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Thursday 28 December 2023

Interview with Sir David Attenborough and Executive Producer Mike Gunton - Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster

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!

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