The last day of the dinosaurs probably began as a morning like any other. On a sandbank bounded by a river and warm wet forests in what’s now the dusty North Dakota prairies, triceratops and tyrannosaurs laid eggs, roamed, did their late Cretaceous thing. Thescelosaurs and turtles swam in the river. Pterosaurs flew overhead and furry mammalian creatures burrowed underground. On one of the most important days in Planet Earth’s history, as only David Attenborough can so portentously pronounce it, life went on in abundance. Until an asteroid bigger than Mount Everest hit what is now Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula with an explosion whose force was greater than that of a billion Hiroshima bombs. In less than two hours, the world as we never knew it was for ever changed.
We don’t know exactly when the asteroid hit. But within 40 minutes, the consequences 2,000 miles away at Tanis – the name given to the Dakotan sandbank by the palaeontologists who have been digging there for a decade – were profound. Dinosaurs: The Final Day With David Attenborough (BBC One) recreates those last terrifying minutes as wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis and seismic waves ravaged the globe and all life at Tanis was swiftly entombed in sediment. For context, this was 60m years before we pitched (or rather stood) up. And we’re seeing in real time how that’s panning out.
That’s just the last half-hour of Dinosaurs: The Final Day. And it’s disturbingly prescient for something that happened 66m years ago. I found myself sloshing back and forth, much like the Norwegian fjords mysteriously did in 2011 after an earthquake hit Japan, while watching this slick, gripping and elegiac feature-length documentary. Lurching from abject despair at our our contemporary role in this history to profound awe at our ability to unearth its deep mysteries. The signature Attenborough cocktail of feelings, then. One of my scribbled notes simply reads: “We are the asteroid.”
Dinosaurs: The Final Day deftly uses state-of-the-art FX and a virtual production studio, which I no more understand than the Sauron-esque eye of the Oxfordshire synchrotron, where lead palaeontologist Robert DePalma takes his astonishing finds to be scanned. The point is to transport us back to the late Cretaceous so we can see for ourselves how the dinosaurs’ last days might have been. And how Attenborough would have looked (like a fish very much in water, naturally) having his chinos sniffed by our cute furry ancestors. Edge-of-your-seat stuff for some, but for me virtual FX in nature/science documentaries tend to induce the disappointment of fake flowers: never as stirring as the real thing.
More exciting is the dig at Hell Creek Formation. Here, DePalma and his team are excavating a mass dinosaur graveyard entombed in a layer of crumbly rock. Happily, DePalma has Indiana Jones levels of magnetism, and can unearth a good line with as much class as he wields his trowel (and fedora). “It’s like trying to defuse a nuclear weapon while you’re in a rainstorm,” he drawls, brushing the mass death layer. While “performing surgery on a Cretaceous fish”, he discovers tiny balls of molten rock in the fish’s gill bars. They are ejector spherules propelled into the atmosphere by the asteroid, which “last saw the light of day when they were flying through the air 66 million years ago”. In a knot of amber, he finds spherules containing a perfectly preserved particle “of the bullet that killed the dinosaurs”. The asteroid itself. Wow.
In another thrilling moment of this detective story set in deep time, the team uncover what has never before been found: the body of a dinosaur killed by the effects of the asteroid’s impact. “I think we got ourselves a dinosaur!” DePalma cries as they dig a square of sediment that, to me, looks like any other square of sediment. Hours later, the fossilised leg of a thescelosaurus, skin and tissue included, emerges, looking “like a Thanksgiving turkey”. The leg’s location, entangled in the “log jam” of Tanis’s mass death layer, which is where they found the meteorite-flecked amber and spherules, is proof enough. The dinosaur died as a result of the asteroid collision.
After that Earth-shattering day, sulphur ejected by the asteroid blocked all sunlight. The planet was plunged into semi-darkness for a decade. Temperatures dropped dramatically. On land, the plants died and in the seas the plankton vanished. Three quarters of all species were wiped out. “Then,” says Attenborough, “came something wonderful.” Plant life returned, and with it, some of the smallest and most resourceful creatures, including our little furry ancestors who had survived the nuclear winter in their burrows. And Attenborough hasn’t given up, either. “We are unique in our ability to learn from the distant past,” he concludes. “Now we must use that ability wisely … to protect the millions of species for whom, alongside us, this planet is home.”