Dinosaurs De/Reconstructed

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Paleontologist Phil Manning was, in his own words, a “dinosaur nerd as a child.” Nothing unusual about that; it’s practically a requirement for working in the field. But another youthful influence may have had a more direct impact on the professional path that Manning—an adjunct professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science who also heads the Paleontology Research Group in the School of Earth, Atmospheric, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester—has staked out for himself.

“I was fascinated by, actually, all life. It wasn’t just dinosaurs,” he says. “Thanks to David Attenborough and his wonderful series, Life on Earth. That little box in the corner of the room, when it produced that stunning series, even as a child I suddenly realized, ‘Goodness me, there’s something very interesting out there.’”

Later, as he began his scholarly career, Manning experienced a mounting frustration at the relative lack of hard data about dinosaurs in particular.

“There was much conjecture and very little quantitative analysis,” he says. “Many of the statements which were being made were unsubstantiated with any good, solid science. And I thought, ‘Well, there must be more to this story. How do they know they looked like this? How do they know they could do this? Why were they like this?’”

Put the power of TV and that craving for scientific rigor together and you get Jurassic CSI, a six-part documentary series for the National Geographic Channel, hosted by Manning, that has been airing internationally since the winter and will premiere in the US starting on August 19. Rather than the customary drama of discovering new dinosaur species, the focus is on demonstrating how various modern technologies—CT and laser scanners, finite-element analysis, particle accelerators, and so on—can shed fresh light on the fossil record.

“Very often paleontologists are viewed as stamp collectors,” Manning says. “We name things. We dig up bones, and we give them a name. But the science doesn’t just do that.”

Paleontology is in the midst of a new renaissance “driven by technology,” he adds. Today, using tools that were undreamed of when many fossils were discovered, “you can reverse-engineer what a creature was like, how it functioned.”

Manning, who has been involved with several TV documentaries, proposed the series to National Geographic, building it mostly around various projects he has going on with colleagues at Manchester, Penn, and other universities but bringing in other related work as well. Besides showing how new technologies can be applied in paleontology, the broader message is one of “crossover between disciplines.”

“You’ll see chemists, biologists, engineers, physicists, people who build rockets,” he explains. By “working out of  the box in terms of your own discipline, you are able to come up with interesting new science.”

Among the host of Penn participants in the series, first and foremost is Peter Dodson, professor of anatomy at the School of Veterinary Medicine, professor of paleontology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, and a leading dinosaur expert. Also contributing their expertise are Karen Rosenthal, associate professor and director of special-species medicine and surgery at the School of Veterinary Medicine; Dean Richardson, the Charles W. Raker Professor of Equine Surgery and chief of large-animal surgery at the school [“Something About Barbaro,” Jul|Aug 2006]; and Emma Schachner Gr’10, then a doctoral candidate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science as well as a gifted scientific illustrator [“Gazetteer,” Jul|Aug 2010].

While David Attenborough projects an air of suave erudition onscreen, Manning’s affect is more one of boyish—though distinctly British—enthusiasm. (At least twice he describes himself as being “gob-smacked” by something.) If nothing else, the onscreen reactions are real, and so is the air of suspense over the results. “It’s not made up. You are seeing science happen,” he says. “Very often you are watching an experiment as we do it for the first time.”

The series’ six episodes focus on researchers’ efforts to: (1) figure out what kind of brain a Tyrannosaurus Rex would have had (“Inside T. Rex”), (2) determine the mechanics of dinosaur locomotion (“Walk Like a Dinosaur”), (3) find evidence for dinosaur pigmentation (“In Living Color”), (4) investigate how injured dinosaurs may have healed themselves (“T. Rex Trauma”), (5) set the upper limit for how big dinosaurs might have gotten (“Supersize”), and (6) create a scientifically accurate dinosaur skin (“Skin Deep”).

Among the many notable scenes is one from “Inside T. Rex” in which the researchers try to gain insight into the dinosaur’s brain by examining some close living relatives—in this case, an emu (chosen because it’s a flightless bird) and an alligator. Rosenthal and Manning subject the two specimens to CT scans at the vet school, collecting data that is later used to computer-model their respective brain “plumbing.”

In “T. Rex Trauma” Manning visits the New Bolton Center to consult with Richardson on large-animal injuries and healing capacity. Like the tyrannosaurs, horses are heavy, fast-moving, and vulnerable to leg injuries. The sequence shows Richardson (who describes orthopedic surgery as “carpentry with a lot of blood)” operating on a horse that had broken one of its lower legs, which had healed improperly without surgery and had to be reset—leading to a discussion about its prospects for survival in a world without the facilities of New Bolton. 

The emu and alligator make a return appearance in “Walk Like a Dinosaur,” which revolves around efforts to “reanimate” a 200-million-year-old poposaurus. This basset-hound sized creature had several odd characteristics, including tiny arms and very large feet, leading Manning and Schachner to speculate that it may have moved by hopping, like a “reptilian kangaroo.” Combining a detailed laser-scan of the poposaur fossil that Schachner was studying (and painstakingly drawing), the comparative data from the emu and alligator to help recreate its musculature, and a computer-model called GaitSym developed by another collaborator, they were able to show that the poposaur was bipedal and “quite a capable runner,” says Manning.

Though Dodson shows up in several episodes, his singular contribution to the project was less scientific than interpersonal. The series globe-trots across the US, Europe, and South America, but the real coup was gaining permission to film in China—in some cases for the first time. Dodson has a long history of working in China, and his close relationships with Chinese paleontologists were crucial “in opening the door for us,” Manning says. As a bonus, Dodson also wrote a very entertaining blog describing the crew’s adventures—culinary, cultural, and scientific—in China (dodsononthedig.wordpress.com).

Key contacts included You Hailu Gr’02, who studied with Dodson while getting his PhD in paleobiology at Penn and who later named one of the dinosaurs he discovered Magnirostris dodsoni after his American mentor [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct 2004]; he is now a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences and “a very, very important man,” says Dodson. In turn, You Hailu introduced Dodson to Li Daqing, a paleontologist with the Gansu Provincial Bureau of Geo-Exploration and Mineral Development, who has become “a very close friend and wonderful colleague,” Dodson says.

A temporary exhibition of dinosaurs that Li Daqing mounted in Lanzhou in 2008 was the inspiration for one of the most visually appealing bits in the series. After seeing “15 or 18 different piles of bones,” in a large field house, Dodson returned a few days later “and there were 18 skeletons,” including a 70-foot long Daxiatitan, that You Hailu and Li Daqing had discovered. “I was astonished. But they were just so well designed that they were just modular, and they went together.”

He suggested that the Jurassic CSI crew commission a reenactment using the Daxiatitan—which they did.

“It took six hours to go from a pile of bones to this beautiful thing,” he says. “And it reminded me of an Amish barn-raising—you know, all these guys in uniform, climbing all over scaffolding, and things going together.”
They were the first Westerners to be allowed to film at a site near Zhucheng, where Chinese researchers have unearthed a dinosaur boneyard that holds thousands of fossil remains—“a very, very exciting and spectacular place,” says Dodson. One sequence shows a team of workers (with Manning joining in) hauling a huge plaster-jacketed bone—Dodson estimates its weight at 3,000 pounds—down a steep hill-side.

Another striking sequence shows Manning descending into a narrow hole, some 60 feet deep, that was originally dug by fossil-hunting farmers at a site near Liaoning, famous for its small, feathered dinosaur fossils. Later, You Hailu entrusts Manning with one of these specimens for use in his experiments on dinosaur color—a rare favor, since Chinese fossils generally stay in China.

Even though he used computer analyses of shape for his own dissertation, Dodson says that, as an anatomist in the veterinary school, he has built up his skills of understanding the “basic way animals are put together” and tried to pass those skills on to students.

“That’s a very valuable, brick-and-mortar kind of skill for paleontology,” he says. At the same time, “to be credible as modern scientists, we really want to make use of all sorts of tools.” Manning’s technology-based approach is “very powerful,” Dodson adds. “My hat is off to him.”

As an added benefit, the series may help harness the public’s—especially children’s—mania for dinosaurs to throw a little attention to some less-beloved fields of study.

“How many kids are going to turn on their TV and hopefully get turned on to science?” says Manning. “Kids love dinosaurs. And if they suddenly realize that a bit of physics, a bit of math helps, it can’t do any harm.”—J.P.

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