Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Bring Back the King

Think you don’t care about dinosaurs, or dodos, or for that matter Elvis Presley? And you certainly don’t care that there is cutting-edge science leading us toward the possibility of bringing the King of the Dinosaurs or the King of Rock ‘n Roll back from extinction? (Well, perhaps Mr. Presley is a long shot.) Just leave it to Helen Pilcher to bring us all onboard in her sometimes hilarious book, Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-Extinction. Pilcher, a science and comedy writer who just happens to have a PhD in cell biology, lets the un-science-minded of us romp through the world of DNA as though we understand it (and maybe we begin to). Bring Back the King was published last week by Bloomsbury Sigma, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. You can find the book at local booksellers or through the Bloomsbury website, also at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

AS BAD DAYS GO, it was a real humdinger. When he woke that morning, around 65 million years ago, Stan had little idea that a rock the size of Mount Everest was hurtling towards the Earth at 70,000 mph. A short while later when the fireball hit, it shook the Earth with the force of six billion Hiroshima bombs, triggering shock waves and an earthquake so big that tsunamis spread around the world.

Standing thousands of miles away, Stan felt the earth move, but not in a good way. Looking towards the Yucatán Peninsula, he would have seen an ominous cloud of dust and ash climb into the sky and blacken the sun. The temperature began to drop. Day turned to night. A bitter, dark winter spread across the globe.

Up to this point, Stan had had little to worry about. A 20-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex, he was 7 tonnes of ugly. Thick-skinned and as long as an articulated lorry, he was the top dog of North America. Stan and his family weren’t on any menu—they chose the menu; apex predators in a world that boasted an all you can eat smorgasbord of delicious dinosaurs, all Stan’s for the chomping. T. rex was literally the tyrant lizard king.

But when the asteroid hit, everything changed. Condemned to endless darkness, all the sun-loving plants and algae shrivelled and died. Those that depended on them soon followed. Plant-eating dinosaurs, mammals and other creatures wasted away. And then the carnivores, Stan and his kind, weakened and starving, succumbed to the inevitable. It was a slow, systematic, global extermination. Over the next few hundred thousand years, three-quarters of all plant and animal species on the Earth became extinct. The dinosaurs went extinct. It was the end of Stan and the end of an era. Literally.

The Chicxulub asteroid, as it came to be known much later, after humans evolved and invented language, polished off the dinosaur-laden Cretaceous era and catapulted its successor, the Tertiary, firmly into the spotlight. It was bad news for the dinosaurs, but good news for the tiny, scurrying mammals that seized the day and toughed it out. It was the opportunity our most distant ancestors needed to wedge their furry feet firmly in the door of life. The demise of the dinosaurs paved the way for good things: the evolution of humans, you, me and, ultimately, the birth of Elvis Presley. But let’s stop for a moment and spare a thought for Stan. Before the asteroid hit, dinosaurs had ruled the planet for 135 million years. Humans, with our paltry 200,000-year back story, are but impudent whippersnappers. The same space rock that gave mammals their lucky break removed some of the biggest, most inspirational, most enigmatic creatures ever to walk the Earth.

Burning Love
I’ve been in love with T. rex for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I wanted to be a T. rex when I grew up. It’s only biology and a few hundred million years of evolution that’s stopping me from living that dream. But the T. rex of my childhood was very different to the one we know now. Back in the seventies, T. rex was an oversized, green, scaly lizard with enormous scary gnashers. He (all dinosaurs were male in my mind) stood pretty much upright, like he had a broom handle up his bum, and he dragged his sorry tail across the ground. Cold-blooded, cold-hearted, brawny but brainless, he lounged around in swamps and did little apart from roar, kill things and rue the day his pathetically puny arms stopped growing. But none of that mattered. T. rex was the only dinosaur I was interested in. He was the only figure, from a toy box bursting with other dinosaurs, that ever saw the light of day, because, for me, he was the king. How much I longed to meet him.

Author Helen Pilcher.

But as I got older, things began to change. T. rex was still a celebrity, but like so many other stars from the seventies,

his reputation became battered by a series of image-shattering revelations. As new fossils turned up, researchers began to suspect that T. rex probably wasn’t stupid, slow or cold-blooded. He was, in fact, an intelligent, highly successful predator whose stance was more horizontal than it was vertical. Forget a pole up the bottom; this beast could have balanced a tray of shot-glasses on its back. But worse was to come. Tyrannosaur fossils turned up sporting not scales, but a fine coat of feathery fuzz, and no one could be sure if T. rex was green, blue, pink, purple or any other colour. It was the final nail in the coffin. The T. rex of my childhood was gone. In its place was an incongruously feathered assassin that had more in common with birds than with Godzilla.

The problem is that although we know a great deal about T. rex from the fossil record, there are just so many questions left unanswered. There really was, or is, a T. rex called Stan. Like many dinosaurs, he was named after the man who found him, amateur fossil hunter Stan Sacrison who, in 1987, noticed a pelvis sticking out of a South Dakota cliff face.* It took a team of experts more than 25,000 hours to excavate and prepare the pelvis and another 198 bones to yield one of the most complete T. rex specimens ever found. Stan, who can be visited at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota,† is 70 percent complete. But although his bones reveal many things, including his age, size, how he moved and what he ate, there is just so much we don’t know.

For starters, Stan might have hatched from a beautiful egg, but we just can’t tell. No one has ever found a T. rex egg. He might have been a playful youngster or a socially awkward teenager. He might have wowed the ladies, been a lothario or a loner, a brilliant dad or an absent parent. We just don’t know. We know next to nothing about how dinosaurs behaved or interacted with one another. We don’t know what colour they were and we certainly don’t know the answer to that most age-old of T. rex questions: what were its little arms for? The best we can do is make informed, educated guesses, based on the fossil evidence that we have. But it would be very different if we had a real, live dinosaur to study.

If we were to choose one dinosaur to bring back to life, it can’t be some pint-sized ‘never heard of it’ Thingymasaurus discovered in the 1800s, known only from a toe bone. It has to be a well-known, larger than life showstopper. Who better than T. rex, a Hollywood blockbuster of a dinosaur; star of countless movies including Jurassic ParkThe Lost World and The Land that Time Forgot? Who else has battled King Kong, Dr Who and Homer Simpson and toured with a toddler supergroup?° Famous across the globe, familiar to adults and children alike, T. rex has a pull like no other dinosaur.

So what if I told you that a modern living dinosaur is not fantasy. Making a dinosaur is not impossible. It’s not a task for beginners, and it’s not something you should try at home. It’s a task that requires a lot of concentration and expertise. Think of the trickiest thing you’ve ever done—taking an exam, learning a foreign language, assembling a piece of flat pack furniture without swearing—then multiply it by the biggest number you can think of, add infinity and learn to unicycle. Bringing back a dinosaur is a bit like that, only more science-y. It would be difficult. There would be many practical, intellectual and ethical hurdles to consider, many failures along the way. But there are respectable scientists out there who think it can be done, who truly believe that they can make or ‘engineer’ a dinosaur . . . sort of. But just because it can be done, does it mean it should be?
—Helen Pilcher
* A few years after Stan’s discovery, Sacrison’s twin brother Steve also discovered a T. rex that he named . . . Steve. In a similar vein, there are tyrannosaurs called Sue, Celeste, Bucky, Greg and Wankel—the latter after namesake Kathy Wankel, a Montana rancher.
† If you can’t make it to Hill City, you can buy a life-sized replica of Stan from the Black Hills Institute for just $100,000 plus crate  and packing fee. Allow six months for delivery. ‘Takes an experienced crew less than an hour to assemble.’
°  Dorothy the Dinosaur is a life-sized pirouetting T. rex puppet with a jaunty sunhat shading dead, lifeless eyes, who tours with toddler supergroup The Wiggles. She eats roses, not children.
Excerpted from Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-extinction by Helen Pilcher. Copyright © Helen Pilcher 2017. Published by Bloomsbury Sigma, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

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