It takes a lot of guts – both creatively and literally – to stage a post-mortem examination of the king of dinosaurs, a six-tonne Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with skin, flesh and oodles of innards.
With Jurassic World flaunting its genetically enhanced "Indominus rex" in theatres, National Geographic channel has found a fiercely fascinating way to remind us just who the real king (or queen) of the dinos is with T rex Autopsy, a two-hour special screening Sunday.
How is such a dissection even possible? Good question, seeing as the last tyrant lizard swaggered across North America about 65 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period.
Professor John R Hutchinson of London’s Royal Veterinary College, a senior researcher with decades of dinosaur experience in evolutionary mechanics, collaborated with a team of scientific advisers and animatronics experts to ensure the latest evidence on body shape and appearance went into the creation of a 12-metre-long “fresh dead” carcass of a T-Rex – one that also reflects the latest thinking on its mix of scales, pebbly hide, bristly feathers, as well as patches of colour.
“My feeling is that this is going to be a landmark moment in engaging the public with the modern state of paleontological research,” says Hutchinson. “We can learn amazing things without needing time machines – science is a sort of time machine, and documentaries like this use imagination, storytelling and special effects to get us the rest of the way towards understanding the past. What a collaboration.”
More than 12,000 hours went into the conception and construction of the lifelike model, which is complete from skin to bone, right down to the last meal being in its stomach.
In a special biology lab, scientists will “explore the guts and glory of a T-Rex”, states Impossible Factual, the production company behind the show. “The massive monster will be lifelike inside and out, giving scientists the chance to touch it, smell it, scan it, X-ray it and cut it open from head to toe for the first time.”
During this once-in-a-lifetime experiment, four chainsaw-wielding scientists will get to the heart – again, quite literally – of what made this monster tick, and also educate viewers with regards to how T-Rex fed with such tiny arms, whether it was a hunter or a scavenger, how it digested its food; how long it lived, how it mated; and whether it was cold-blooded like a reptile or warm-blooded like a mammal.
“While such a dissection is utter fantasy,” says Hutchinson, “using a huge body of research that scientists have built up, the documentary paints as accurate a portrait as is currently possible of T-Rex in an entertaining if gory fashion.”
One could be forgiven for wondering whether there’s more stunt than science to such an endeavour. Initially, even the paleontologists had their doubts.
"You see these reality shows sometimes now, Finding Bigfoot and Mermaid Autopsy – all this kind of nonsense. So I did have a bit of a fear it was going to be something like that," says Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist with the University of Edinburgh, who also appears on the show.
“But when I talked [with the producers] on the phone, they made it clear that this was something for National Geographic channel. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the science behind it is rock solid.”
• T rex Autopsy is at 6pm on Sunday, June 14, on Nat Geo HD