T. rex Autopsy Goes into the “Belly of the Beast” and Beyond

Scientists, psychologists, and philosophers have all forwarded reasons why they think dinosaurs have such a tenacious hold on our imagination. Because dinosaurs are big. Because they’re scary. Because they provide kids a way to show they’re smarter than their parents. All may be true to some extent. But what we often forget is that it’s simply fun to imagine what these great creatures must have been like in life – to weave muscle and skin around the old bones and envision our favorite species bellowing their dominance over the planet. And it’s exactly that spirit the National Geographic Channel’s T. rex Autopsy tries to capture.

A Mesozoic riff on Inside Nature’s Giants, the one-hour program centers around the most glorious dinosaur ever created for television. The full-sized Tyrannosaurus, crafted by the Crawley Creatures workshop, may truly be the closest thing we’ll ever get to seeing the tyrant king in the flesh. And, fortunately, the show doesn’t spend much time getting bogged down in backstory. There are brief flashes of military planes, soldiers, and barking guard dogs as the carnivore’s carcass is wheeled before the show’s team of scientists, but how a tyrannosaur came to exist in our time is left as the conceit viewers have to make in order to dig into what follows.

Real paleobiologists carry the show. I was elated to see that researchers Victoria Herridge, Steve Brusatte, and Matt Mossbrucker form the heart – ha ha – of the program, although veterinarian Luke Gamble tries to steal more than a few scenes with more of a Crocodile Hunter style of presenting. (Seven minutes into the show, when the team is just starting to take in the dinosaur, Gamble jumps right in with a chainsaw to lop off one of the dinosaur’s feet.) Not to be unfair to the cast, who are researchers rather than actors, this approach sometimes comes off as a little bit stilted. The scientists know that they’re working with a giant anatomical model and, for example, know they shouldn’t be surprised that belly ribs make the tyrannosaur’s stomach difficult to slice open, but that’s just the way it has to be for the show to work. And the paleontologists still seem excited about the task in front of them – who wouldn’t want to dissect a life-size tyrannosaur, real or not? Their enthusiasm for anatomy shines through the scripting as they start peeling back the dinosaur’s flesh.

And it does get pretty gory. The show leaves no time to waste, making the whole operation a bit hack-and-slash. “We are the T. rex wreckers”, Brusatte gleefully says late in the show. But the wondrous thing about what Crawley Creatures made is that it’s complete with blood, guts, and stomach contents, most of which get smeared all over the scientists. Sitting inside a dinosaur’s open abdomen or going elbow-deep into its cloaca will do that. This is far better than any cgi effect. The practical Tyrannosaurus is so beautifully-crafted – from quill-like protofeathers on its back to the valves of its heart – that I didn’t want to miss a second of the anatomical exploration. By the end of the hour, I was a little disappointed that the dissectors didn’t have more time to look at the tail muscles, the system of air sacs that pervaded the dinosaur’s body, and other anatomical features that could have filled up hours more.

But even within the available hour, the show packs in the microstructure of the dinosaur’s bones, injuries, the anatomy of the eye, how to sex a dinosaur, and more. The fanciful approach is what allows the show to get into the details of dinosaur anatomy and biology in a way never seen on television before. Some of the vignettes – such as that dealing with its heart – are more speculative than others, but the program nevertheless offers a fast and furious short course on vertebrate anatomy.

The whole thing looks so good that I worry some viewers will think the autopsy is real. (Confusion has been stirred with less.) But T. rex Autopsy doesn’t use the same slight of hand that recent Discovery shows focused on mermaids and giant prehistoric sharks relied on. T. rex Autopsy starts with the line “Imagine if the government found the complete body of a dinosaur…”, and, over the end credits, narrator Jack Davenport explains that the tyrannosaur is a prop that took six months to build. Some suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy the show, but at least the program is forthright that such an admission ticket is required.

In a post-Walking With Dinosaurs era, when almost every program about ancient life is dominated by slavering cgi monsters, T. rex Autopsy is a refreshing approach to dinosaurs. It’s wet, it’s gross, and it’s intimate. The show required the construction and deconstruction of our favorite dinosaur at a level never before attempted. Even if some of the anatomical tidbits fly by a little too fast, you’ll want to watch just for the spectacle. You’ve never seen a dinosaur like this before.

Coda:

I loved T. rex Autopsy, and if you want to know more about the show you should check out John Hutchinson’s account of what it was like being a scientific advisor on the program. But I can’t say I’m a fan of another upcoming National Geographic Channel special.

In the lead up to the release of Jurassic World, National Geographic Channel is releasing a slew of dinosaur-related programs. In addition to T. rex Autopsy, they’ll also be presenting a show called Dino Death Match. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s centered around the so-called “Dueling Dinosaurs” – a tyrannosaur and ceratopsid found buried together.

There are a few problems with the dinosaur pair. The first, despite the hyped title, is that there’s no conclusive evidence that they actually fought each other to the death. But the larger problem is that these dinosaurs are currently in private hands and have not been formally described. They can’t be until they’re permanently reposited in a recognized scientific institution, ensuring that they will not only be cared for, but open to repeated study by experts. Privately-held fossils can all-too-easily be withdrawn from scientific scrutiny by their owners, sold into personal collections, or otherwise be cordoned off from scientists, making them effectively useless to expanding our knowledge of past life. That’s why the scientific standard, set forth by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, is that significant fossils should be curated in a recognized scientific institution before they are published upon.

In fact, these dinosaurs could have gone to a private collector rather than a museum. They were presented for public auction in November 2013 and failed to sell. Dino Death Match seems like the latest attempt to plump up the significance of these fossils as the owners search for a bidder willing to drop millions of dollars on the dinosaurs. Even if museums had that sort of cash, spending it on the two dinosaurs would be ill-advised – the $9 million asked for the “Dueling Dinosaurs” could fund research, fieldwork, and staff for decades at most any institution you care to name. It’s difficult to see the show as much more than another piece in the press package meant to make these dinosaurs look attractive to a buyer. In short, creating an hour long advertisement for controversial fossils held in private hands is an ethically dubious move by the National Geographic Channel.

12 thoughts on “T. rex Autopsy Goes into the “Belly of the Beast” and Beyond

  1. I would rather watch a documentary about a pair of beautiful fossils over an imaginary dissection of a muppet any day. How can you say that you care about paleontology if you think that photographing, filming, or talking about a fossil is “ethically dubious”? Mistreating live animals in an experiment is ethically dubious, examining a fossil never is. If a billionaire sees the documentary and decides to purchase it for donation to a museum, good. These specimens exist whether you like it or not. You better take advantage of the time you have to examine them now just in case – worst case scenario – they disappear form science forever. Remember, scientists solve problems. They don’t pretend that problems don’t exist.

  2. I’m sorry but this whole programme is speculation presented as fact. This isn’t science at all. Felt like I was watching an old movie Ray Harryhausen monster being cut up. Shame they didn’t put more time into the finish as well. This thing was covered in scales not elephant skin.

  3. Watching your show I am totally captivated and fascinated. WOW…Great job all of you! The best thing I have seen on TV in many years.
    MORE!!! MORE!!! ENCORE!!! BRAVO ALL OF YOU!!!

  4. Seriously? LIQUID blood in a 2 million year old dinosaur???? No matter how well preserved, that is highly doubtful. Was Lucasfilm involved here?

  5. I watched the t- Rex dissection and how did they know what the insides of the T-Rex look like? Was it really life like? Cindy Manchester

  6. My only comment is on the fact that an autopsy on an animal is a necropsy, but I understand why they may have chosen the more recognizable word. I found it very, very informative and the special effects were excellent. I always take speculative science with a ‘grain of salt’ because there is so much that IS not known for fact. Keep up the good work. All the years I have been watching NatGeo programs have not been wasted, they’ve only sparked my imagination.

  7. I would like to see the proto-feathers on T. rex’s back and arms extend a little farther onto the tyrannosaur’s thorax and be denser. However, I cannot complain as John and the rest did an excellent job. I think I can speak for everyone here at the Stamford Museum when I say it was a fantastic show.

    In response to the other comments:

    Cindy, the presence, placement and morphology of the tyrannosaur’s anatomy was based on our latest understanding. Although some researchers (like me) think that T. rex’s proto-feathers covered more of the animal’s body and were denser in number, the fact that we don’t have any known preserved T. rex feathers means that a slight covering is just as accurate (a naked T. rex is also accurate, but phylogenic analyses have concluded that Tyrannosaurus most likely had feathers).

    James M. and bomoore, the latest phylogenic analyses have concluded that Tyrannosaurus rex was most likely covered with feathers. Also, sections of Tyrannosaurus are known to have been covered in patches of mosaic scales, but these patches were most likely intermixed with feathers.

  8. Loved every single minute of this show, fascinating. Please do it again next year with a Brachiosaurus, that would be epic.

  9. What an incredible program. My only problem with it was the lack of more feathers, but otherwise it was amazing.

  10. A hardline interpretation of SVP’s position on the ‘ethics’ of publishing on specimens not in museums fails the sniff test in a few ways. Museum specimens may be lost, destroyed or stolen, and privately owned specimens may be made available to all qualified researchers over the owner’s lifetime or better. Is it OK to publish on the original type material of Spinosaurus? (bombed to dust in WW2). Is it OK to publish on specimens destroyed in the process of description, by grinding in increments and tracing the parallel cross-sections? What about publishing on CT scan data made public or archived in a museum, though the actual specimen may be lost, destroyed or privately owned?

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