The average elephant has to eat 150kg of food a day. I’m no scientist but that’s probably one reason elephants have never learned to speak, crochet or read the Booker longlist – they’re too busy masticating leaves 24/7. Probably.
The same is true – only more so – with your average diplodocus, which, when it lived around 150m years ago, was, as Stephen Fry tells us, taller than a doubledecker bus and about 14m long from nose to tail tip, which, as you know, is 13m longer than your average metre.
Scaling up from an elephant, suggests Fry, who is also no scientist, we can confidently estimate that the diplodocus ate three-quarters of a tonne of food a day – much of it conifer leaves – to stay alive. “That seems impossible given how small its head was,” observes Fry. Good point: its neck was longer than Stephen Fry’s CV, which I’d have thought would have made its teeth to tummy journey prohibitively costly in energy terms. But again: I’m no scientist.
This first episode of a four-part new series really is excellent, with helpful graphics, CGI dinosaurs, gripping experiments and expert insight. I didn’t know, for instance, that an allosaurus, one of the diplodocus’s leading foes in the early Jurassic, could open its jaw 79 degrees. Not that it was yawning because there was nothing on TV back then, but rather trying to use its upper jaw to wound diplodocuses, each one of which, as Fry puts it, is “basically 15 tonnes of prime Jurassic steak”. We see engineers from University College London build a replica of that jaw and use it to snap through a melon representing a diplodocus flank. I’m sure they should be designing railways or building bridges, but making a metal jaw to destroy fruit in the manner of an extinct dinosaur seems much more fun.
Dinosaur’s central conceit is that Fry has travelled back in time – somehow – to the western coast of Pangaea, the land mass that covered a third of the planet 150m years ago, and there walks with plant-eating diplodocuses, meat-eating allosauruses and the real-life equivalents of Laura Dern in Jurassic Park. More likely, he and the paleontologists are in front of a green screen in Elstree, but let’s not spoil the illusion. Just before Christmas, Fry was on ITV fronting a nature show called A Year on Planet Earth, now he’s presenting a show as enchanting as – but more data-rich than – Spielberg’s dinosaur classic. He has impersonated David Attenborough, now he’s having a go at brother Richard.
So, how in fact does a diplodocus ingest so many tonnes of greenery? Good question. Like a toddler, it doesn’t chew, but swallows its meals whole and a formidable array of enzymes break the meal down while it’s already swallowing more leafy input.
But this requirement of endlessly eating makes it a tricky business when, as happens, you give birth to lots of eggs that hatch baby diplodocuses. What do you do then? Like turtles, Fry tells us, mother diplodocuses abandon the eggs to hatch. Childcare and feeding offspring would be too time consuming for diplodocuses, so they let the little poppets fend for themselves.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How do diplodocuses mate? They probably reared up on to their hind legs and balanced with their tails before embarking on coitus that, you’d think, sent tremors that could have been measured on the Richter scale. Plus, argues maverick tech billionaire Nathan Myhrvold – who constructed a robo-tail to prove the point – diplodocuses could create whip-cracking sonic booms. These whip cracks, Myhrvold explains, were also part of the diplodocus’s seduction technique. Of course, this is all very controversial: who among us really knows what aroused a diplodocus 150m years ago? Apart from Stephen Fry of course, who, as we explained earlier, was sent back in time to the Jurassic by Channel 5 – somehow – to find out.
Fry’s documentary takes on a topical relevance, given that later this month Dippy, the Natural History Museum’s lifesize plaster of Paris diplodocus skeleton replica, is to be transported, possibly up the M1 and thus passing the diplodocus’s soulmates, the elephants of Whipsnade zoo, to the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. It is confidently expected that Dippy will escape the Herbert to lead the Coventry City frontline as a target man, like Erling Haaland with a much longer neck, ideal for headers though tricky when it comes to beating the offside trap. Stephen Fry has already been signed up to present one of those All or Nothing Amazon series about how Dippy helps the championship side get promotion to the premiership. Probably.