Most of us have seen “Hollywood” versions of Tyrannosaurus rex — known as king of the dinosaurs — in movies like “Jurassic Park.”
But what if some of the “facts” connected with the T. rex legend are incorrect?
A crew working on a documentary for a British television network is trying to piece together the latest information available to update our knowledge of the T. rex. They spent two days at Dinosaur Valley State Park, just northwest of Glen Rose, where there are multiple dinosaur tracks along the Paluxy River bed.
T. rex, the movie star
Chris Packham, who has been the TV host for multiple documentaries produced in England, was there along with producer/director Martin Williams and assistant producer Dominic Walter with a production company called Talesmith Ltd. There was also a three-man film crew out of Canada. They were joined by American paleontologist Glen Kuban.
“What we’re going to try to do is put together the animal as science says it is. We’re catching up with all the experts and putting together everything we know about this animal,” Packham said last Friday.
He said that movie versions of the flesh-eating T. rex may have taken “too much artistic license.” The goal of the project is to learn more about “what the animal looked like, how it moved, what it ate.”
Packham described it as a “rigorous” effort “to get everything right, and give the viewers the truth about the animals.”
There are only about 52 specimens of T. rex fossils, but only 20 of those are “really good,” he noted, adding, “Fortunately for us, there has been quite a bit of new science.”
Hear me roar?
One example of new science that has changed the image of the T. rex has to do with that ferocious roar so familiar to many movie fans.
“But T. rex couldn’t roar,” Packham said. “We’re going to look at other sounds it could have made.”
Packham said scientists now believe the T. rex may have used a “very low-frequency noise without opening its mouth,” — below the range of human hearing — as some animals do in today’s animal kingdom.
The dinosaur tracks at the Glen Rose site were not made by the T. rex, but there are many made by other theropods — with three toes on each foot.
An online article posted just last October by England’s Daily Mail stated that a scientist believes that a track found in northern Montana is “the world’s first” T. rex footprint ever found.
The research here is expected to help with learning how similar theropods moved.
“This animal (at the Glen Rose site) was long before T. rex, but some of them were shaped roughly the same size, so we can predict (from that),” Packham said.
On the crew’s first day at Dinosaur Valley, July 27, they were at a spot where a continuous series of tracks is visible. Those are believed to be the longest series of continuous dinosaur tracks in the U.S.
The crew used a camera mounted on a drone to get a precise measurement of those tracks from above.
“They should tell us whether it was walking or running,” Packham said. “That would tell you how fast they had been able to walk. Some scientists think they couldn’t run.”
But that possibility wouldn’t be so surprising if the prey chased by the predator T. rex were slow enough that they could be caught.
“It was a predator with a huge stride,” Packham said. “Even if it was walking 18-20 mph, that might have been fast enough to catch the prey.”
The goal is to create a more accurate version of the T. rex, and present it in a computer-generated (CGI) format as part of a one-hour television documentary that could air in England around Christmas time. The international version of the documentary may air in the U.S. by March.
“I started research in May, so it’s a pretty quick turnaround,” Packham said. “It’s an intense shoot.”
Before arriving in Glen Rose, the crew filmed at that Montana site where recently-found T. rex fossils were found only last year. According to an article by Scientific American that was posted last October, that site included the body of a T. rex that was approximately 20 percent intact. That included ribs, hips, jawbones, vertebrae and a “well-preserved skull.”
‘A little boy’s dream’
Packham, 56, said he has traveled to the U.S. from his home in England for TV work “at least 20 to 25 times.” So that particular Friday morning, which was predicted to be the hottest day of the summer so far, wasn’t his first go-round with Texas heat.
“I like Texas very much. Big Bend is one of my favorite places. It’s fantastic,” Packham said. “The staff here (at Dinosaur State Park) has been fantastic. They’ve really been perfect hosts. American people know how to do hospitality.”
Packham, who has been doing similar documentaries about wildlife since 1985, said that being a part of the T. rex project is a childhood dream come true.
“We get to see extraordinary places, meet incredible people. We’re talking to the top paleontologists in the world. It’s a little boy’s dream.
“I’ve been interested in the T. rex since I was a kid, so I’m really interested in this project.”
Packham and the rest of the crew left Texas last Friday evening, heading for Ohio and another two-day stop. There, they were to meet a scientist who has information that could help them estimate how intelligent the T. rex really was. After that they planned to fly to Alabama to do some comparisons between the bite of modern alligators and the T. rex.
“But the T. rex was many times more powerful,” Packham noted.
From Alabama, they travel to Canada to consult with a pollen expert as they research the habitat and environment experienced by the T. rex.
“That would have a major impact on the way it lived and behaved,” Packham said.