‘T.rex Autopsy’ advisor John Hutchinson says ‘T.rex was the Tony Soprano of the late Cretaceous’

06.03.15 4 years ago

LONDON, ENGLAND. Check out John Hutchinson's dissection-heavy website WhatsInJohnsFreezer.com for a sense of what it might mean for him to be a proverbial kid in a candy store.

A professor of Evolutionary Mechanics at University of London's Royal Veterinary College, Hutchinson served as an advisor on National Geographic's “T.rex Autopsy,” which will air on Sunday, June 7 and shot in April at Pinewood Studios near London.

NatGeo had a number of reporters on-set for the “T.rex Autopsy” shoot, which featured a team of veterinarians and paleontologists going to surgical town on a bio-realistic tyrannosaurus rex constructed by Jez Gibson-Harris' Crawley Creatures.

This is pretty close to a dream for Hutchinson, who has written roughly a dozen papers on T.rex legs and locomotion and is also, for want of a better word, an animal autopsy enthusiastic, the more exotic and rare the species the better. 

For the purposes of the actual “T.rex Autopsy” filming, Hutchinson wasn't on the floor with the specimen, but he instead perched in an observation room above the autopsy floor with a group of reporters, answering a nearly non-stop series of questions over the course of over 10 hours, ranging from queries as simple as “So, is that what it would look like to remove a T.rex's stomach and plop it on a soundstage floor?” to far more specific and detailed discourses that the journalists from scientific publications understood and I did not. 

Hutchinson's excitement when the replica and its excavators got something right was matched only by his excitement and urgency when something wasn't entirely on-point and he was able to send frantic texts to the producers to get get on-the-fly corrections.

Before the actual autopsy took place, though, I sat down with Professor Hutchinson to discuss this autopsy project, the dangers of anthropomorphizing a terrible lizard, the lingering importance of “Jurassic Park” in this field and which parts of this speculative experiment he expects will be outmoded 20 years from now.

And you can also find out the context it took for Hutchinson to declare, “Yeah. T.rex was the Tony Soprano of the late Cretaceous.”

Click through for the full Q&A and check out “T.rex Autopsy” on June 7.

HitFix: You”re an autopsy guy, but for this, you”re not actually going to be down on the floor. If you were to be down on the floor what would be the first thing you would do.

John Hutchinson: [No hesitation.] The legs. Because that”s what I study and I would love to know how right have I done in my research. I”ve written what? 12 papers on T.rex legs and locomotion and in varying degrees and I”d like to know if I got it right or not. I feel like I have done a pretty good job, but science can always be wrong.

HitFix: That”s presumably the first thing you do though in a real autopsy with a real T.rex right? But what would you do under these circumstances on this special?

John Hutchinson: It”s still the same thing, because you”ve got to get rid of the legs. They”re big. Get them out of the way. That gives you access, more easier access to the rest of the thorax. The big thing is once you can cut the rib cage of an animal open, that accelerates the rotting process and you want to get the dissection done fast once you do that step. So getting the legs off without puncturing the thorax makes things more pleasant and it allows things to go slightly more leisurely than you would if you rushed straight into the guts.

HitFix: I know that you like the sort of “disgusting” factor of this so what kind of conversations have you been involved with on that side of things? The sort of the viscera and gore of all of this?

John Hutchinson: Well, the viscera I”ve been involved in critiquing the designs all the way along the way from six months ago. Like is this the right anatomy? Is this the right size? Those kind of things. As far as the gore goes, I was pretty much thumbs up. I think if you”re going to show anatomy realistically you”ve got to be kind of unflinching about the gore. That is there. That”s the reality of doing a dissection is there”s gore. And I think to a degree the shock factor attracts people sort of in a Grand Guignol sort of way. Certain people, a more adult mentality, can handle that. And lately I think there”s a growing acceptance of and an interest in presenting this. So I was involved in the “Inside Nature”s Giants,” which was a documentary that showed animal dissections live in front of an audience. And that was a big ht. It was a big success and it really drove home to me that people want to see this. It”s kind of forbidden to see inside animals, I think, but people are curious. They want to know what is it really like? Because it”s not something you often see. And it”s not so nice Googling around and just seeing like a hacked up elephant or something like that in a different context. If it”s in the context of a “Here”s an animal that already died. We didn”t kill it, we”re just making the most out of dissecting it and learning from it and gaining from science and maybe figuring out why it died,” then people are more accepting of that kind of approach. 

So there”s several sides to the issue, but to me I think I”m passionate about anatomy. I really feel strongly that anatomy is an important field still and still a vigorous field that”s gone through a renaissance lately. And it”s a field that was once the field of science that got diminished by genetics and now is kind of resurging. I think people are rediscovering anatomy in general and I”d like to push that envelope and see how excited can we get people in anatomy again. Because it”s fascinating. It”s really what animals are and the anatomy is the animal. That gets you closest to understanding the animal. DNA is very important too, but understanding that if someone rattles off the base pair sequence of DNA to the general public, that”s too abstract. Anatomy is very visceral, very physical, very approachable and gets you more of the intimate feeling of what the animal's like, what the biology is reflected in the anatomy.

HitFix: Well then is the next step you end up with some almost anthropomorphizing creatures. What are some of the dangers of that approach to something like a T.rex?

John Hutchinson: So the dangers of anthropormorphizing. I think on one hand you”ve got to compare T.rex to humans in some ways to say, you know, “The arm is the same size as ours.” That allows us to understand if we put things in human terms then people understand. They know their bodies reasonably well. They can think, “Oh, it had an arm my size. Okay, that”s not so small,” but of course in a T.rex comparison that”s a pretty small arm relative to its size. That”s pretty puny. I think the danger is avoiding like making it cutesy. 

Okay, one thing I have encountered sometimes is people feeling unhappy about dissection because they think animals wouldn”t want to be dissected, that it would make them unhappy. But a dead animal doesn”t care. I think this is the anthropomorphizing is that we do care what happens to our bodies after we die, but I think we”re unusual in that respect. We are aware of our mortality. Probably most other species — maybe elephants and a couple others excepted —  don”t understand death and a dead animal is like an animal that”s gone and not an animal anymore so they don”t care about being dead and what happens to them. So I think that”s the risk is people reacting to this and being like, “Oh, that poor T.rex. They”re cutting it up. Why didn”t they just leave it alone?”

HitFix: But hasn”t “Jurassic Park” kind of killed the idea that we would feel “Oh poor T.rex” or not?

John Hutchinson: Yeah, well I think in the case of T.rex. If this was a cute, small fuzzy feathery dinosaur maybe people would feel different about it. But T.rex being a big nasty carnivore, I think people are less sympathetic towards it perhaps. I don”t think this is a real danger with the program, but it is an overall danger with depicting dissections is that people could feel that it”s exploitation, that the animal”s sad demise is being used for ill gain. I just don”t see how that”s really justifiable here or that many people would make that argument. I”m sure it”s a big world with seven billion-odd people probably somebody is going to think that, but yeah.

HitFix: Now in all the preliminary discussion today, there were mentions of “Jurassic Park” and I”m wondering if it”s a good thing or a bad thing that 20-some-odd years down the line that”s so central…

John Hutchinson: The benchmark.

HitFix: Yeah. And still the benchmark.

John Hutchinson: Yeah. Well, we still talk about it as scientists all the time and not just because it draws in media attention or something like that. It really was a watershed moment in representing what we thought the best scientific rendition of animals was like as of 1993-ish. And that”s the way I felt when I was in an undergrad and when I read the book and saw the movie around that time. I liked that movie because it clearly was representing the best science and to offer. So it is a benchmark moment in communicating what science has figured out about animals. I think by only showing skeletons or drawings of animals fleshed out you don”t get things across to people as clearly as making a full CGI rendition or a physical rendition, in this case of this program, the physical or full fleshed out rendition just is more intimate. It gets people more understanding the animal than something more abstract or incomplete. And “Jurassic Park” did a fantastic job of that. I still think their T.rex, except for a few details, is one of the best renditions of T.rex ever. I think they did a great job and so I think it deserves to be a point of comparison. In terms of alternative choices there isn”t much. You look back, it”s pretty grim. As you go back from 1993 backwards. I love “The Lost World” and “King Kong,” those movies helped make me want to be a paleontologist. I”m a monster movie fan from a very young age and that still captivates me. But those were good renditions at their time but they haven”t withstood the test of time very well.

HitFix: Do you think there”s a reason why we don”t talk about “Jurassic Park: Lost World” and the third movie in the same ways?

John Hutchinson: The magic was definitely lost to a certain degree after the first one. Once you”ve seen it there”s no having a second moment of awe the same degree as in “Jurassic Park,” because it was just kind of the same thing again. There are differences that were interesting and certainly they were movies that were worth seeing, but they didn”t have the magic of the first one because no one had seen anything like that before. CGI was still pretty new at the time, whereas CGI was not new after “Jurassic Park” or “Terminator 2.” Those were movies around the same time that kind of showed us what amazing things CGI could do.

HitFix: Now when you were first becoming interested in dinosaurs, was it the T.rex that was the point of entry?

John Hutchinson: Yeah, T.rex was way up there. I remember a few books I have that I had renditions of T.rex that I absolutely loved. I still have quite a few of them. I loved reptiles in general and dinosaurs. Reptiles for a long period of life were my favorite group of animals. I didn”t like birds. I didn”t like mammals much. One of my first words was “docadile” for crocodile. I had a toy crocodile so this goes way back, way back in my life. I”ve had a strong emotional tie for some reason to reptiles. I just think they”re cool. And T.rex is one of the coolest ones. I think kind of undeniably it”s one of the greatest animals. It”s a celebrity for good reasons because it is freaking cool.

HitFix: OK, now this is going to be me anthropomorphizing. Are you a TV viewer?

John Hutchinson: Yes.

HitFix: Would it be fair do you think to think of some of the appeal of the T.rex as being some of the same appeal to the antiheros that we”re loving on TV?

John Hutchinson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. It”s an antihero. Yeah it”s a celebrity antihero. I think it”s an antihero because it”s a carnivore and it kills the cute dinosaurs that are less threatening. Yeah, that”s definitely true. I don”t know what to compare it to in terms of TV antiheros. I don't know… Batman?

HitFix: See I was thinking Tony Soprano. A little Walter White.

John Hutchinson: Tony Soprano. Yeah, good, good, good. That”s even better. Even better than Batman.

HitFix: I figured it”s an essay or a review to write down but it”s also entirely anthropomorphizing this creature a little bit.

John Hutchinson: Yeah, Tony Soprano. Yeah. T.rex was the Tony Soprano of the late Cretaceous.

HitFix: So once you”ve autopsied the T.rex here, what is the sequel? What would you want to do digging into next?

John Hutchinson: With a documentary? Well they”ve got to do a sauropod if they”re going to do a sequel. But that is a staggering technical challenge. This was staggering in and of itself but to do an animal that is 10-times the size? I don”t know if it can be done.

HitFix: What would be the accessible one that you could maybe do? Or would it have to be like a baby of one?

John Hutchinson: The problem is kind of like “Jurassic Park” and its sequels. That once the magic is done in the first one is it worth doing another one or have you already kind of given away the excitement? I was involved in “Inside Nature”s Giants,” which was a great documentary where they dissected lots of animals and every program was about a different one, but I think eventually they stopped doing the show because it was kind of like, “Well we”ve gone through a lot of the coolest animals. People that have followed the series probably have by the end have been like 'Okay, we”re cutting up another animal and here we”re seeing some of the same things again that we saw in previous episodes.'” So familiarity breeds contempt and there is that danger. But with this program I mean doing a sauropod, if they pulled it off that would be very worthwhile. But other things – I don”t know. Doing a duckbill, meh.

HitFix: How big do those get?

John Hutchinson: T.rex size.

HitFix: Oh, okay. 

John Hutchinson: Or Triceratops. Eh, fine. It would be all right. But a lot of it would be saying the same things or slightly different variations. So I don”t know. I”m of two minds about the idea of sequel. It could be a good thing. It”s an opportunity. I”m sure people would watch it. It would be a good thing for paleontology, but sequels tend to dilute the value of the original to a certain degree. And this is, I think it”s a groundbreaking documentary. It”s really a big step forward.

HitFix: But it”s also obviously going to living history. If you have to put your money on what 20 years from now will be most different, that people will look back on this and say 20 years ago and say, “Okay clearly that was off,” What would you put your money on being the most likely to be different?

John Hutchinson: The feathery issue. I would hope within 20 years we”ll actually find T.rexs maybe with feathering on them, because we do find animals from that time and place with feathering on them. We now know that it”s actually possible to find that. So that”s one. I”m trying to think what else. We”re doing pretty well with T.rex. It”s possible to find out color. I used to say when I was a grad student, I'd say, “Well one thing we”ll never know about dinosaurs is color,” but then now I don”t say that anymore because we have found out color from some animals. And if we do find feathers that”s the way we often find out color of animals, is from the feathers. So if we did find a T.rex with feathers then there might be evidence of color preserved in those feathers. But that would be pretty awesome if we were able to find that. But I wouldn”t expect a lot of feathers on T.rex. There would still be the issue of what were the color of the scales or other parts, the leathery hide of T.rex.

HitFix: How much fun is that side of this job for you? The idea of going out on limbs that are wrong that you know are wrong in the hopes of getting one step closer to something that you think might be righter, I guess?

John Hutchinson: Yeah a lot of my work is about being wrong. I”m always reiterating like a computer model is always wrong, but it”s about representing things with a margin of error. So we can say, “Alright, T.rex was seven tons plus-or-minus one ton.” That to me is good science if we”re able to put error bars on things and say, “It”s within this range.” Like I”ve never said, “T.rex could run 25.2 miles-an-hour,” because that implies level of accuracy that does not exist. So I like the idea of being wrong and I”ve been wrong in some of my work and corrected it later in my later work. I think that”s all a part of science, that science advances often by being wrong sometimes more than by being right. 

“T.rex Autopsy” airs on Sunday, June 7 on National Geographic.

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