NOVA Making North America, Part 2: Life - A Review

Whatever Happened to the Dinosaurs and What Do Glass Beads Have to Do With That?

Sun Shines through a Gap in Monument Rocks, Kansas
Monument Rocks hold evidence of millions of years when Kansas was part of a great inland sea. WGBH )Making North America)

NOVA: Making North America - Life. 2015. Hosted by Kirk Johnson, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Sant director; series producer and director, Peter Oxley; executive producer for NOVA Julia Cort; Executive producers for Windfall films David Dugan, Rob Hartel and Carlo Massarella; managing directory Alan Ritsko, Senior Executive Producer Paula S. Apsell. NOVA production by Windfall Films for WGBH Boston, 2015.

Featuring Joe Sertich, R. Pamela Reid; Noah Planavsky; Tyler Lyson; Doug Boyer; Chuck Bonner and Barbara Shelton. Footage shot at Kaiparowits Plateau, Utah; Monument Rocks, Kansas; Marine EcoCentre, in the Bahamas; Kremmling Cretaceous Ammonite Locality, Colorado; Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota's Badlands; Duke University's Lemur Center, North Carolina.

The second episode in NOVA's Making North America series is called Life, premiering Wednesday, November 11th, 2015, and focused on the emergence of animal life on our planet. Like the Origins episode, Life is not in chronological order, but that doesn't take away from its appeal and educational value. Instead, host Kirk Johnson of the Smithsonian Institution roams the continent, chatting with geologists and paleontologists in their places of work, providing an entertaining entry into our very ancient past.

Program Segment Summary

Utah: The program opens at Kaiparowits Plateau, where paleontologist Joe Sertich of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science introduces us to the huge skull and lower jaw of the dinosaur known as the "king of gore", Lythronax argestes, an ancient relative of the more famous Tyrannosaurus rex but 10 million years older.

The Bahamas: Next, marine biologists R. Pamela Reid of the Bahamas Marine EcoCentre and Noah Planavsky from Yale University take Johnson diving 20 feet below the surface of the Atlantic ocean. There we get a look at stromatolites, big bulgy rocks built of sand and silt by the earliest form of ancient life on our planet, a blue green algae (cyanobacteria).

Some of these cyanobacteria's fossils are as old as 3.5 billion years. Planavsky shows us living microbial mats made by cyanobacteria and in the process make oxygen out of carbon dioxide. We oxygen breathers humbly thank these smelly, slimy creatures for reshaping our atmosphere

Kansas: Fossil hunters Chuck Bonner and Barbara Shelton take us to western Kansas to see the Monument Rocks, a strange rock formation built of thousands and thousands of layers of silt deposited here when the center of the continent was an inland sea. There, Bonner and Shelton show us a newly discovered Xiphactinus audax, a 14-foot-long fish who swam our inland ocean some 80 million years ago.

Back to Utah's Kaiparowits Plateau, where Joe Sertich's excavations are underway: and he and Johnson discuss the effect of the creation of the Rocky Mountains: draining the inland sea and forcing the coast-dwelling dinosaurs to adapt to new local surroundings about 70 million years ago.

Colorado: Johnson next visits the Kremmling Cretaceous Ammonite Locality where hollowed out rocks, called "birdbaths" are actually the fossils of enormous ammonites, shellfish whose remains are 40 million years old and high in the Rockies.

North Dakota: In the Badlands, Johnson introduces us to the Hell Creek formation, a 300 foot thick layer of rock stretching over 4 states. In this massive rock strata is evidence of a prehistoric "armageddon": the effects of a massive asteroid impact 66 million years ago that created the Chicxulub crater off the Yucatan peninsula and killed all the dinosaurs all over the planet. Johnson pulls out his "handy-dandy" field microscope (now I know what I want for Christmas) to show us what's left of this hellish event, a thin layer known as the K-T Boundary, made up of rusty orange burned earth, charcoal, ominous little glass beads and shocked quartz. I'd be shocked, too.

While in the Badlands, paleontologist Tyler Lyson (Denver Museum of Nature & Science) shows us a nice CGI graphic showing that below the layer of the shocked quartz and glass beads, paleontologists find lots of enormous dinosaurs, while above the K-T boundary, you find fish, crocodiles, turtles.

There are no dinosaurs anywhere on the planet, says Lyson.

North Carolina: At the Duke University Lemur center, paleontologist Doug Boyer describes his work investigating the early primate Carpolestes found in North America, how it got there--primates evolved in Madagascar--and what happened to it. Carpolestes was a two-foot-long lemur-like creature, with freakishly long fingers, according to Boyer; but when the first humans set foot in North America a mere 15,000 years ago, the only primate left was a monkey in Central America.

Teaching Evolution and CGI

I found Making North America: Life a very useful introduction to the evolution of animals on the planet, something I don't think about or ever do research on. So much has been learned since I went to school, it was refreshing to have Johnson's jovial travels as a, um, refresher course. Also--whoever did the CGI effects for this NOVA series needs all kinds of praise: for example, when Xiphactinus pulled itself out of its chalk bed at Monument Rocks and went swimming through the inland sea, oofdah. I now understand what that might have been like.

The version of Making North America: Life I saw was a rough-cut version, so most of my grumbling comments--no identifying banners were in place for the various scientists and some of the sounds levels and graphics weren't in place yet--are probably not appropriate for the final version.

Following Up on Public Science Programs

As I was compiling this review, though, I had a bit of a struggle finding links for further information on the various topics I was unfamiliar with. Who knows how to spell Xiphactinus or Lythronax? I don't know for sure that the final version of the program doesn't have those kinds of label banners embedded in it, but I do know that most public science videos and articles don't include those scientific names. The Chicxulub crater was not mentioned by name, nor was Carpolestes or the K-T boundary: I just happened to know those things because of my weird background (for example, the leftovers from Chicxulub created water sources for the Maya called cenotes).

I understand why public scientists don't do this--the use of big words scares people off. But--how can the average viewer follow up on something if she doesn't know its proper name and how it's spelled?

Now that I'm done with my public science rant, I have to say that NOVA has created a terrific Interactive Web Site where you can also follow up on many of the topics and locations presented in this series.

Diversity of Scholarship

What I truly appreciate about this series is that the scientists that Johnson chats up are younger scholars, women and people of color. So often, most of the people who are tapped to speak on programs like this are white male baby boomers who are the perceived holders of received wisdom. Involving younger and more diverse scholars exposes the public to a wider variety of experts, a marvelous idea that I devoutly hope other programs follow suit.

Making North America: Life premieres on Wednesday, November 11, 2015 and will no doubt be available on the PBS NOVA website for some time to come. This is great television, and I highly recommend it. Don't miss it!

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