At the same studio where the Millennium Falcon was built for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I watched four people in scrubs and rubber boots cut into a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Ask someone to name a dinosaur and chances are many of them will pay homage to the “king of the tyrant lizards,” or T. rex. It is perhaps the most well known dino, no doubt thanks to movies like Jurassic Park. But for how well the public knows T. rex – think of another animal most people know just by its skull – scientifically, the beast continues to puzzle us. This has more to do with what nature chooses to fossilize than disinterest. Still, there are a lot of open questions.
Was T. rex warm blooded? Was it a hunter or a scavenger? Did it have feathers? And could it see you if you stood perfectly still? Paleontologists and biologists have come close to answering many of these queries, using tangential evidence like bones and the anatomy of modern relatives. If only they had a flesh and blood T. rex to dissect, scientists could solve all the puzzles stuck in stone.
National Geographic Channel’s T. rex Autopsy, airing this Sunday, June 7th, is the most complete realization of that dream. When I first saw her, she took my breath away.
I had come to London to watch the taping of T. rex Autopsy, an upcoming science special from National Geographic, joined by a group of journalists as curious as I was to see a procedure we were told next to nothing about. The dissection was to take place at Pinewood studios, which you probably know better for the movies that have filmed there than by its name. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man had all recently wrapped up shooting at Pinewood. Walking up to the sound stage where a T. rex was waiting, I saw a sign for 007’s next outing: Spectre.
Before filming began, we got to see her. Dubbed “Edwina” and based on our most complete T. rex skeleton “Sue,” the T. rex to be autopsied was laying in repose on her right side. She was over 40-feet long, colorful, and covered in quills. Splashes of red brought out her half-open eyes. Paper signs hung around her: “Do not touch the dinosaur.”
Edwina looked like she could suddenly breathe again at any moment. I felt an overwhelming sense of unease moving around her head and neck – it wasn’t hard to imagine a quick snap of the incredibly powerful jaws and a chunk of me tumbling down a muscled gullet.
Of course, Edwina wasn’t going to wake up. She was a model, nothing less than the most rigorous attempt to create an anatomically correct T. rex, crafted in giant pieces of latex and fiberglass and plaster.
While I and the other journalists were crowding into an upstairs observation room overlooking the soundstage, three scientists and a vet were gearing up. Dressed in green scrubs, rubber boots, and latex gloves, these were the men and women who were going to literally go into the belly of this fabricated beast. But they knew as little about what was going to happen as we did – there was a general plan, but no one save for Edwina’s creators had seen her insides. The producers of the show wanted real reactions, and there was only one chance to do this. Everything had to be shot live.
“Using a chainsaw is pretty extreme.”
Luke Gamble, a British veterinary surgeon, kicked everything off. After the team got a look at what they were about to deal with, the first step was to age Edwina like you would a tree. As Steve Brusatte, an American paleontologist, explained to the others, it’s possible to determine the age of a T. rex by counting the rings in its leg bones. T. rex grew fast enough that the subsequent increase in bone mass was etched into their skeletons. So the leg had to come off.
Gamble ran off to one of the tables flanking the giant stage Edwina was laying on for a suitable tool. “Trust me, I’m a surgeon,” Gamble said with chainsaw in-hand.
“Using a chainsaw is pretty extreme,” remarked John Hutchinson, professor of evolutionary biomechanics at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College. Hutchinson was the consulting scientist on T. rex Autopsy, the one in charge of making sure all the science was sound. He was watching in the observation room with us, as excited to see Edwina come apart as we were. For the last six months, Hutchinson had been coordinating and compiling the most up-to-date anatomical data we have on T. rex.
“A lot of these scientists never speak to each other,” Hutchinson told us. Scientists who specialize in T. rex skulls, for example, have expertise that stops at the neck. It was Hutchinson’s job to bring these different experts together and direct the anatomically correct construction of Edwina, something that had never been done before.
After the team of four had the leg carted off by forklift, it was time to count the rings. Hutchinson paused. Something wasn’t right; the bones in the leg were reversed. The thicker bone was supposed to run along the inside of the animal’s thigh, not the outside. A conversation with the show’s producer and a bit of TV magic later (flipping the flap of synthetic skin showing exposed bone), and everything was back on track.
Next up for dissection were the internal organs. By going deeper into the dinosaur, the team could determine the cause of death.
20,000 goose quills were collected and hand-pinned into Edwina’s back. She contained 100 liters of blood held in pockets and organs beneath her latex skin and fiberglass belly ribs. Though a T. rex her size would weigh a whopping seven tons, this model weighed a still hefty 400 kilograms. Her body cavity contained 10 meters of small intestines, a liver, lungs, a heart, and a stomach big enough to fit a 4-year-old (National Geographic’s comparison of choice). Edwina’s eye was fully modeled inside and out, as was her jaw, complete with removable teeth. It took 12,000 man-hours to make her.
“You’ve never seen a dino like this,” said Paul Wooding, T. rex Autopy’s executive producer. And he’s right.
“This is definitely not a mermaid show…
We don’t make fake documentaries,”
According to Wooding, under the supervision of Hutchinson, Edwina is as real as she could be. National Geographic and Wooding worked with BAFTA award-winning modeling company Crawley Creatures to create Edwina’s steel skeleton, latex skin, and corn-syrup blood. Three layers of foam stood in for Edwina’s abdominal muscles, and blood vessels weaved through simulated peritoneum and over a muscled heart. Several eyes and hearts were on stand-by in case something went wrong.
“They had to model everything,” Wooding told us.
Edwina looked real enough fool me – standing next to her I could have sworn I saw her twitch – and I worried that T. rex Autopsy would be filmed as another “documentary” showing off some secret creature held in a government lab that “they don’t want you to know about.” The other journalists nodded at my questioning.
“This is definitely not a mermaid show…We don’t make fake documentaries,” said Wooding, taking an obvious and frankly welcome swipe at the recent fabricated documentaries that were Animal Planet’s Mermaids and Discovery Channel’s Megalodon.
Instead, T. rex Autopsy is like a grand thought experiment made real — imagining what a real T. rex would look like, then cutting it open to hopefully learn something interesting. “We do this with drama, why can’t we do it with science?”
Not everything was modeled. Edwina was missing her brain because there wasn’t enough good data to synthesize one. Only aspects of the model that could be signed off on by Hutchinson and the other scientists made it in.
“This is a T. rex as a paleontologist’s dream would be.”
Projecting simulated x-ray slides on a screen flanking miniature models of T. rex bones and teeth, the autopsy team uncovers a fracture in Edwina’s femur. If Edwina could have walked, this injury would have permanently crippled her. This could be what ended her life. But with another bus length of animal to explore, the team doesn’t declare cause of death just yet. After all, things are about to get bloody.
With a brown-handled knife the size of his forearm, Gamble stabs into Edwina’s abdomen. He struggles to cut the rectangular incision. “This makes elephant skin feels like velvet,” he grunts. The rest of the team holds the skin taut as blood spills out in buckets onto the floor.
“Into the belly of the beast…”
A series of ceiling-held hooks pierce and hold the skin, fat, and three layers of muscle back like the hood of a car as Gamble and Matt Mossbrucker, chief curator at the Morrison Natural History Museum in Colorado, begin sawing through Edwina’s gastralia, or belly ribs. (If dragons were anything like Edwina, they’d never have “soft underbellies”.) Meanwhile Tori Herridge, a paleobiologist famous for dissecting a frozen mammoth, and Brusatte turn to Edwina’s massive skull. They extract a 30-cm-long tooth, serrated like a hunting knife, from her jaws. If she were alive, Edwina would soon replace that tooth like sharks do. An endoscope reveals no infections in the jaw. She didn’t die this way.
Maybe Edwina starved to death after breaking her femur. If so, her stomach should be empty. The belly ribs’ fiberglass cracks as the dino’s extra armor is removed. Time to check that hypothesis. A quick slice through the membrane known as the peritoneum, like a Ziploc bag for the internal organs, and the viscera are exposed. “Into the belly of the beast,” says Brusatte as Gamble crawls boot-first inside the exposed cavity to help reel out ten meters of small intestine.
There’s convincing looking excrement in the intestines. It’s filled with parasitic worms, but not enough to bring the dino down. The rest of the organs come out like bloody clowns from a packed car: liver, lungs, and heart.
Everything is slippery with fake blood. The team changes scrubs more than once. But T. rex Autopsy is more than a slasher flick. Edwina’s fabricated organs are telling us something. Her heart is far smaller than we’d expect for a 7-ton animal. An efficient heart is a smaller heart. After Gamble cuts it open, it’s revealed to have four chambers, like we do. Her grapefruit-sized eye is then removed and dissected. It holds a sclerotic ring, a series of bony plates inside the eye that allow for rapid changes in depth perception. Yes, Edwina would definitely be able to see you if you were standing still.
At this point, Herridge chimes in. “You keep saying ‘he’,” Herridge notes. “’King of the Dinosaurs’…except what we don’t know about this creature is was it male or female. Was it a he-rex or she-rex? That’s something we need to find out.”
“That means it was a waste of time changing my scrubs wasn’t it?” Gamble sighs.
Herridge is soon literally up to her shoulder inside Edwina’s cloaca, the all-in-one opening for feces, urine, and sexual activity. She feels a blockage. Over the next few minutes, Gamble finds ovaries inside the body cavity, and Herridge finds an egg deep inside the cloaca. Amazingly, this too was fully modeled, with simulated egg yolk and embryo pouring out on an adjacent examination table.
Gamble seems agitated. He wants to find out what killed Edwina. So far everything has checked out. Then he notices a similar irregular lump at the back of her neck, the same kind of bump that alerted him to the broken femur. Another x-ray reveals several broken vertebrae, likely meaning a severed spinal cord. The team doesn’t know what caused it, but this was how Edwina died.
It’s easier to speak about T. rex Autopsy as though Edwina was a real animal. Very little of what I saw, or what viewers will see when the show airs, took me out of that mindset. Edwina is truly a masterwork of special effects, a world-first in modeling a creature this size complete with internal organs, removable teeth and eyes, muscle tissue, and so on. Paul Wooding was right, this isn’t a “mermaid show.” T. rex Autopsy is thought experiment that expertly toes the line between real and fake. The science is real, the dinosaur is not, but nothing is ever presented in a way that is intended to fool or deceive. It wants to help you wonder with some of the best practical modeling I’ve ever seen.
I can still imagine her
roaring to life.
Even someone who has loved dinosaurs since childhood, like I have, will learn from the special. Questions we’ve asked for decades get our most up-to-date answers, accompanied by visuals that are hard to forget. I didn’t know that T. rex teeth were different lengths in the jaw because they got replaced continually like shark teeth do. I won’t have a hard time remembering that tidbit either, recalling Edwina’s disturbingly life-like grin.
T. rex Autopsy also covers the cold-blooded vs. warm-blooded, the scavenger vs. hunter debate, how T. rex walked, how they saw, and how they were feathered. Nothing goes too far into speculation. It’s a nature documentary using a fake animal specimen, and it’s better than most.
The operating table is hopefully not the last stop for Edwina. Though Wooding couldn’t really speak to the future – he was just happy this six-month sprint was over – he assured us that Edwina will likely have “another home.” Will she be rebuilt and displayed? I hope so. I can still imagine her roaring to life.
T. rex Autopsy airs on June 7th on National Geographic Channel in over 150 countries.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
IMAGES: Copyright National Geographic Channel
DISCLOSURE: Travel and accommodations were provided for the viewing of T. rex Autopsy by National Geographic Channel.