Thursday, September 3, 2015

NOVA: “Bigger than ‘T. Rex’” (National Geographic Foundation, WGBH-TV, PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent last night mostly watching TV, including the Jeopardy! show (a rerun of a Teachers’ Tournament they originally telecast last year!) and a couple of nature documentaries on PBS. One of the shows PBS ran last night on their “Mental Wednesdays” or whatever they call them was a NOVA program (sponsored by, among others, “The David H. Koch Fund for the Advancement of Science” — which embitters me because I can’t help but think of the other fund, the David and Charles Koch Super-Pac to Donate Billions to Politicians who Deny Science just so that people in the fossil-fuel energy business like the Kochs can continue to make money off the pollution and despoliation of the earth and its atmosphere in blithe disregard of the horrific changes people are causing in the climate by staying on our collective fossil-fuel “jones”) called “Bigger than T. Rex,” telling the fascinating story of a dinosaur discovered in 1910 in Egypt by a German paleontologist named Ernst Stromer, a predator he called Spinosaurus because of its huge spines, which almost certainly supported a sail-like membrane, which was not only bigger than Tyrannosaurus rex but about half again its size. Alas, Stromer’s specimen — the only even partially complete one ever found until recently — was destroyed when the Munich Museum of Natural History, at which the bones he’d found were displayed, was bombed by the Allies in 1944 as part of World War II.

What’s more, only one photo existed of the display, so paleontologists trying to figure out what Spinosaurus had been like — and, even more importantly, what it had eaten, since there hadn’t been similar finds of herbivorous dinosaurs (the usual food source for their carnivorous brethren) in the area — were at sea until recently, when an Italian fossil trader contacted Christiano dal Sasso of the Natural History Museum in Milan with a large number of Spinosaurus fossil bones he had acquired from a bootleg trader in Morocco. Nizar Ibrahim, the closest thing this show has to a hero (he’s drop-dead gorgeous with a nice basket, and he explains that since he’s part Moroccan and part German, he feels he has a vested interest in Spinosaurus), gets involved and manages to contact the trader even though the knowledge that he was dealing in dinosaur bones could get him prosecuted by the Moroccan government (Morocco allows a free trade in common fossils but not in rare specimens) — obviously, the fact that he speaks Arabic was a major help — and the dealer leads him to the site where he dug up his bones and thus the professional paleontologists are able not only to get more Spinosaurus bones but to do a proper excavation, including noting what strata of rock they’re in and thus getting a rough idea of the specimen’s age. They were able to get enough of the specimen that, between what they had, what they could deduce from the surviving photos and descriptions of Stromer’s finds, and analogies to living animals (including flamingos and, more significantly, crocodiles), the paleontologists deduced that Spinosaurus had been an aquatic reptile, many times larger than the modern crocodile but similarly adapted to spending most of its time underwater and subsisting on fish (which also were much larger in the late Cretaceous period in which it lived than they are now). The combination of war, skullduggery and scientific fascination made this a quite compelling program to watch even though I wondered about their assertion that no previously known dinosaur had spent much of its time in water; what about Apatosaurus (which when I went to school was known as Brontosaurus), which as early as the 1930’s was known to have been amphibian?