David Attenborough joins palaeontologist Robert DePalma at the Tanis site in North Dakota as he unearths the story of the dinosaurs’ death in this thrilling documentary
15 April 2022
In July 2013, palaeontologist Robert DePalma began excavating a patch of dirt in the Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota. Though he had initially been pessimistic about the site, he soon noticed something strange: small spherical droplets of rock called ejecta. These are a common signature from interstellar bodies hitting planets, and they were scattered throughout a layer of soil from an ancient flood triggered by the asteroid impact, perfectly preserving its contents, Pompeii-style.
As DePalma dug further, he discovered a trove of pristine fossils that he suspected were from the late Cretaceous period – the last time non-avian dinosaurs roamed free before the catastrophic Chicxulub asteroid wiped them out. There are scant fossil records from that fateful day, which makes the site, named Tanis, one of the most significant palaeontological finds of all time.
DePalma kept his discovery secret before announcing the site’s existence in 2019, after which a BBC documentary team joined him at Tanis for three years. Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough follows DePalma and his team of dinosaur-hunters as they unearth, fossil by fossil, the story of the dinosaurs’ deaths. David Attenborough is on hand to check the exhumed specimens over with fossil experts, and to explain what they tell us about the creatures’ final moments, armed with a healthy dose of dinosaur CGI.
Though Attenborough is his usual stellar presenting self, the show deviates from a typical BBC nature documentary. Sharing equal screen time with the (animated) animals are the arguably more interesting palaeontologists. At one point, DePalma strikes upon a patch of fossilised triceratops skin. “This is the closest thing to touching a living, breathing dinosaur,” one of his colleagues says, his excitement palpable.
The rhythm of the show is closer to a true crime whodunnit, with Attenborough poring over the Tanis fossils in darkly lit labs. As the jigsaw pieces fall into place – a reconstructed young pterosaur here, a fully preserved Thescelosaurus leg there – a clearer picture of Chicxulub’s aftermath begins to emerge. Mile-high tsunamis, superheated ejecta raising the air temperature by tens of degrees and a multiyear lack of sunlight are recreated and make for hellish viewing. The visual depiction of the dinosaurs and their demise is less engrossing than the story being told, with some of the CGI animals appearing slightly wooden, but the feeling of discovering ancient history alongside DePalma and Attenborough is thrilling.
Though the documentary is about a day that occurred 66 million years ago, it is difficult not to draw comparisons with the climate future that might await us. “It’s possible that humanity is having as big an impact on the world as the asteroid that ended the age of the dinosaurs,” says Attenborough. But he ends on a more hopeful note, saying humans are unique in their ability to learn from the past. “We must use that ability wisely.”
Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough is now available on BBC iPlayer
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