Part 5: Spirits
of the Ice Forest ("of the Silent Forest" in the book)
Time: 106 million years BCE
part of a giant continent made up of present-day Antarctica, South
America, and Australia
Actual Locations: New Zealand
The setting and cast of this episode
are the most unfamiliar for the veteran dinosaur watcher. Most
of the action takes place in a silent forest a few hundred miles
from the South Pole, a locale that simply didnít exist in past
popular saurian narratives. Itís a cold, harsh world that is dark
for months on end; everything shows up in a washed-out grey-green.
But itís not a wasteland or an ice sheet: itís a dense forest
of ferns, conifers, swampy pools Ö and the huge flat head of what
looks like a bullfrog pops out to snatch at the corpse of a small
dinosaur on the shore!
The star of this show is Leaellynasaura
(sounds like "Lianna-saura"; was it discovered and named
by a Welshman?), an elegant 7-foot biped withówait for itóhuge
eyes "and an enlarged optic lobe that enabled it to see in
the dark." Thereís plenty of animatronic action with these
creatures, who warn one another of predators and scatter; build
nests of rotting leaves to incubate eggs whose temperature they
monitor with sensitive beaks; and chase off an egg-snatching mammal
called Steropodon, a secondary cuddly hero who looks like a cross
between an opossum and a raccoon.
Koolasuchus is the heavy: 16 feet
long but only 1 foot high, it looks like a giant, squashed salamander
with an outsized arrow-shaped head. Itís actually a throwback
to a time before the dinosaurs: an amphibian that survived only
in the polar regions because it was too cold for crocodiles. Koolashuchus
hibernates in the swamp during the winter, and makes a laborious
200-meter crawl to its summer quarters in the river. A Dwarf Allosaur,
"only" 20 feet long, provides some additional threat
to our cuddly heroes as well.
The big dumb-guy role is taken
by Muttaburrasaurus, an herbivore whose enlarged snout (the head
looks like a camelís with yellow balloons on its nose) may have
been useful for making distinctive calls. We get a closeup of
blood-sucking insects on its ears and eyes. A lizard known as
the Tuatara, another reptile that predates the dinosaurs but will
live on into present-day New Zealand, makes an appearance, as
does the Weta, a giant brown cricket-like insect.
As the lighter part of the year
winds down, plant photosynthesis stops, Southern Lights dance
across the sky, thereís a time lapse sequence of ice crystals
and creamy ice forming on various objects, and the scene turns
almost pitch black under the trees. "But with image-enhancement,
it is possible to get a Leaellynasauraís-eye view of the clan,"
says Branagh, and the visuals of frozen ground and pools, of the
clan gone into suspended animation, resemble infrared photography.