March of the Dinosaurs. 2011 by Touch Press. iPad. App webpage.
Reviewed by Brian Switek
Dinosaurs have changed a hell of a lot since I was a kid. My beloved “Brontosaurus” was beheaded and recast as Apatosaurus, Torosaurus might just be the spectacular mature form of Triceratops, and we now know that many dinosaurs were covered in lavish, colorful plumage. I like it. There are plenty of complaints about how paleontologists are ruining cherished childhood memories by altering our understanding of dinosaur lives, but all the immature whining misses the grander point. We know more about dinosaurs lives than ever before, and the more we learn, the stranger and more wonderful the creatures become.
Dinosaurs trodding through the snow is one of my favorite new images. For as long as I can remember, Stegosaurus and company were presented as inhabitants of steaming jungles choked with ferns, cycads, and horsetails. Rudolph Zallinger’s gorgeous mural The Age of Reptiles at Yale and the short, dinosaur-filled segment of Disney’s Fantasia left no doubt in my young mind that dinosaurs lived in a seemingly endless global summer. But this was a holdover from the idea that dinosaurs were sluggish ectotherms that required considerable heat to start up every morning. Not only have such swamp-bound monsters been given a makeover, but a better understanding of the habitats dinosaurs occupied has altered our previous understanding of the world tyrannosaurs, ceratopsians, and their ilk lived in.
Continuing research in Alaska, for example, has even turned up dinosaurs which lived within the Arctic circle. These dinosaurs were not outcasts or vacationers, but part of complex communities which permanently made their homes up north, including everything from the svelte tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus to the feathered, switchblade-clawed raptor Troodon and plenty of Pachyrhinosaurus – a magnificent horned dinosaur with bony hooks jutting from its frill and a big, lumpy boss on its nose. And while prehistoric Alaska was a titch watmer than today, there was still snow and many months of darkness. Here, dinosaurs once slogged through Cretaceous snowstorms.
A paleo drama about these chilled archosaurs – titled March of the Dinosaurs – was released by Impossible Pictures last year. It was another Walking With Dinosaurs wannabe – all computer-generated violence, very little science. I love a feather-covered, acrobatic Albertosaurus sailing through the air with claws extended as much as anyone else, but, without any explanation of how we have come to know of this animal’s existence, the dinosaur is just another special effect. But when fellow Download the Universe contributor Deborah Blum told me there was a March of the Dinosaurs app for the iPad, I felt a stirring of hope. Maybe, with the interactivity an iPad allows, some of the glossy effects might be combined with some scientific explanation.
But the book, if it can even be called that, is entirely a passive experience. The main screen offers the option of starting from the beginning or jumping to a particular chapter, but, from there, the app narrates the text over stills from the show. Buttons along the bottom allow users to fast-forward, go back, and tap on dinosaur icons to get more information about the creatures in the story, but, otherwise, the story plays out on its own. If you have already seen the show, there is nothing new in the story, and the only animated portions are the bumpers between each of the chapters.
I’m not sure who this story is geared towards. The self-reading narrative is over the heads of the See Spot Run crowd, but beneath the level of kids who are already on to reading The Hunger Games. Whatever audience March of the Dinosaurs is geared towards, it must be narrow. I did appreciate that the narration described hadrosaurs huddling together for warmth and the feathers “bristling” on the back of dinosaur necks – little hints of just how much has changed in the last three decades – although I couldn’t help but laugh at the line “If dinosaurs had lips, they’d be licking them…” Watching the story unfold is effectively having the show’s narration re-read without the animated portions, and this is utterly pointless.
The other half of the app is a dinosaur database. Each of the story’s prehistoric creatures has their own entry. Most contain a few tidbits about when each animal was discovered, what they ate, and how they might have bred. The information is generally up-to-date, and, to the app’s credit, the mini-encyclopedia explicitly states that mosasaurs (marine lizards) and pterosaurs (flying archosaurs) were not dinosaurs. And, other than the text, the catalog includes short video clips from the show and the ability to slowly drag your finger to slow down the rotating, walking models of each dinosaur. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to Gorgosaurus doing an impression of Bo Derek in Blake Edwards’ 10.
Ultimately, though, March of the Dinosaurs is a lost opportunity. The app doesn’t do much more than repackage what was in the documentary with a few lines of text that could have just as easily been gleaned from Wikipedia. I would have loved to see additional content from the continuing excavations in Alaska, or interviews with paleontologists Anthony Fiorillo – one of the foremost experts on Arctic dinosaurs – describing the science behind the story. But there’s none of that. March of the Dinosaurs follows similar apps – such as Inside the World of Dinosaurs – in delivering plenty of text and the ability to rotate walking models, but the end result is ultimately disappointing and has little replay value. The story has already been told in the widely available documentary version, and the background material is so meager that it does not justify the existence of a stand-alone app.
Dinosaurs are often considered kitsh and kid’s stuff. March of the Dinosaurs does nothing to change this interpretation. The app simply recapitulates a story already told and throws in a few factoids in a feeble attempt to attract unwary readers. With a little extra effort, the app could have helped explain how paleontologists reconstructed the prehistoric world of Arctic dinosaurs and how scattered bones are translated into glimpses into the biology of long-dead animals, but, as is the trend in modern dinosaur media, the focus is the products of paleontology rather than the process by which our understanding comes together. No wonder modern dinosaurs are constantly competing against earlier, inaccurate iterations of themselves.
Brian Switek is a freelance science writer and author of the book Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. He regularly blogs about paleontology at the WIRED Science blog Laelaps and the Smithsonian blog Dinosaur Tracking.