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Behind the Scenes at a Tyrannosaurus Rex Dissection

Months of work went into creating a model, life-sized dinosaur for experts to dismember and cut open

(Dave and Les Jacobs/Blend Images/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

For centuries, students of medicine and even the public have flocked into specially designed theaters to witness dissections and autopsies of the human body. Now, the human body is less frequently treated as a source of spectacle, but in a recent TV special, another creature’s insides were exposed to many viewers. A team recently cut apart a (fake) Tyrannosaurus rex for National Geographic’s show "T. rex Autopsy."

But in order to dissect an animal that is extinct, you have to first have the animal to dissect. One of the dissectors, paleontologist Stephen Brusatte, explains how experts created a gloriously gross model of the long-extinct T. rex and then cut it up with chainsaws, at The Conversation (via Scientific American). 

The goal, he writes was to use "the pageantry of an autopsy to reveal how this most famous of dinosaurs actually functioned as a living, breathing, feeding, moving, growing animal." It’s not that different from the whale and other giant animal autopsies that have made it to television.

It took the Crawley Creatures workshop five and a half months to make the fake T. rex body out of five tons of clay, more than 20,000 feathers, 75 liters of latex, 130 liters of fax blood, and 200 liters of silicone. A time-lapse video from National Geographic’s YouTube channel gives some sense of the scale of this project:

Another video shows the autopsy team’s first sight of the new creation. "It was so beautifully made," says Tori Herridge, a paleobiologist. The reconstruction is 42 feet from nose tip to tail, explains the lead mold maker, Claire Green.

It may seem like an elaborate and expensive stunt, but Brusatte explains at The Conversation that the point was to make an ancient dinosaur more than just a concept. He writes:

If you thought dinosaurs were dim-witted, overgrown reptiles, think again. T.rex had a huge brain, its eyesight was keen, it had feathers and it grew really fast. It was essentially a huge fluffy bird from hell.

While organs and other soft tissues don’t fossilize easily, they can leave signatures in the bones. The team also looked to close living relatives — birds and crocodiles — to make their most informed guesses as to the size, shape and position of the T. rex innards.

The commitment to realism even extended to putting plenty of gross things inside the T. rex — the stomach contents smelled and the digestive tract held worms. 

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