David Attenborough reveals cliff-edge race to save giant sea monster skull


It was the find of a lifetime even for Sir David Attenborough – the discovery of the six-ft-long skull of an “underwater T-Rex” in the Dorset cliffs.

Now the legendary naturalist has revealed the perilous cliff-edge battle to excavate the colossal Jurassic fossil before heavy rains destroyed the remains.

Fossil experts believe the skull found on the Jurassic Coast to be a completely new species of the pliosaur, a ferocious marine reptile that terrorised the oceans about 150 million years ago.

The monster was first spotted by fossil enthusiast Phil Jacobs walking on a beach near Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset, who saw what looked like a large piece of driftwood. On closer inspection it appeared to be a snout.

Tipped off about the discovery, Sir David, a lifelong fossil collector, persuaded the BBC to send a camera crew to join the expert palaeontologists working on the site.

Sir David, 97, said the mission to liberate safely the savage monster, a “killer machine”, with 130 razor sharp-teeth, was fraught with danger.

Sir David Attenborough holding an ammonite fossil at Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset (BBC Studios)

“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,” said Sir David.

“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,” recalled the broadcaster who details the operation in a BBC New Year’s Day special, Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster.

“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.’

“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 Gunton, executive producer, added: “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!”

With the skull safely excavated, Sir David was astonished at the discovery. “It’s a dream of a lifetime. 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,” he said.

Sir David visited the University of Southampton, where a CT scan of the snout revealed a network of blood vessels and sensory pits, which would have helped the pliosaur to hunt even in the deepest, darkest water.

“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?”

Sir David discovered his first fossil aged 8, beginning a life-long love affair. “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.”

The BBC said Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster “combines groundbreaking science, fascinating natural history, gripping storytelling and state-of-the-art CGI to explore the tale of the most formidable predator of the Jurassic world – one that hunted in the seas just off the coast of Britain.”

Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster, BBC One, New Year’s Day, 8pm and BBC iPlayer

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