BBC/Dom Walter, Tailsmith productions
The chance to work on a major documentary is always a testing experience for a researcher. It’s a huge opportunity to communicate cutting edge research to the public, but the way the information is presented can lack nuance and detail. This is especially true for dinosaur documentaries that are inevitably watched by young children and have to counter a huge range of myths that have built up in the popular imagination. Trying to educate, inform and entertain the audience all at once is a huge challenge.
Yet when I was invited to become a consultant for The real T. rex with Chris Packham, I knew it was an opportunity not to be missed. Tyrannosaurus rex is not only the king of the dinosaurs but arguably the most famous animal we only know from fossils. A TV show on this species is an excellent opportunity for outreach and to try to steer conversations away from things like the endlessly recycled, and long ago settled, question of whether T. rex was a predator or a scavenger (the answer to this is incidentally, both).
Here I must briefly mention Jurassic Park, even though I’d love not to. When the original film came out in 1993 it did more for getting across then current scientific thinking on dinosaurs than almost anything else ever could. Gone was the image of tail-dragging, upright, lumbering, swamp-dwellers and in came fast, active, and perhaps even intelligent, animals.
This dragged the public image of dinosaurs out of the 1960s and into the 1990s. Unfortunately, another 25 years later the science has moved on again but people’s impressions have not. The challenge is not just to introduce new ideas but overturn old ones.
In the case of T. rex , we have learned a huge amount in the last 25 years and it has even become something of a model organism for dinosaur researchers. We have new data on their movement, feeding habits, brain and inner ears and more.