Monday, June 22, 2015

Bloody hell, it's T. rex Autopsy

If you happened to dislike a certain highly profitable movie that was released recently (and I know a few people who would have good reason to), you may be consoled that there is an antidote at hand. Someone's only gone and made a TV show that involves the intricate dissection of an anatomically correct Tyrannosaurus carcass - a programme that combines the most up-to-date science with stunning practical effects work. It also features Steve Brusatte digging his way through gory theropod innards, which I will accept as fair penitence for that horrible coffee table book. It's National Geographic's T. rex Autopsy!

The life-size T. rex model. Photo from Nat Geo's official site, copyright Nat Geo Channels/Christopher Albert, and used on the assumption that they'll probably be cool with it...

Most dinosaur documentaries concern themselves with sensationalist, noisy battles between computer-generated beasties with a bloodlust only matched by one of George W Bush and Tony Blair's quiet meetings at Camp David. Very occasionally, something good does break through, as it did with the well-researched, John Hurt-narrated Planet Dinosaur from four years ago (Christ, where did the time go?). The best dino-docus are able to thrill the viewers with science; you've seen an incredible event happen, now see how scientists know it happened. T. rex Autopsy did just that.

The premise of the show was that a T. rex carcass had been found...somewhere (Costa Rica was not mentioned), and the government (seemingly the British government) and spirited it away to a hangar on a military base somewhere, never to be seen again by anyone except a select band of ne'er-do-wells. These included 'all-action vet' Luke Gamble; palaeontologists Steve Brusatte and the amazingly named Matthew T. Mossbrucker; and palaeo-biologist Tori Herridge. Together, they would literally delve into the belly of the beast (and the leg, and the face) to figure out how it lived and why it died.

This show is catnip for dinosaur enthusiasts, and especially those who are still thrilled at the sight of a T. rex skeleton in a museum, who will well know that a dinosaur doesn't have to be alive to take your breath away. Each section of the creature was created in astonishing detail; one of the consultants for the show, Dave Hone (for it is he), has interviewed visual effects maestro Jez Gibson-Harris on the creature's creation, and it's well worth a read. The realisation of this model can be regarded as an enormous (in every sense) achievement for everyone involved - 13 metres long, and filled with blood, guts, muscle, bone, partly-digested food, eggs and even eyeballs.

The team. L to R: Matthew Mossbrucker, Steve Brusatte, Luke Gamble, and Toni Herridge. Photo by Nat Geo Channels/Stuart Freedman.
 As a dinosaur geek, part of the thrill of this show is guessing exactly what the crew will happen upon next. I felt genuine glee when they encountered the animal's gastralia, never mind its avian-style respiratory system, complete with numerous air sacs. There is no compromise made for what Andrea Cau would call the 'dinomaniaco' crowd - this is a beast that has legs like an overgrown chicken, a carefully explained avian through-lung, and, yes, simple feathers over much of its body. While there is a little informed speculation, the majority of what is found in the beast's body is related to solid fossil evidence.

There was also a delight in having a lot of very neat, but often overlooked, dinosaurian features explained to a lay audience. At one point, Mossbrucker pointed Gamble to the animal's caudofemoralis muscle, a secret behind the dinosaurs' locomotory success. There was talk of Tyrannosaurus' keen sense of smell, but also of its superb eyesight. Indeed, the dissection of the eyeball was a wonderfully unexpected highlight of the show. Much was made of the fact that the animal was a sophisticated predator that was highly adapted to the ecosystem in which it lived. It wasn't a monster, or some sort of laughable reptilian throwback - it was real, and made to seem all the more tangibly real thanks to this programme.

Any downsides? Well, some of the CG life reconstructions felt like they were tacked on from a less worthy show, featuring as they did an awkward-looking tyrannosaur with eyes like the Cookie Monster (or '60s Godzilla) that took on a flock of incredibly foolish dromaeosaurs (nice plumage, though). But these hardly detracted from the main event.

If you haven't seen this yet, then please seek it out as soon as you can. It definitely doesn't keep popping up on YouTube in flagrant violation of copyright, ahem ahem. Upon watching it, you'll grin as widely as Steve Brusatte when he explores the tyrannosaur's intestines, or Tori Berridge when she rams her hand up the animal's cloaca, only to find that the theropd was fertile. First class, immensely enjoyable stuff, and a credit to everyone involved.


  1. Yeah, it was great, not just good, which was a relief given how awful most other dino docos are. Fortunately John of the Freezers had tipped us off about it otherwise I would have assumed that it was going to be terrible and almost certainly not watched.

    The model was stunning, very realistic both in terms of being scientifically accurate (or very plausible) and also in simply looking like it was a real dead animal. My only gripe was that the leg stump looked like an amorphous hunk of meat but that is easily forgiven 'cos everything else was so great.

    The whole program was also really well edited and slickly produced. The staged scenarios where the dissectors would discover something or investigate and explain some feature were also surprisingly well done given that only Luke Gamble could be said to have any real experience with TV performance.

    However, it was missing a proper fight scene. I would have liked to have seen Steve Brusatte versus Toni Herridge with them both standing in the tray of entrails. Steve would be armed with the tooth that he removed while Tori could have her pick of the available dissection tools (*cough* chainsaw *cough*). Perhaps that'll be in the sequel.

  2. That sounds completely amazing.

  3. Hey, what's so horrible about the coffee table book?? :-) But glad you enjoyed the show. It was a lot of fun to make and I'm proud of all the good science we got in there, but the real stars are Crawley Creatures and the amazing T. rex they made. And Mark: I don't foresee Tori and I wresting in a tray of entrails anytime soon...

    1. Haha, thanks for popping in, Steve. Agree, Crawley Creatures did a fantastic job, both in terms of their wizard skills and also with being fully engaged in the dialogues with experts and clearly determined to "get it right".

      I don't foresee Tori and I wresting in a tray of entrails anytime soon...
      That's a shame because I had tipped you for the win!

  4. Hello Steve, thanks for dropping by. I've got to say, I don't like the art in said book very much (and have said as much in previous posts), but I'm aware that you weren't responsible for that - so I was just joking, really. Congrats on the show and yes, Crawley Creatures do deserve a shout.

    1. Don't forget about the writing & text (although the paleoart is probably the worst part). ;)

  5. Ha ha, that's ok. I was joking too. Yeah, the art... Wasn't my doing. Although I could have done no better myself!

  6. @Marc Vincent

    Many thanks for writing this review. I've been meaning to watch this doc, but kept getting busy. This review gave me a reason to finally do so. Definitely on par w/"Inside Nature's Giants". 1 unexpected similarity was that they each had that 1 scientist who said seemingly-silly things throughout: In ING, it was Simon Watt (E.g. "Is the knife in case the cassowaries come too close?": ); In this doc, it was Steve Brusatte (More on that later). Don't get me wrong as I'm not trying to put Brusatte down. I have all the respect in the world for his technical work & I try to make that clear in all my Brusatte-related reviews. The problem is that, as you've noticed, his popular work leaves much to be desired. In this case, his commentary was often very silly even for the premise of this doc. Not as silly as Blasing's commentary ( ), but similar.

    "It also features Steve Brusatte digging his way through gory theropod innards, which I will accept as fair penitence for that horrible coffee table book."

    Which 1? There are at least 2 such books by him: "Dinosaurs" ( ) & "Field Guide to Dinosaurs" ( ).

    "Very occasionally, something good does break through, as it did with the well-researched, John Hurt-narrated Planet Dinosaur from four years ago"

    May he RIP.

    "the amazingly named Matthew T. Mossbrucker;"

    Out of curiosity, have you seen the videos of him & Bakker giving a tour of his museum ( ) ( )? His opening line in the 1st video is what won me over.

    "simple feathers over much of its body."

    Probably inaccurate based on what we know from both the fossil record & Evo-Devo (See "The feather-scale dichotomy": ), but I digress.

    1. "Any downsides?"

      Besides the CGI, I was a little annoyed by the narrator bringing up the scavenger "debate". At least the paleontologists correctly referred to it as a myth. Also, in reference to earlier, there were 3 things that seemed especially silly for a dino paleontologist to say (Please correct me if I'm wrong, though).

      1stly, when Herridge asked about fossil evidence for dino gender, Brusatte said "We just can't tell", completely ignoring the probable fossil evidence for T.rex gender (See "Theropoda": ). I get trying to be cautious, but the discovery of medullary bone in T.rex was pretty darn important, enough so to at least mention.

      2ndly, when Brusatte & Gamble were sexing the T.rex, Brusatte (the dino expert) had to ask Gamble (the non-dino expert) what they were looking at. I get that Gamble is the vet, but I thought that all dino paleontologists needed experience dissecting birds & crocs given what Bakker said (See the White quote). If that's the case, then shouldn't Brusatte have known what he was looking at just as well as Gamble?

      3rdly, when Gamble asked whether T.rex sat on its eggs, Brusatte 1st said "maybe", then said "they [other dinos] used their feathers to protect their eggs…so maybe T.rex did that too", & then just shrugged his shoulders. This seems especially silly given 1) the fact that those other dinos had big pennaceous feathers for that, & 2) the Gardom/Milner quote. At least Mossbrucker was there to better answer Gamble's question.

      Quoting White ( ): "Paleoartist Luis Rey once told me that Bob Bakker said to him, "No one should be drawing dinosaurs until they'd dissected a chicken and an alligator." I think many artists would be hard-pressed to find enough alligators for the purpose but I guess, in Bakker's view, anatomy is very important. Paleoartists don't have the benefit of vast selections of photographs — or even the living subjects — to illustrate their subjects like Natural History artists. It's far more theoretical but that doesn't mean you should skimp on the pate and not do your research."

      Quoting Gardom/Milner ( ): "Oviraptor was less than 2 metres long, small enough to sit on its nest without crushing its eggs. Clearly, there was no question of most dinosaurs sitting on these fragile objects to incubate them, so they may have been covered with sand or relied on the surrounding air temperature being high enough to keep the uncovered eggs warm."

    2. John Hurt isn't dead.
      I did notice much of the other stuff you mentioned (feathers, nesting) but didn't want to get too nitpicky in this review; having said that, the nesting remarks did seem especially odd (I can't see a 7 tonne behemoth sitting on a nest of eggs). I was happy that the T. rex had feathers at all, although that's probably because my bar is set nowhere near high enough. They probably should have been shaggier, but hey...maybe they sloughed off the carcass during the early stages of decomposition. ;)
      I'm surprised you didn't mention the mouth - I found it peculiar that they went with the 'croc mouth' look, although the jury's still out on that one, I guess.

    3. "John Hurt isn't dead."

      Well now I look like an idiot. IIRC, I was misinformed by a FB friend.

      "They probably should have been shaggier, but hey...maybe they sloughed off the carcass during the early stages of decomposition. ;)"

      Sorry for the confusion. I didn't mean that the T.rex should've had more/shaggier feathers, but that it probably shouldn't have had any upper body feathers given that 1) the fossil record shows that several tyrannosaurids (including T.rex) had scaly upper bodies, & 2) Evo-Devo shows that upper body feathers & scales don't mix (See "The feather-scale dichotomy": ).

      "I'm surprised you didn't mention the mouth - I found it peculiar that they went with the 'croc mouth' look, although the jury's still out on that one, I guess."

      I wasn't completely sure what they were going for w/the mouth (I.e. Whether they were going for classic or croc lips: ), but you're right. Based on what I've read (Keillor's "Jane, In the Flesh: The State of Life-Reconstruction in Paleoart": ), T.rex probably had full lips.

    4. Where's this evidence of multiple tyrannosaurids having scaly upper bodies?

    5. See Currie et al. 2003 for Gorgosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Albertosaurus, & Tarbosaurus. See Larson's "One Hundred Years of Tyrannosaurus rex: The Skeletons" for T.rex ( ).

    6. By the way, the 'feather-scale dichotomy' you mentioned above may be a false one; some dinosaurs appear to show a mix of feather-like structures and scales (Kulindadromeus being a famous example). I must admit that I'd forgotten about some of the (admittedly quite patchy) skin impressions that had been found for large tyrannosaurids; I was aware that impressions had been found around the tail base and feet, where they might be expected. If they indeed were entirely scaly, then one would have to account for why they lost the feathers seen on earlier tyrannosauroids. Which would be interesting in itself.

    7. Actually, Kulindadromeus probably had "bristle-like scales" rather than feather homologs ( ). The same goes for the other ornithischians ("Rare occurrences of ornithischian filamentous integument might represent independent acquisitions of novel epidermal structures that are not homologous with theropod feathers": ).

      BTW, the paper quoted above also mentions the secondary loss of feathers in tyrannosaurids ("There is some evidence across the dinosaur tree for homoplastic loss of these structures (e.g. some tyrannosaurids possess scales, but lack evidence for other epidermal structures; electronic supplementary material, S1), so integument evolution cannot be regarded as a progression to more complex epidermal structures").

  7. In that second image, Matthew's pose reminds me of Jamie Hyneman's at the end of the opening sequence of "Mythbusters". It fits, though, as T. rex Autopsy sought to bust old myths on the anatomy of T. rex ( i. e. the presence of protofeathers on the Crawley Creatures reconstruction).


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