Seriously, there was a lot of blood.
On Sunday, National Geographic aired a special called "T. rex Autopsy." In a riff on shows like PBS's "Inside Nature's Giants," where scientists get knee-deep in dissecting some of the world's most fascinating fauna, the special featured a 43-foot T. rex custom-built by the Crawley Creatures workshop.
(Yeah, we know, it should have been called T. rex Necropsy, but we assume Nat Geo was concerned that fewer people would recognize the meaning of the more correct term for a non-human dissection.)
At face value, T. rex Autopsy was downright entertaining TV. It had blood and guts -- the scientists had to start out with chainsaws, then ended up uncovering realistically smelly stomach contents and nearly getting stuck inside a giant cloaca -- and a lot of great scientific information.
Obviously a lot of the physiology inside the dinosaur was fairly speculative. John R. Hutchinson, who served as a consultant for the show, went through some of the more speculative features — like the size of the heart, for example — on his blog. The team had to decide what heart-to-body ratio the dino would have based on those in comparable living animals, but we don't really know how dinosaur hearts behaved.
And when it came to feathers, the team went with bristly ones made from stripped goose feathers. A reasonable choice, given what we know about dinosaur feathers, but the fact remains that we've never found T. rex feathers to study. But the show did a good job of explaining how and why we think a dinosaur would have these sorts of innards and features.
On the other hand, the show is obviously an attempt to cash in on the upcoming "Jurassic Park" remake, and some viewers tweeted to express skepticism as to just how responsible the undertaking was. After all, science writer Brian Switek pointed out on his Nat Geo blog, viewers have been confused by "science" programming before. The Discovery Channel has recently drawn the ire of scientists by creating "mocumentaries" about everything from prehistoric sharks to mermaids that clearly intend to fool viewers into belief in order to secure ratings. It would be a shame for Nat Geo to go down that path, and Switek points out that one of the network's upcoming dino-related shows sounds a little problematic.
But unlike some recent Discovery programming, the T. rex necropsy didn't actively try to snow its viewers. In fact, their marketing was all pretty cheeky:
Let's hope that (most) people watching got the joke. The necropsy was cool, but impossible: There isn't any ice around on Earth from the proper time period to be hiding a preserved dinosaur, guts and all.
And credit where credit is due: Nat Geo put a lot of effort into making the dinosaur as realistic as possible. One of the members of the dissection team — a group of real, esteemed scientists who clearly just think this is a total hoot — gave an account of his experience on The Conversation:
We took the utmost care to make sure our tyrannosaur was completely in line with what we know from fossils. Everything we couldn’t reconstruct from real fossils was informed speculation based on careful comparisons with living crocodiles, which are close cousins of dinosaurs, and birds, which are their descendants. And having four real scientists (a vet and three paleontologists) conducting the autopsy, without a script, made it even more authentic.
When I first walked into the autopsy room and saw the dinosaur, I was blown away. Yes I had consulted on the build, but the producers had deliberately prevented me from seeing the final model so I would be surprised. It was so realistic – pretty much how I think a real T. rex would have looked – but made of latex, silicone, plastic, corn syrup, and various other goodies. What the artists made in four-and-a-half months and 10,000+ man hours is surely the most accurate and life-like dinosaur of all time.
The T. rex may be one of our best-known and most-beloved dinosaur species, but we've still got a lot to learn about her:
It's likely that one day — maybe even soon — we'll know enough about the species to laugh at some of the assumptions made in Nat Geo's model. But for now, the special is the closest we'll ever come to an inside look at the dinosaurs.