would have inflicted such damage was another Majungasaurus. From Rogers et al., 2003.

In 2003 Rogers, et al. published a paper in the well-known journal Nature called “Cannibalism in the Madagascan dinosaur Majungatholus atopus” presenting research that provided hard evidence of cannibalism in Majungasaurus.** As quarries were searched and new material was produced a number of the bones, particularly ribs and elements of the vertebral column, had large parallel tooth scores on them. They were often found with tooth crowns from Majungasaurus, theropods often shedding their teeth while feeding (those lost being replaced by those already growing in the jaw.) The tooth marks on these bones closely resemble those found on bones from the sauropod Rapetosaurus and Majungasaurus was the only large theropod present in the area at the same time. (The only other competing predators were large, crocodile-like creatures but the shape and spacing of their teeth ruled them out.) Indeed, there was only one good candidate for the creature that consumed flesh from both the sauropod and the predators; Majungasaurus. It might not be catching the killers red-handed but the weapons match the marks at the “crime scene.” The question is whether the cannibalism was murderous or more opportunistic in nature.

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A reconstruction of Majungasaurus. The bones in white have been recovered, those in grey were missing at the time of publication. From Carrano 2007.

Tooth marks can wind up on a skeleton in a number of ways, like during a fight, predation, or scavenging. Each circumstance will leave different clues, predation and scavenging perhaps being the most similar. If a fairly complete skeleton is found it might be possible to identify predation if there are what appear to be bones freshly broken or afflicted by trauma in addition to the bite marks due to the struggle of predator and prey. In the case of scavenging, however, there may be no such signs of trauma and there may be very little skeletal material left. When dealing with fragmentary skeletons making such distinctions is difficult if not impossible, the possibilities of predation and scavenging both being on the table. The show is called Jurassic Fight Club, however, and so scavenging is not even entertained as an option. The bones, we are told by George Blasing, are the absolute evidence of a fight to the death, and this is regrettable. The show could have presented a bloody title-match between two Majungasaurus while also mentioning that the bite marks could have been the result of scavenging, but this probably ran counter to the spirit of the program.

Many of you are already familiar with all this material, however, and are probably wondering about the set-up and presentation of the show. The production values are slick and while the creature designers could have benefited from a bit more scientific collaboration the dinosaurs look good. Sunshine and blood both dapple the hides of the dinosaurs as they stomp around the ring in the forest, little subtleties lie the curling of lips and waving of arms making them some of the best cgi dinosaurs yet seen. The documentary is somewhat hindered by the modern, sensationalist documentary style, however. There is a lot of re-used footage, fast-cuts, use of a grainy yellow filter, and a raspy-voiced narrator, all of which playing up the “fight to the death” premise. Despite my differences in stylistic taste, though, the show is impressively done. What’s more, Phil Currie, Peter Larson, Lawrence Witmer, Mark Loewen, and Thomas Holtz appear throughout the show to help explain the morphology, paleobiology, and possible behavior of Majungasaurus. Their segments provided, at least for me, the high points of the show, allowing paleontologists to enthusiastically talk about the specimens they have spent so much time studying.

“Dinosaur” George, who also appears throughout the program, engages in a bit more speculation, eschewing words like “may,” ‘probably,” “perhaps,” “might,” etc. for assertions about function and behavior. In particular the bumpy skull of Majungatholus is said to be a male trait, something to intimidate other males and attract females. This is speculation that fits into the story the documentary wants to tell but isn’t sufficiently supported, although sexual dimorphism in the skull of this dinosaur can be tested. If articulated skeletons could be found, or at least skeletons that preserve a good portion of the skull as well as the long bones of the hind limbs, researchers would be able to not only compare the skulls but identify females based upon the structure of the bone in their legs. Female dinosaurs laid eggs, eggs requiring calcium, so when eggs were forming calcium stored in the legs was drawn out and left tell-tale signs like what we see in living female birds. If long bones show these signs then we can be confident that we’re looking at a female (since males don’t lay eggs) and the association of a skull would allow for a more confident establishment of sexual dimorphism. As far as I know, however, this has not been done and so the show sometimes selectively matches some evidence to the story they wish to tell.

Further, the audience is told that Madagascar was so small that some large body of dinosaurs were smooshed together, unavoidably rubbing elbows with each other. This idea doesn’t necessarily work, as if populations of Majungasaurus would not oscillate due to disease, prey availability, and other factors. The dinosaur was confined to Madagascar, it is true, but it is not as if some huge number of them were picked up from the African continent and arbitrarily placed there, overcrowded in the forests. This makes the next inference even more absurd, that inbreeding would have been a huge problem for Majungasaurus due to the island’s small size compared to the rest of Africa. This assumes that there was only one population of these dinosaurs over the entire island and that there was not some dispersal mechanism to counter the potential for inbreeding. The evidence for cannibalism may also mean that life would have been very dangerous for young Manjungasaurus, especially those setting out to set up territories of their own, territorial fights (and even predation) acting as a check that prevented too many siblings setting up shop in the same area.

Going even further the documentary asserts that inbreeding results in mutations, such mutations perhaps giving Majungasaurus it’s knobby head. This is a confusing oversimplification. Mutations caused by inbreeding would probably not be beneficial ones (inbreeding reducing fitness rather than enhancing it), and if the bumps on the head of this dinosaur are thought to be adaptive I don’t see why inbreeding should be considered as an evolutionary mechanism for something that is said to be essential to conspecific combat and mating. If the rugose covering of the skull of this dinosaur was caused by inbreeding I would also expect it to vary quite a bit between individuals but there are recognizable landmarks on the bumps and knobs, supporting the notion that it was something that was selected for and varied rather than the product of inbreeding. The inbreeding hypothesis seems like a pet idea that made it into the show but I don’t think there is compelling evidence to support it.

By the time of the last quarter the documentary begins I had been so over-saturated by CGI clips and images that they almost ceased to be impressive; the staged fight had been played almost in it’s entirety before it even started. Some of the moments are impressive but so much of it had already been revealed that it didn’t especially grab my attention, but if you love to see CGI dinosaur carnage you’ll likely consider it the high point of the episode.

Should you tune in to see Jurassic Fight Club? Despite my qualms about the way some of the evidence is presented, the story seemingly being more important than the science, I would say “Yes.” The show is entertaining, looks good, and presents some of the newest discoveries in paleontology as explained by experts. There are a lot of little things that can be argued with or picked apart but all in all the show succeeds in showcasing science, being a welcome change from documentaries that parade CGI dinosaurs across the screen but give no face-time to paleontologists. The second episode, featuring a Nanotyrannus catching and killing a baby Tyrannosaurus will be more of a test, though. Will the series cherry-pick evidence to present a particular story or will it strive for accuracy? We’ll soon find out, but for now I would say that Jurassic Fight Club is an entertaining mix of science and speculation that definitely provides plenty of food for thought.

*(The show calls it Majungatholus, but there is good reason for what might otherwise seem to be a mix-up. The show was being filmed just at the time when it was found that the name Majungatholus was a junior synonym of the name Majungasaurus. In other words two names had been inadvertently used to describe the same dinosaur and in such a case the older name, Majungasaurus, takes precedent. Dr. Thomas Holtz has commented that he addressed this issue during filming but it did not make it into the show; the creators decided to stick with Majungatholus even though it is now defunct.)

**(The idea that some theropod dinosaurs were cannibalistic has a long history, one of the major threads of supporting evidence coming from a small, Triassic dinosaur called Coelophysis. Some of the skeletons recovered of this dinosaur in New Mexico had stomach contents that were interpreted to be baby Coelophysis, but a 2006 paper by Nesbitt et al. refuted this; the stomach contents were really crocodylomorph reptiles. This presently makes Majungasaurus the only dinosaur where there is clear evidence of cannibalism.)

If you’d like to know more about the show check out the official website, which includes the “Turf Wars” game.

Carrano, M.T. (2007) “The Appendicular Skeleton of Majungasaurus crenatissimus (Theropoda” Abelisauridae) From the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.” Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 8, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Vol. 27 (Supplement to Number 2), pp. 163-179
Krause, D.W.; Sampson, S.D.; Carrano, M.T.; O’Connor, P.M. (2007) “Overview of the History of Discovery, Taxonomy, Phylogeny, and Biogeography of Majungasaurus crenatissimus (Theropoda: Abelisauridae) From the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.” Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 8, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology,
Vol 27 (Supplement to Number 2), pp. 1-20
Nesbitt, S.J.; Turner, A.H.; Erickson, G.M.; Norell, M.A. (2006) “Prey choice and cannibalistic behaviour in the theropod Coelophysis.” Biology Letters, Vol. 2, pp. 611-614
Rogers, R.R.; Krause, D.W.; Rogers, K.C. (2003) “Cannibalism in the Madagascan dinosaur Majungatholus atopus.” Nature, Vol. 422, pp. 515-518
Sampson, S.D.; Witmer, L.M.; Forster, C.A.; Krause, D.W.; O’Connor, P.M.; Dodson, P.; Ravoavy, F. (1998) “Predatory Dinosaur Remains from Madagascar: Implications for the Cretaceous Biogeography of Gondwana.” Science, Vol. 280, pp. 1048-1051