What It's Like To Watch a T-Rex Autopsy

The T. rex, before being cut into. National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman

The mighty Tyrannosaurus rex has fascinated people since it was named and described at the start of the 20th century. Many still wonder: What would it have really looked like in the flesh? A team of scientists and special-effects whizzes came together to answer that question, and then to slowly chop their creation to bits—in the name of education…and TV magic.

I visited London's Pinewood studios, where large portions of the James Bond, Harry Potter and Superman films were shot, to watch a life-size T. rex be cut open by a team of researchers and veterinary surgeons. Skeptical at first that a real-life autopsy of a fake beast would look a bit off, I was shocked by how realistic it appeared. Upon laying eyes on the T. rex, I had visions of it coming to life and chasing us out of the studio.

Of course, one cannot know exactly what a T. rex looked like, but the faux-dino was built based on the latest research about the animal's anatomy, says John Hutchinson, an expert on evolutionary biomechanics at the University of London's Royal Veterinary College. He also served as an adviser to the TV show featuring the dinosaur, that has its debut on the National Geographic on Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT.

Steve Brusatte (left) and Matthew Mossbrucker lift the T. rex's stomach out of the body. National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman

Appropriately named T. Rex Autopsy, the show is based on the premise that four scientists have come across a recently deceased dinosaur. They seize the opportunity to cut into the beast, figuring out how old it was, how it died and how it lived. Luckily, the show is not put forth as a "fake documentary," but framed as "what it might be like to find a real dinosaur," says the executive producer, Paul Wooding. That may come as a relief to viewers upset by faux-docs such as Discovery's Megalodon or Animal Planet's Mermaids; some complained that those shows misled people into thinking the mythical beasts had really been found.

One doesn't come away with that impression from this show, although it's not for a lack of realism. The dinosaur itself truly astounds, bearing the same dimensions as a real T. rex, with a total length of 46 feet and a width of five feet. Modeling company Crawley's Creatures spent 12,000 man-hours creating the dino, using polyurethane foam, silicone rubber and polystyrene—in addition to 34 gallons of fake blood. A total of 20,000 goose quills line the back of the animal, agreeing with the growing scientific consensus that most dinosaurs had feathers or something like them, Hutchinson says.

In case you were worried about this being a dusty science special, fear not: There will be blood. British veterinary surgeon Luke Gamble gets the splashy portion of the show started by cutting off the beast's leg—with a chainsaw. He, along with paleontologists Matthew Mossbrucker and Steve Brusatte, as well as paleobiologist Tori Herridge (who has really dissected a frozen wooly mammoth), then count the rings on the dino's bone. This is a real method, like tree-ring reading, that scientists use to tell the age of animals, Hutchinson says. (He does concede that the chainsaw was a "bit extreme.")

The four, led by Gamble, then proceed to cut into the belly of the beast, extracting a very real-looking (and sickening) trail of intestines, a gall bladder and a stomach the size of a bean-bag chair. If you want to see an enthusiastic British vet humorously speculating on the diet of a T. rex while literally standing inside a great dino's belly—and who doesn't?—this is the show for you. The researchers cover a lot of science along the way, addressing questions such as: Was T. rex warm- or cold-blooded? How well could it see? And how smart was it?

During the filming, which a group of journalists watched from an observation deck in the studio, Hutchinson noticed that the cross-section of the T. rex's leg bones was wrong: the fibula and tibia were mixed up. So he ran down to the studio to let people know; the mistake was fixed in post-production. "It may not be real, but it's as close to the truth as we can get now," Wooding says. And did I mention it features chainsaws?

From left to right: paleontologists Matthew Mossbrucker and Steve Brusatte, vet Luke Gamble, and paleobiologist Tori Herridge. National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman