The seminal film The Land Before Time was never meant to be an accurate portrayal of Cretaceous Era life. When Steven Spielberg concocted the premise for the 1988 film, which will be released with its sequels on Netflix on Saturday, his idea was basically “Bambi, but with dinosaurs.” We didn’t expect realism from the original movie and those that followed, both because they were animated stories for kids and because bringing the dinosaur world to life necessarily requires some artistic license.
And yet, the film’s depiction of dinosaur life sugarcoats all of its hardships except one crucial element: Life for young dinosaurs was solitary and dangerous.
“Babies would be in a lot of danger, and the idea that trying to cross all of that distance as a baby dinosaur would be dangerous is spot on,” Mike Habib, an anatomist and paleontologist with the University of Southern California, tells Inverse, explaining that each of the dinosaurs in the film would have had fraught relationships — if any — with their parents. “It would have been horrifically dangerous, and you probably would not have gotten much help from an adult, if you were a sauropod.”
Sauropods are the group of dinosaurs that Littlefoot belongs to; in the movies, they’re called longnecks. Existing evidence suggests that Littlefoot wouldn’t have known his mother, let alone mourned her after she was eaten by a T. rex. “These animals probably laid them and left them,” says Habib.
Paleontologists suspect this for several reasons. For one, adult sauropods were just too damn big to care for their tiny young. These animals, weighing many dozens of tons, laid eggs as big as a basketball. “It can probably barely see them, much less protect them, until they’re at least half grown,” says Habib. Other evidence — the structure of nesting sites, the anatomy of hatchlings, the rate of their growth — points in the same direction. Longnecks very likely never knew their parents, and they probably never cared.
“In reality, what would happen is Littlefoot would wake up and there would be hundreds just like him, and they’d be scattering into the brush, and they wouldn’t even know who their parents are, and they wouldn’t know them if they saw them,” says Habib. “The weird part in the film is that he has an attachment to his parents at all, and that he misses them and he’s going to find the rest of his family.”
In the movie, a special set of circumstances is invented to forcibly separate parents from children: Littlefoot’s mother dies in battle, and a great earthquake scatters herds and families. But in reality, going solo would have been the norm for many types of dinosaurs, resulting in a particularly violent world where many babies are born but few survive to adolescence.
Littlefoot’s goofy friend Petrie is a pterosaur, or a “flyer,” and there’s good evidence pterosaurs never had parents, either. Pterosaurs were not dinosaurs but a related group of flying reptiles. These animals were born precocious, meaning that they were very mobile shortly after birth, and this often correlates with little or no parental care. In fact, it’s likely that pterosaurs could fly as soon as they were born, which sort of deflates the whole Petrie-learns-to-fly storyline.
If there’s one dinosaur among Littlefoot’s friends that might have had parents, it’s Ducky. Ducky is a hadrosaur, or “swimmer” (although in reality hadrosaurs were probably terrible swimmers). But there’s strong evidence that hadrosaurs, unlike sauropods, cared for their young. Hadrosaur nest sites are full of trampled eggshells, which suggests the hatchlings stick around for a while and survive on food that their parents bring them. Where there is no parenting, eggs are left behind cracked open but mostly intact.
“The one of the group that should be on the search for his parents — and feel such a tragic loss that they have died — would be Ducky,” says Habib. “And Littlefoot should be completely confused by this.” He imagines the scene like this:
“But my parents are gone!” Then Littlefoot would be like, “Your what?”
“My parents! I think they were killed by the vicious predator!”
“‘Kay. I’m going to go eat leaves now, and try to grow really big so nothing can kill me.”
If there’s another member of Littlefoot’s makeshift family that might have had parents, it’s Chomper, who we meet in The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure. Chomper is a baby sharptooth, a fictional classification that roughly encompasses a group of predators that includes the Tyrannosaurus rex and other real-world theropods. Despite the T. Rex’s nasty reputation, there’s evidence they were good parents.
Theropods are the group of dinosaurs that today’s birds belong to, and most birds do a great deal of parenting. While we don’t have direct evidence that the T. rex did so, many dinosaurs in the theropod family protect their eggs and probably protected their hatchlings, too. The oviraptor, for example, was falsely and forever labeled an “egg stealer” after its fossils were discovered near a nest, when it turns out the animal had only been protecting its own progeny. “It had been fossilized guarding its own eggs; it had guarded them to the death in the storm,” Habib says.
The T. rex would have been all the more likely to protect its eggs and its young simply because it could, says Habib. Snakes, which are not closely related to dinosaurs but are egg-laying animals nonetheless, only protect their young if they are dominant predators in an ecosystem. You don’t see small snakes protecting their nests, because that would make them dinner, says Habib. But king cobras guard their nests, because no one wants to mess with a king cobra.
If your curious kid wants to know where the rest of the baby dinosaurs are in The Land Before Time’s prehistoric landscape, Habib says, you can answer with honesty and scientific accuracy: “They’re already dead, honey. They’ve already been consumed.”