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A hairy ride with the real T-Rex: Chris Packham builds the most accurate model of the dinosaur ever seen in his new show – and debunks everything Jurassic Park taught us

  • Chris Packham is set to reveal the most accurate T-Rex in a BBC documentary
  • He analysed fossils, walked in dinosaur steps and saw experts to debunk myths
  • He aimed to produce the most accurate computer-generated representation
  • His trip back through 65 million years to ‘meet’ his T-Rex was a lifelong dream
By Jenny Johnston For Weekend
Published: 22:31 GMT, 8 December 2017 | Updated: 22:31 GMT, 8 December 2017
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The Tyrannosaurus Rex is the daddy of all dinosaurs, the killing machine every child is enthralled by.
It has an iconic place in popular culture thanks to appearances in everything from The Land That Time Forgot to Jurassic Park – and the young Chris Packham was more obsessed than most. ‘He was the monster of my childhood, my favourite animal,’ he says.
‘He was everywhere – in films, on cereal boxes. I had T-Rex models, T-Rex cards. I used to imagine he was watching me in the woods. To me, he was real.’
So what is this computer-generated creature we’re looking at today then? It stands around 20ft tall – 2ft taller than a giraffe – and weighs over seven tonnes. But what’s more startling is that this T-Rex has a smattering of feathers on its shoulders above its front legs and isn’t muddy green, as in Jurassic Park, but speckled with browns, blacks and greys.

Chris Packham reveals the most accurate depiction of a T-Rex (pictured) using computer-generation in a new BBC documentary

And what is that around its neck? A mane? Like a lion? ‘Absolutely,’ says Chris, 56. ‘The truth is we don’t know exactly what T-Rex looked like, but the more we discover, the more we can challenge the idea it would have looked anything like the version we know from the films.’
Since the 60s, archaeological and scientific discoveries have questioned some of the most widely held beliefs about T-Rex, and Chris was ‘beyond excited’ when he got the go-ahead to make a TV programme that would go as close as anyone ever has to bringing the T-Rex to life.

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His journey sees him travel to Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas to walk in the actual footprints left by dinosaurs (‘I couldn’t sleep the night before I was going to do that, I was so excited’), meet Tristan, the most complete T-Rex fossil in the world, and pick the brains of the T-Rex experts. The goal of the project was to create the most accurate computer-generated representation of the T-Rex ever.
And it turns out Steven Spielberg got it all wrong in Jurassic Park. ‘A lot of it was thought to be correct at the time,’ Chris points out. ‘I was desperate to see the film because of the groundbreaking CGI.

Chris (pictured) admits being obsessed with dinosaurs since his childhood

But science moves on. Now we can set Steven Spielberg right.’ Not that Spielberg necessarily wants to be set right.
‘Apparently for the fourth Jurassic Park film he was asked to give the T-Rex feathers, which we now know it would have had, but he said he couldn’t because we’d already seen his T-Rex without them.’
The show busts the myth that dinosaurs evolved into lizards and crocodiles. Yes, crocodilians, as they’re known, are distant cousins, but the family tree suggests dinosaurs transformed over millions of years into birds.
And that famous T-Rex stance, which has him dragging his tail in his wake, is wrong too. Footprints from the era show distinct steps, with no great swish marks from the tail. ‘We used to think T-Rex stood upright, like a kangaroo,’ says Chris. ‘But the tail would have been in the air, so the body was bent forward, more like a chicken.’
One of the most famous scenes in Jurassic Park has the creature outrunning a speeding Jeep. In a lab, Chris’s computer-generated T-Rex is made to run on a treadmill and the speed is increased. Alas, the computer calculates that it would not be able to move faster than 25mph, just short of Usain Bolt’s top speed.
Did this make T-Rex less dangerous than the film version, then? Absolutely not, says Chris. On screen, experts recreate a T-Rex skull, with some of the largest teeth ever seen. From there, they calculate the ‘bite force’ it would have had. For comparison, the bite force of a human is about 200lb, while a crocodile’s is 2,058lb. The T-Rex’s is calculated at a colossal 8,000lb. ‘The equivalent of being sat on by an elephant,’ says Chris.
In the lab a machine is set up to simulate the action, and a cow skull is used as the sacrifice. It isn’t just crushed, but reduced to dust. ‘It really was the ultimate killing machine,’ says Chris. One exciting discovery was a collection of 26 skeletons in a row, suggesting the creatures died together.

Chris says the 'bite force' of a dinosaur is estimated to have been the equivalent of being sat on by an elephant. Pictured: The T-Rex in 2009’s The Land That Time Forgot

Were they hunting in a pack? Chris believes they may have been ‘social predators’ who behaved like lions – hence the mane on his computer T-Rex – as in a pack situation males would have required some way of standing out to attract the females, in the same way lions do.
What about Spielberg’s T-Rex roar, as thunderous as the MGM lion? Surely he got that right? Not exactly.
Lions don’t always roar like that but rather emit more of a low-frequency grunt that can be heard up to five miles away. Chris discovers that similarly, T-Rex didn’t so much roar as boom, a sound so low in frequency that it’s felt rather than heard. ‘It’s the scariest sound I’ve ever felt,’ he says.
Chris’s trip back through 65 million years to ‘meet’ his T-Rex was a lifelong dream, he says, but one that involved leaps of imagination. ‘That’s the romance of it, though,’ he says. ‘I’m not averse to a bit of romance in science. It drives us on to discover more.’
The Real T-Rex With Chris Packham, Thursday 28 December, BBC2.

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