Prehistoric sea monsters:
Educational resources for kids (and parents, too)
© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Prehistoric sea monsters of the Mesozoic
For more than 180 million years, the Mesozoic oceans were dominated by large, predatory sea reptiles:
- the dolphin-shaped ichthyosaurs
- the plesiosaurs, which included the long-necked elasmosaurs and the shorter-necked pliosaurs
- the terrifying, snake-like mosasaurs
Who isn't intrigued by such creatures? Well, perhaps not everyone. But
if your child likes dinosaurs, or is fascinated by marine biology, he or she will enjoy learning about the extinct sea reptiles, too.
I love these animals because of the lessons they teach about evolution. It’s easy
to see how similar selective pressures (the benefits of being sleek and
streamlined in the water; the advantages of having a long snout for
snapping up fish) gave rise to similar adaptations in prehistoric sea
monsters and modern-day marine mammals. At the same time, some of the
Mesozoic forms were weirdly and wonderfully unique.
But where to
begin? Here’s a guide to some of my favorite resources about Mesozoic sea reptiles for school-aged kids and teens.
Chased by Sea Monsters
Three-part BBC series by Impossible Pictures. (Found on the North American March 23, 2004 release DVD Chased by Dinosaurs.)
Recommended for ages 4 and up (but it may be too scary for some kids)
In a nutshell: A
mock documentary series featuring computer-animated prehistoric sea
monsters and the appealing television naturalist, Nigel Marven. Watch
out--the tension and subject matter may disturb younger viewers. But for
kids who can handle PG-rated scares, this is fine entertainment.
It comes packaged on a DVD that also includes Chased by Dinosaurs .
What you get:
TV host and naturalist Nigel Marven
stars in this fictitious documentary. The premise is that Nigel and his
crew have traveled back in time to film prehistoric sea monsters.
charismatic Marven, who ordinarily hosts “real" documentaries, is a
convincing actor and fun to watch. Whether he’s inspecting a dead
trilobite or diving into a sea of plesiosaurs, Marven seems natural and
unaffected. The creatures and habitats are equally convincing--they were
recreated by Impossible Pictures, the same people who made the landmark
series Walking with Dinosaurs.
The creatures aren’t
presented chronologically. Instead, Nigel’s crew ranks the world’s seven
most dangerous seas, and visits them in order, beginning with the least
dangerous. Some of the prehistoric sea monsters include:
- Astraspis, an armor-plated fish from the Ordovician
- Basilosaurus, an ancient, predatory whale from the Eocene
- Megalodon, a gigantic shark from the Pliocene
- Liopleurodon, a short-necked, Jurassic pliosaur and the largest carnivore of all time
- Tylosaurus, a mosasaur from the Cretaceous
repeatedly puts himself in danger--rather recklessly at times. He is
slashed by sea scorpions, menaced by sharks, and stalked by mosasaurs.
In fact, the subject matter may be too scary for some children. But if
your kids are old enough to understand that it’s fantasy, the series
offers some entertaining and exciting reconstructions of prehistoric sea
Reign of the Sea Dragons
by Sneed B. Collard III and illustrated by Andrew Plant (Charlesbridge 2008)
Recommended for ages 8 and up; approximately 60 pages long
In a nutshell:
This beautifully-illustrated book provides an excellent, concept-driven
overview of Mesozoic sea reptiles. Includes scale drawings, a guide to
other resources about prehistoric sea monsters, a glossary, and an
index. A great educational value that will offer kids insights into the
ways that paleontologists reconstruct the past.
What you get:
Books about paleontology for kids are often little more than a collection of illustrations and statistics. Reign of the Sea Dragons by Sneed B. Collard III (2008-07-01) is a welcome exception: A primer on the prehistoric sea monsters for kids who want to understand how these creatures lived and how paleontologists piece together the evidence.
Aimed at intermediate readers (aged 8 to 11), the book
begins with an admirably brief, 2-paragraph overview and a time chart of
the Mesozoic. Thereafter, Collard tackles each major reptile group in
turn: ichthyosaurs, elasmosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs.
text emphasizes adaptations. Why did plesiosaurs have such long necks?
Why did ichthyosaurs resemble dolphins? Collard also discusses the sorts
of evidence that paleontologists use to make inferences about the
fossil evidence. Were these prehistoric sea monsters warm-blooded
endotherms? Did they give birth on land or in the sea? What color were
they? And why did they go extinct?
Collard has a knack for
presenting the “big picture"--for providing the conceptual scaffolding
that makes a reader feel he’s really learned something. For example,
consider this paragraph from the end of the book about the role of
competition in the extinction of ichthyosaurs:
were swimming the seas, new groups of faster, more efficient fish were
evolving. The larger of these fish--including the sharks--probably began
preying on ichthyosaur young. Perhaps more important, many of the bony
fish had now evolved efficient, streamlined bodies that could match the
speed of the ichthyosaurs. These faster fish became harder for
ichthyosaurs to hunt, and also started outswimming ichthyosaurs for all
kinds of prey."
Clear, concise, and full of concrete imagery. That’s great science writing. And it’s great teaching, too.
speaking of imagery, there are also many vivid and lovely illustrations
by Andrew Plant. In addition to eight full color paintings, there are
line drawings throughout the book. And the inside cover features a scale
drawing of extinct and modern-day sea creatures, so the reader can see
how the sea dragons compare with whales and sharks.
other books about prehistoric sea monsters for kids. But, in my opinion,
this book delivers the best educational value for the money. Collard
hits all the right marks:
- He stays on topic--no lengthy, tedious digressions into how specific fossils were discovered.
- He makes instructive comparisons with living animals.
- He provides kids with insights into the way scientists solve problems.
is the kind of book that encourages a lifelong interest in natural
history. And it might even inspire some kids to become paleontologists.
Sea monsters: A prehistoric adventure
National Geographic Film
Recommended for ages 5 and up
In a nutshell: State-of-the-art computer animations, originally presented on a huge IMAX screen.
IMAX movie offers spectacular, super-sized imagery of prehistoric sea
monsters. The protagonists are some short-necked plesiosaurs (Dolichorhynchops).
They look a bit like large, four-flippered penguins with teeth. The
film follows one of these creatures throughout her lifespan, and
includes encounters with Tylosaurus, a terrifying, 58-foot-long
The film takes full advantage of the gigantic,
wrap-around format of IMAX. You’ll see breathtaking sea chases and
gorgeous aerial shots of pterosaurs flying above the ocean surface.
seeing? Ye, but it’s not a perfect film. In particular, the story about
prehistoric sea monsters is frequently interrupted by scenes of
“paleontologists" (rather unconvincing actors) wearing REI fashions
and driving around in SUVs. I’m not sure what these human
dramatizations are supposed to accomplish. Did the film makers think we
needed a break from the gorgeous paleontological reconstructions?
my view, the film would be much better if these rather silly scenes
were replaced with brief educational outtakes—mini features about, say,
the function of various anatomical traits. And how about using real
scientists (who show real enthusiasm) instead of actors?
Online resources about prehistoric sea monsters
For more child-oriented information about prehistoric sea monsters, check out the BBC’s paleontology website.
If you are a paleontology die hard, you should also visit Mike Everhart’s guide to prehistoric sea monsters, Oceans of Kansas. The site is rather difficult to navigate (because of its enormous size), and much of the information is technical. But there are some dramatic narratives—-like this “A day in the life of a mosasaur"— that will interest serious-minded, middle- and high-school paleontology buffs.
And, for younger kids, there are a few illustrations of prehistoric sea monsters suitable for coloring.
In addition, take a look at the beautiful paleontological reconstructions of scientific illustrator Karen Carr.
Finally, here’s a handy website presenting reconstructions of what the earth (and it’s oceans) looked like at various times in the past.