NOVA’s ‘Dinosaur Apocalypse’ will showcase North Dakota fossil site capturing ‘the day the dinosaurs died’
The Tanis site near Bowman, North Dakota, offers evidence of the catastrophic events that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. NOVA programs to air Wednesday, May 11.
FARGO — The discovery of a rare trove of fossils in the North Dakota Badlands that provides an extraordinary picture of the extinction of the dinosaurs will be featured in a two-part special, “Dinosaur Apocalypse,” on public television’s NOVA science series.
The two specials will air starting at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, on Prairie Public television. The co-production is the latest collaboration between the Public Broadcast Service and the BBC Studios Science Unit.
The hour-long segments explore the findings of paleontologist Robert DePalma, whose team excavated a site in southwestern North Dakota near Bowman starting in 2017. The site was previously worked by a commercial fossil hunter, but DePalma quickly recognized the site’s potential significance in depicting “the day the dinosaurs died.”
The extinction of the dinosaurs stemmed from events 66 million years ago when an asteroid larger than Mount Everest slammed into earth, ending the Cretaceous Period and killing the large reptiles that had dominated the planet for more than 150 million years.
In the documentary series, Sir David Attenborough examines clues from the Tanis site left by fossilized, prehistoric creatures.
“We’re excited to bring viewers along on this journey as scientists excavate this extraordinary dig site,” said Julie Cort, a NOVA co-executive producer. “We’re able to look over the shoulders of paleontologists uncovering some of the rarest fossils ever found in North America — perhaps in the world — that, if confirmed, could help illuminate the most dramatic single day in the history of the planet.”
“Dinosaur Apocalypse” was filmed over three years and follows DePalma and his team as they explore and unearth creatures that might shed light on the life of the large reptiles, plants and animals as the age of the dinosaurs came to an abrupt and tumultuous end.
The first episode, “Dinosaur Apocalypse: The New Evidence,” introduces viewers to the Tanis site within the Hell Creek Formation, famous for its many dinosaur fossil discoveries. New evidence uncovered by DePalma’s team includes a very rare fossilized egg with the embryo of a pterosaur, a flying reptile, and a fossilized burrow dug by an early mammal, possibly a pediomyid, a marsupial found in North America during the Late Cretaceous Period.
Paleontologists digging at the North Dakota site also found a “beautifully preserved” piece of skin from a Triceratops, a dinosaur species noted for its three horns.
As the discoveries unfold, DePalma’s team works to piece together a picture of the life that existed at the time of the extinction.
The second episode, “Dinosaur Apocalypse: The Last Day,” which immediately follows the first episode at 9 p.m., shows DePalma and his team unearthing tiny beads of molten rock that appear to be spherules created by an asteroid impact. Some of the spherules were preserved in amber.
Analysis of the beads revealed a “speck of rock” that is reportedly a chemical match to the killer asteroid. Near that spot, researchers found the leg of what could be a small, plant-eating dinosaur called a Thescelosauras — a victim, DePalma believes, of events triggered by the deadly asteroid strike that sent seismic waves up an ancient river valley to the Tanis site.
If confirmed by further research, the find would mark the first fossil to have been uncovered of a dinosaur apparently linked to the asteroid’s lethal impacts.
The second episode includes “blow-by-blow” computer-generated imagery visualizing the series of destructive events — earthquakes, fires and the surge wave that entombed and preserved the specimens at the Tanis site.
Although the Chicxulub asteroid was fatal for the large dinosaurs, Attenborough reminds viewers that it ended the dominance of the large reptiles, without which small mammals probably wouldn’t have evolved into the animals on earth today.
A rare find by DePalma’s team will be shown at the conclusion of the second episode: a fossilized dinosaur feather, a reminder that avian dinosaurs survived the upheavals of the asteroid and evolved into the birds of today.