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The Real T. rex with Chris Packham: an attempt at a truthful Tyrannosaurus

 How can you get from a skeleton like this to a flesh and blood reconstruction?
How can you get from a skeleton like this to a flesh and blood reconstruction? Photograph: Gordon Welters/BBC/Talesmith/Cineflix/Gordon Welters

Tyrannosaurus rex is probably the most famous extinct animal, but thanks to Hollywood and various out-of-date books, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about this incredible dinosaur. There is too much hype and not enough good science surrounding dinosaurs generally – and Tyrannosaurus in particular. A new BBC documentary, The Real T. rex with Chris Packham, has attempted to bring our knowledge of this iconic animal into the 21st century – not an easy task, as presenter Packham and palaeontologist Dave Hone explain ...

Chris: I fell for a dinosaur in 1965 ... but it was the wrong dinosaur. It was fat, slow, stupid and wandered around in swamps. It was grey, or green, and by the time I was ten I suspected that the lumbering monster from the movies and TV – and even my treasured books – was just not viable as an animal. And over the following years the science moved on, slowly, but the public image just didn’t evolve. Dinosaurs became hot-blooded ... but still plodded, and even when the last instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise was released ... the characters were still scaly, even when we knew they had feathers. It’s time to put the monster to bed and bring out the real, living breathing animal – that’s what I wanted to do for The Real T. rex.

Dave: Lots of people are involved in recreating an extinct animal for a program like this – the presenter, writer, director, artists, the CGI team and palaeontologists. There are a host of issues to deal with, as new scientific studies come out all the time and there can be some real nuances to issues like the shape of scales and the exact position of teeth to get across.

Chris: As soon as Dave’s book, The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, was published it was in my bag and by my bedside. From about four years of age I’ve consumed everything I could find that has been written about T. rex. And as soon as our programme got the green light I got hold of Dave and arranged to meet. I like T. rex, I love T. rex, but I am not an expert and I wanted to be working with the world’s best palaeontologists – I needed a “guru”, and Dave delivered.

Dave: We recruited a team of experts to help shape the program and give details on things like the bite force of Tyrannosaurus, how it fed, how its muscles were arranged and more. In terms of building the 3D model that appears, we had to start with a skeleton of a real T. rex and work up from there. Damage to the bones from 65m years in the ground had to be fixed, then the various internal organs had to be added to shape the animal, muscles were attached, and then skin put on. I worked with artist Gabriel Ugueto to produce a design for the details of the skin, feathers and patterns on the animal. We may not know the exact details of these, but the fossil record gives us plenty of hints, so this was done as rigorously as it could be.

Tyrannosaurus is known only from North America but others are known from around the world including species from China and the UK.
Tyrannosaurus is known only from North America but other tyrannosaurs that can offer insights are known from around the world including species from China and the UK. Photograph: Dom Walter/BBC/Talesmith/Cineflix/Dom Walter

Chris: New technology means that within palaeontology we are now learning a lot more, a lot more quickly than ever before. And we have more specimens to study, which are better prepared and more widely accessible to researchers. The science has enjoyed rapid spurts of evolution but at the moment we really are in a renaissance period. Sometimes the dissemination of information between scientist and the public is slow ... I wanted to “fast track” this for what we know about T. rex – that’s why we went straight to the palaeontologists with their papers firmly on the pulse of this animal.

Dave: Perhaps unsurprisingly, movie franchises do not keep up with scientific research. We have a host of new fossils and new studies on tyrannosaurs in recent years. There are now tyrannosaurs known with feathers; we have a detailed understanding of their muscles and thus how they moved and how far they could run; bite marks on bones by feeding tyrannosaurs reveal how they fed and also their bite strength. We even have fossils of failed predation attempts, showing that Tyrannosaurus was not the pure scavenger that it is still incorrectly perceived to have been. There is some incredibly detailed research that goes into working out how these animals lived, but it’s not always possible to dig down into the nuances, and a good demonstration can go a long way. For example, Chris got to go to Florida and compare how an alligator bite measures up against a model Tyrannosaurus jaw (while I sat working in my office).

Chris: It’s impossible for me to have a favourite bit of the programme; for most of the time I was like a kid in a sweetshop. I got to touch the holotype specimen and hang out in some of the coolest labs in the world with a bunch of brilliant scientists and visit some superb museum collections, go behind the scenes and talk about Tyrannosaurus rex day in, day out. It was a 50-year dream come true.

Our restored Tyrannosaurus rex won’t be right in every detail
Our restored Tyrannosaurus rex won’t be right in every detail, but everything based as far as possible on rigorous science and reasonable inferences. Photograph: screengrab/-

Dave: We have now been studying Tyrannosaurus for a century, but even with the acceleration of scientific research into this amazing animal there are still frustrating gaps in our knowledge. We don’t yet know its colour, for example, though we can make an educated guess. Even large predators often have some shading as a camouflage, and the little horns over the eyes were used as signals to other tyrannosaurs, so we went for a generally muted palette with some stripes and bright areas on the horns. We can’t get everything right, but we know a lot more than people might realise, making it possible to put together something that both looks amazing and is more accurate than not.

Chris: Perversely the most exciting thing about the programme is that it’s probably already out of date, or will be by next month. And that people will disagree with aspects of our interpretation. That’s the real joy of T. rex, that’s why its fascination endures – because we will never know everything we would like to. I’m happy with our conjecture though, and I’m pleased to have been a conduit between science and what the viewers now know about “rexy”. I’m confident that we’ve put some truth into T. rex.

The Real T. rex with Chris Packham was broadcast on BBC Two on 2 January, and will be repeated on Sunday 7 January and Thursday 11 January.

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, published by Bloomsbury, is now available in bookshops.

This article titled "The Real T. rex with Chris Packham: an attempt at a truthful Tyrannosaurus" was written by Dr Dave Hone and Chris Packham, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 2 January 2018 10.01pm

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