In "Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster," Sir David Attenborough takes on the intriguing task of exploring a once-in-a-lifetime discovery – a colossal skull unearthed from the cliffs of Dorset. Enter the world of the pliosaur, the marine counterpart to the Tyrannosaurus rex!
Discover the story of the pliosaur, an extraordinary monster of the seas, on BBC One and iPlayer
What is this film about?
David Attenborough: This film is about the discovery of the skull of an extraordinary monster of the seas – one of the biggest predators the world has ever seen. The skull is the most important part of an animal, and what you can deduce from the skull is absolutely fascinating.
Imagine that you were from Mars, and when you landed on Earth all you could find were human skeletons but not a single one with a skull. You wouldn't know anything about it at all - you wouldn't know what it fed on, how it could move, you wouldn't know what it could see - it would be useless.
Well, that is more or less was the situation we were in as far as this particular pliosaur was concerned. The skull had the potential to be the most informative find of any pliosaur ever made but unfortunately, or initially unfortunately, it was only the end tip of this huge skull that was found. But the skull is the most informative part of any skeleton, and it promised to have all those details in it if you could only get it out…
This is the story of how it was got out, and how it was examined by scientists with all kinds of latest state-of-the-art equipment to investigate these things, how they were able to interpret it and tell us new things about pliosaurs.
For people who may not be familiar with the idea of a pliosaur, can you say what is it and how much we know about it?
David: Well, we know a lot about ichthyosaurs, but this was a great hunter of the ichthyosaurs, and it's called a pliosaur – an immense animal that ruled the seas during the period of the dinosaurs.
It could obviously move at great speed and the teeth that were found in the tip of the skull have vertical ridges down them, which break the suction and allow it to withdraw the jaw from prey quickly - that's the sort of deduction that we're able to make and which we show in the programme.
Do you remember how you first heard about this?
David: Yes, I've been passionate about collecting fossils since I was a kid and I've never given it up. In consequence I know a number of the collectors and people who live on the Jurassic Coast. One of them, Chris Moore, is a long-time friend, and he got in touch with us and said there's going to be a remarkable discovery that this thing had been found. I immediately rang up Mike and said, "we ought to be doing this". Fortunately the BBC was able to do so - when the BBC decides that it wants to act, it can act very swiftly and very effectively. And we had a crew down there before you knew where you were.
Mike Gunton: You're absolutely right about the speed because we heard about it we heard they're going to have to excavate this thing in the next week. So we had to scramble, we had to get it commissioned, we had to get everybody's involvement, we had to get the crew together, not to mention the really difficult conditions which required health and safety. But nevertheless, within six days we were there!
David: It looked as though it was going to be one of the most complete skeletons ever found. The head was only part of it, and that was up in the cliffs. And the body itself, being about the size of a London bus, extends into the cliff. The decision had to be taken that we would go for the skull, because that is where all the information lies. The rest of it probably has to be there but it's 30, 40 feet long, so at the moment we are concentrating on the head, the skull, the most important part.
In terms of the actual excavation, how much of a challenge was it to excavate the skull?
David: Well, it weighs over half a tonne. That's a pretty heavy thing to handle. Now, you have to get it out from half way up the face of a tall cliff which itself is crumbling away, and if you drop it and break it, it is a major catastrophe. I mean, you will have lost a lot of information. So the problem we see in the first part of the program was about is how on earth do you go around getting this out?
They only had a certain length of time because the storms of summer were on the way and fortunately at that time the weather was sunny enough for the team to start working immediately. But they knew that in two or three weeks' time there was going to be a rainstorm and that could have ruined everything, so they were working against the clock and it was that drama of actually getting it out, the sheer mechanical drama of extracting this thing which occupies the first section of the film. You feel the tension as the people are trying to get it out, and do it safely.
Then there are safety people there and they could see that the weather was changing and they said, "if you don't get it out in the next 24 hours, you've got to withdraw because it's not safe."
Mike: Yes, and the rain can erode the rock quite quickly, and the whole thing could just fall to the ground, it would be in thousands of pieces and that's a big old jigsaw to try to put back together again, so it was very urgent!
We've talked a bit about the restoration process and obviously it's a labour of love for Steve [Etches] and his team. Steve himself has done an incredible job of preparing the skull for scientific assessment. But how important is that role of the preparator for fossils?
David: Incredibly important. It's so easy to destroy what you're looking for. That's the problem when you are preparing this kind of fossil. How far can you go down before you've actually destroyed what it is you are looking for?
Mike: Steve when he uses this air abrasion, he's so sensitive, he's like a surgeon. It's a very, very sensitive skill to have. It's rather remarkable to watch actually. As David says, get it wrong, you destroy information that has been waiting for you for 150 million years. It's a particular type of person who has the patience and the skills to do it and Steve is one.
So, David, what were your first impressions of the whole skull when you saw it for the first time?
David: Oh, no question about that. That is one of the biggest skulls you've ever seen. I mean, it's huge and so although I was aware of the tip that was first discovered, I hadn't fully appreciated how big the whole head would be and it's enormous. So sheer scale was what first impressed me.
But then I talked to the scientists who knew about this particular group of fossils, and pointed out to me the little details, the little pores, sensory pits. There is also the parietal eye – in some animals, including this one, it seems there is a primitive eye in the top of the head. Think of a crocodile in the middle, between the eyes at the top.
It could have told you which way was up, if you were down in the deep sea - that's the sort of detail which we weren't sure about but which this skull has already given us more information about.
Mike: My recollection was that Steve said how unusual it is to get a skull that is not disarticulated, in other words, you finding it as it would have been in life. I don't know, but that's rare and that would have been exceptional, wouldn't it.
David: Well I mean the thing about the skull is that it's not only by far the most informative part of the body, it is by far the most delicate too. And it's the detail, and that is so rare to find it. And this is as near perfect as it can possibly get.
Mike: One of the scientists, Andre [Rowe], he says it's a one in a million, no!, one in a billion fossil….
Thinking about the science a little bit now, how closely did the team collaborate with the scientific community and experts during the making of this programme?
David: They can tell us all kinds of things. There's an American expert, Dr Andre, and he was blown away by it. He said, "it was the most terrifying animal in the seas".
I asked him perhaps a rather childish question because it was very big, and it's bigger than the Tyrannosaurus rex by long way, so I asked this schoolboy question, I said, "Now, supposing Tyrannosaurus rex met this extraordinary pliosaur, who would win?" And this chap was American and Tyrannosaurus Rex is an American dinosaur, so I expected his answer to be that. He said, "Well, I think it probably was this pliosaur that won."
Other scientists told us that it's almost certainly a new species of pliosaur.
So it's a new species, and it would have been able to deal with Tyrannosaurus rex straight up in a fight. So what more do you want?
Mike: One of the things that was interesting about that deduction you made, one of the things I thought was fascinating was the power of the jaws, the bite force. I mean, I think you were saying, you wouldn't want to meet one!
David: OhI would like to meet one, I must say. But if it was on the other side of a river…
The CT scan revealed a network of blood vessels and nerves, were you surprised by that level of detail?
David: Well yes there was the University of Bristol and Southampton, the two of them have apparatus which enables you to extract that sort of information. To actually see inside is extraordinary. There are very few pieces of apparatus that can do that.
How much has that technology helped us to understand more about the lives of prehistoric animals in recent years?
David: The ability to see through stone matrix is extraordinary. We are, I suppose, accustomed to seeing X-rays of our own bodies, but to do it from a great lump of stone! If you've got some sort of medical problem they could do it in two or three minutes of exposure, but this took five days or something. It was a great privilege.
The seas were full of monsters, which we really had very little information about. But this is the first time that the pliosaur, this enormous great creature, a ferocious creature, which must have been among the biggest, most powerful carnivorous creatures in the seas... How that must have appeared at the time is a wonderful thing to ponder upon and I hope that the programme ends with us doing just that, because of course these days with Computer Generated Imaging we can take information from scientists that tell us about speed, that tell us about how they moved, their flippers in all sorts of deductive ways and putting all that together in order for you to be able to produce an image that is really convincing of a monster this size that once roamed the seas of this planet is really very exciting.
Mike: There's that extra level of I think of being in the ocean, I think you're right David, I love dinosaurs, but the idea they're in the ocean is an extra level of mystery and fear, like a great white shark today.
You touched there upon Computer Generated Images. David do you feel seeing those really brings us the monster to life?
David: Oh yes. I mean this isn't the first time that we've had computer generated imaging. I've worked on dinosaurs before, but there's a sort of double whammy in this one because not only are you doing that but you're doing it on something that's only just been discovered. So it's really saying something new and exciting and dramatic.
We were talking about the sea monster being one of the greatest predators the world has ever seen. What made it an apex predator?
David: The facts are dramatic enough that you don't need to build up pictures with words, I mean, here is a thing the size of a London bus, moving faster than anything you can imagine of that size, with huge jaws, armed with these extraordinary teeth, which was able to tear apart the ichthyosaurs - there's no creature alive today in any way comparable to this enormous carnivorous giant. That's what sets your imagination alight when you think about it.. And of course, the scientists themselves are as thrilled about it, perhaps even more than you will be. It's their lifetimes work, isn't it? It's a dream of a lifetime.
Mike: It's got bizarre flippers too hasn't it? Luke Muscutt made a model…
David: Yes he had a radio-controlled model in a very big tank and he was able to deduce that the closest locomotory action that we can see on the planet today is of a penguin. This immense creature moved its limbs in the same sort of way that a penguin does.
The pliosaur has one set of flippers at the front and one set at the back, and the scientist pointed out that it's like geese when they fly, and other birds that migrate in flocks – they fly one behind the other so they can exploit the turbulence and save energy. This is what the pliosaur does by having two flippers one behind the other.
And you mentioned you were able to use the remote controlled device?
David: Oh yes I was able to play with it! Yes, that was self-indulgent.
Sir David Attenborough smiles as he sits next to a Humboldt Penguin at London Zoo.
What is it about finding a fossil that holds such fascination for you?
David: A very basic curiosity but also a sense of privilege. You can tell in many cases because actually, there is a little brown line on a rock that leads you to believe there is something in there. And you can calculate were you should hit it in order to get it to split! Occasionally, and it's happened to me, occasionally you will see in complete detail that the rock has split along the junction between a shell and the mud, and it just opens, and there it is, absolutely perfect. It doesn't require any further excavation, it doesn't require messing. There's this wonderful creature that nobody has seen before you in 150 million years. If you're young or old, it's a joy! I've never got over it really. It's very romantic. I mean, people talk about science, the cold, calculating eye of science, which of course you have to have, but it doesn't prevent you from having romance as well.
Mike: And it's an excitement and a romance that people with imagination get hooked on. You also have a bit of pride too!
Do you remember the first fossil you found?
David: It's easy to do when you're eight-years-old, you know, it's that little romance which I never lost. I used to go at weekends. The thing is in Leicestershire was that they had Ironstone workings, which were eventually worked out so there were these empty quarries. You could get on your bicycle and ride for 15 miles or so and get lost in this great expanse of rock. All these boulders that nobody had ever hit! You'd think, "surely the next one! If I hit that one I'll find something nobody has seen before!"
It takes a fossil hunter to make a programme like this, and to convince the commissioners that it's worth spending time on. But I'm happy to say that the romance comes over in the programmes. These are the types of programmes people seem to like, and I'm happy to go on making them because it's great fun!
Considering the ground-breaking information given in the programme do you think it will inspire future scientists and researchers interested in palaeontology and prehistoric studies?
David: I think there are still going to be little 10 year olds and 12 year olds going around on bicycles hitting rocks with hammers! Put on glasses – it's very dangerous! I mustn't encourage children, they must wear eye protection! But kids that are being born today will still find that romantic, and not only kids….
Mike: I'd quite like to be a palaeontologist, it must be fascinating, would you?
David: Well I thought I was going to be a palaeontologist at one stage, but I was thwarted.
Mike: Never too late!
Why is it important we study extinct animals, and what can we learn from them?
David: Knowledge can't have a cash value. Facts don't have cash values. It's just part of life. To know your imagination of the different worlds that once existed, it's enriching and makes you more appreciative of the fact that you're alive. The evidence goes back for all these millions of years and that's part of the meaning of life really.
Mike: I think it defines us. It would be tragic if people didn't – it's critical and it speaks to our humanity. Plus it's great fun!