Dino Docs! Oliver's Articles

Dino Docs: Walking with Beasts (2001)

The second instalment of the BBC’s Walking With series is an epic tale of how mammals came to conquer Earth

How do you create a follow-up to an acclaimed series that revolutionized our view of prehistory?

That was the dilemma the BBC faced in 1999. After the release of the astounding docuseries Walking with Dinosaurs, it seemed impossible for creators Tim Haines and Jasper James to create a sequel that could approach its predecessor’s success. Adding to the difficulty was that the sequel – entitled Walking with Beasts (or Walking with Prehistoric Beasts in North America) – would not feature dinosaurs. Instead, Walking with Beasts showcased mammals and other prehistoric life that emerged after the dinosaur’s extinction. While these mammals made for fascinating subjects, they weren’t species well known by the public. I mean, have you ever heard of Leptictidium?

Despite the cards stacked against it, Walking with Beasts is a fantastic sequel. In six stunning episodes, Beasts laid the groundwork for how to portray extinct mammals on screen. Despite being over 20 years old, Beasts is the definitive series for prehistoric mammals, a topic with shockingly little material. As I will discuss today, one could argue that it surpasses its predecessor in terms of quality, though this may be a personal preference.

©BBC and Impossible Pictures

As always, spoilers will be present. The entire series is free to watch online, so if you have three spare hours, you can catch up before reading. Without further ado, let’s get into the review!

Episode Synopses:

The six episodes of Walking with Beasts explore different settings throughout the Cenozoic Era. The first episode, New Dawn, takes place during the Eocene (~49 million years ago) and examines the fauna of the Messel Pit fossil site in southern Germany. Species such as the primitive Leptictidium, the giant flightless bird Gastornis, and the proto-whale Ambulocetus are prominent characters in the episode. Next, the series shifts to the Tethys Seaway during the Late Eocene to depict the early whale Basilosaurus, which the second episode – Whale Killer – is named after. In the depleted seas of the Late Eocene, we see Basilosaurus live up to this moniker with brutal effect.

Episode 3, Land of Giants, moves away from the Eocene oceans to the Oligocene of Mongolia, where we follow an Indricothere mother and calf. While these ancient rhino relatives have since been renamed to the more cumbersome Paraceratherium, their immense size has stood the test of time. Episode 4, Next of Kin, sheds light on the early stages of human evolution through our ancestor Australopithecus. While hints of what Australopithecus would later evolve into are present, Next of Kin makes it clear that Australopithecus was still ways away from Homo Sapiens (what with the chest-beating and getting terrorized by all the other animals on the savannah).

Indricotheres. ©BBC and Impossible Pictures

From Pliocene Africa, we move to Pleistocene South America in episode 5. Titled Sabre Tooth, we follow a pride of the sabre-toothed cat Smilodon. Led by the enigmatic male half-tooth, the pride encounters many bizarre creatures from the lost continent, including rival sabre tooths, more giant carnivorous birds, and angry giant ground sloths. The final episode, Mammoth Journey, follows a herd of woolly mammoths on their annual migration through continental Europe. Along their travels, they encounter the perils of the Ice Age: snow, melted snow, bugs (in the summer), excited male mammoths, and the deadliest peril of all, humans.

The Sabre-tooth Cat Smilodon. ©BBC and Impossible Pictures

The Lost Episode

The pre-production process for Walking with Beasts left a few ideas on the table, most notably an episode centred on prehistoric Australia. Surprisingly, this episode would not have featured Pleistocene fauna, including the marsupial lion Thylacoleo, the giant monitor lizard Varnus Priscus (or Megalania), and the giant wombat Diprotodon. Instead, this episode would have featured taxa from the Riversleigh fossil site in Queensland, dating between the Oligocene and Miocene epochs (~28-5 million years ago)[i]. Some notable taxa from Riversleigh include Obdurodon, a giant Platypus; Quinkana, a terrestrial crocodile; plus, multiple species of Koalas, Kangaroos, and Thylacine ancestors. Though abandoned in pre-production, the bizarre taxa of prehistoric Australia would be fascinating subjects for future documentaries to depict.

Why is the theme song so good?

What I (and I’m sure plenty of others) remember best about this series is its theme song.

I’m not kidding:

There is no reason for the theme song to go this hard! This is the kind of music you play when headbanging or that you use to get hyped up before a sporting event. What makes it even crazier is the contrast between the Beasts theme song and the soundtrack from Walking with Dinosaurs. Both are composed by Benjamin Bartlett, but going from the sombre tones of WWD straight into the absolute fire that is the Beasts’ theme is quite the experience!

Best Episode: Mammoth Journey

Mammoth Journey has many strengths – brilliant composition, fascinating species, and intriguing scenarios – but the highlight is its depiction of humans. Yes, they are predators, with a group of Homo Sapiens killing the Irish Elk Megaloceros and a tribe of Neanderthals hunting Mammoths. However, the two species of humans are portrayed simply as animals trying to survive. Like their Australopithecus ancestors, the world around them gets the better of them; a Homo Sapiens gets eaten by two cave lions (RIP gramps), while a Neanderthal gets trampled by an angry woolly rhino. There’s something special about seeing humanity at a point in history where their prowess is emerging, yet they still are at the mercy of the world around them.

Behind the scenes with Homo Sapiens (left) and Homo Neanderthalensis (right). ©BBC and Impossible Pictures

Honourable mention: Sabre Tooth

Oliver’s picks: Sabre Tooth, honourable mention Whale Killer. 

The Liopleurodon award for the most exaggerated species: Gastornis

The Gastornis of Beasts is a predatory bird with a craving for mammalian blood. In reality, the 2 meter tall flightless bird shared a diet with the primitive horses it eats on film. A recent analysis of Gastornis beaks and bone isotopes indicate that it had a herbivorous diet, making the primary plot point in New Dawn outdated. Instead of flightless birds, the real dangers of Eocene forests were the giant terrestrial crocodiles, such as the recently discovered Dentaneosuchus. This doesn’t mean Gastornis was docile however, as modern flightless birds (such as the Cassowary) are known to be aggressive if provoked.

Gastornis and the world where birds eat horses. ©BBC and Impossible Pictures

Honourable Mention: Basilosaurus (said to weigh 60 tonnes; in reality, it weighed around 6).

The Spinosaurus award for most awkward moment: The First Paleo-Sex Scene

An alternate title was the funniest moment in the series, but it also works in the awkward category. In Next of Kin, audiences witness the mating rituals of our early ancestors Australopithecus. On top of it being equivalent to catching your great-great-great (x1,000) grandparents in the act, it is so realistic that the series producers felt the need to pixelate the image. I’m sure it was a pleasure for parents watching a documentary about prehistoric mammals to explain to their kids why the screen looks like Minecraft through squinted eyes.  

Honourable Mention/Oliver’s Pick: Indricothere calf gets trampled by his mother’s lover.

The “All your yesterdays” award for predicting a future fossil: Basilosaurus

It’s rare for paleomedia to predict fossil discoveries, so kudos to Walking with Beasts! A prominent (and graphic) subplot of Whale Killer involves a hungry Basilosaurus devouring juveniles of the smaller whale species Dorudon. In 2012, an analysis of bite marks on the skulls of juvenile Dorudon matched the teeth of adult Basilosaurus[ii], while the 2019 discovery of Basilosaurus stomach contents contained the remains of juvenile Dorudon[iii]. These finds confirm that Basilosaurus was feeding on juvenile whales, though hopefully not as brutally as shown in Beasts…

Basilosaurus vs Dorudon. ©BBC and Impossible Pictures

Speaking of Brutal…

If I had to describe Walking with Beasts in one word, it would have to be primal. Visceral, metal, and brutal are also good alternatives.

This series is ruthless. If you thought Prehistoric Planet had an excess of young animal murders, Beasts surely tops it (be warned: trigger warning in effect). In the first episode, a hatching Gastornis is eaten alive by massive ants, with the use of a model making the scene downright nauseating and traumatizing. This isn’t the only instance of baby animal violence; every episode (minus Mammoth Journey) features at least one case of attempted or successful infanticide, making the series hard to watch sometimes.

©BBC and Impossible Pictures

This brutality doesn’t just apply to babies. A Hyaenodon defecates on a freshly killed carcass to prevent it from being stolen (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work). Two mammoths fall off a cliff after being frightened by Neanderthals wielding fire. Two Andrewsarchus play tug-of-war with a dead baby Brontothere, only to be interrupted by its confused mother. While this series is brilliant, it is extremely mature for a source of paleomedia.

The Megalodon award for the wrong place, wrong time: Ambulocetus

In New Dawn, the ancient whale Ambulocetus appears in the forests of Eocene Germany. While Ambulocetus was around during the Eocene, its remains are known from Pakistan and not Germany. Whale diversification and range expansion did occur quickly in the Eocene, so we can’t discount an adventurous individual travelling to Europe. Plus, the presence of the Tethys Seaway would have connected Central Europe to Pakistan, meaning that an amphibious species like Ambulocetus may have had an easier time with long-distance travel.

Honourable Mentions: Phorusrhacos (extinct by the time of Sabre Tooth); Homo neanderthalensis (extinct by the time of Mammoth Journey).

The Apatosaurus award for the wrong or inaccurate head: The Brontotheres (Embolothereium)

Brontotheres, or “thunder beasts”, were a dominant lineage of hooved mammals in the Late Eocene. Featured in episode 2, these herbivores are famous for their strange skull ornamentation, with large bony horns at the end of their snouts. Superficially, these animals resembled rhinos, which is why many depictions of them – including that in Beasts – feature rhino-like horn protrusions:

©BBC and Impossible Pictures

While this may have been the case for most Brontotheres, the species featured in Beasts – Embolotherium – may have been different. Its horn was fragile and broader than other Brontotheres, which has led some to speculate that they supported more pronounced nasal cavities atop their skulls, thus leading to more fleshy restorations of Embolotherium:

While the fleshy Embolotherium isn’t the prettiest, I must admit it is somewhat charming.

Honourable Mention: Entelodonts (another under-fleshed skull); various other species (skin wrapped/under-fleshed bodies)

Best Scene: Final Scene

The perfect ending is both impactful and thought-provoking. Beasts’ final scene succeeds at both.

After showing a tribe of humans carving ivory to resemble a mammoth, Beasts flashes forward to the Natural History Museum of London in the present. With fossils and replicas of the animals featured throughout the series in the background, narrator Kenneth Branagh ends with the haunting dialogue:

“And if all this has taught us anything, it’s that no species lasts forever.”  

I still get chills hearing that. It comes out of nowhere, as a startling message about human conservation isn’t something one would expect to end a paleo documentary. It’s a reminder that if we don’t change our ways, both the animals around us – and eventually humanity itself – will end up like the mighty mammoth, a casualty of humanity’s rise.

©BBC and Impossible Pictures

Walking with Beasts is my favourite entry in the Walking With series. With engaging storytelling, fascinating periods, and graphic depictions of prehistoric life, Beasts is a work of art. Beasts was my (and many others, including my special correspondent, Oliver Dong’s) introduction to prehistoric mammals, and what an introduction it was. Through Beasts, things like Terror Birds, giant ground sloths, and walking whales became familiar animals, making the series an iconic staple of paleomedia.

Let’s just hope those bloody ants stay in the past…

Thank you for reading today’s article! If you’d like to know my thoughts about Walking with Dinosaurs, you can read about it here at Max’s Blogosaurus!

Also, I’d like to introduce my special correspondent, Oliver Dong! A fellow student at the University of Toronto, Oliver is a like-minded paleonerd, though much more of a Permian expert than I am! In the future, Oliver may help contribute some articles of his own, which I look forward to!

Works Cited:

I do not take credit for any images found in this article. Images belong to the BBC and impossible pictures, including the header for this article.

[i] Corporation, British Broadcasting. “Making of Walking with Beasts: Research.” BBC – Science – Beasts – Making of – Research, 2001,

[ii] Fahlke, JM. “Bite Marks Revisited – Evidence for Middle-to-Late Eocene Basilosaurus ISIS Predation on Dorudon Atrox (Both Cetacea, Basilosauridae).” Palaeontologia Electronica, July 2012,

[iii] Voss, Manja, et al. “Stomach Contents of the Archaeocete Basilosaurus Isis: Apex Predator in Oceans of the Late Eocene.” PLOS ONE, vol. 14, no. 1, 2019,

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