Secrets of the Dead: Graveyard of the Giant Beasts

Air date: 11/02/2016

THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead Discovers a World of Colossal Creatures, Graveyard of the Giant Beasts Wednesday, November 2 at 10 p.m. on PBS

Sixty-five million years ago, a giant meteor hit the earth causing a global catastrophe that destroyed an estimated three quarters of the plants and animal species on the planet, including the mighty dinosaurs. Little was known about the survivors who lived in this post-apocalyptic world until a mining operation in Cerrejon, Northern Colombia —  excavating coal cut from deep within the earth’s crust — exposed an important layer in the earth’s geological history laid down more than 10 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Secrets of the Dead: Graveyard of the Giant Beasts, airing Wednesday, November 2 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), opens a window onto a previously unknown period of the earth’s history to reveal a world teeming with creatures seemingly familiar to us, but colossal in size.

In 2003, when paleontologist professor Jonathan Bloch, University of Florida, first heard that this important layer had been exposed, he and his research team rushed to Columbia. He had spent his career studying this Paleocene period in the earth’s geological history. Could this be the lost world he’d been searching for?

“When you open that door into the world 58 million years ago where no one else has looked, you find things that no one else has found,” says Professor Bloch. “So every time we come to Cerrejon, it’s very exciting because after coming for well over a decade, every time we come we find something new.”

Included in the findings were hundreds of fossilized leaves which indicated the environment then was similar to a tropical forest. But it was the fossils of ancient animals that stunned everyone. What was so noticeably different about them was their size. Had they found the land of the giants?

“In the beginning, dozens and dozens and then hundreds more of these fossils were coming in and getting a chance to unwrap these things and kind of start piecing everything together was great,” says Dr. Alex Hastings, Virginia Museum of Natural History.  “Most of them were crocodilians but there were a handful of bones there that were clearly not any crocodilian. The whole structure of the vertebrae was completely different.”

The vertebrae they uncovered belonged to a very large snake. “This animal is going to reset everything we know about what it truly means to be a giant snake,” says Dr. Jason Head, Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge, and the world’s expert in calculating body size in the largest fossil snakes.

Weighing one and a quarter ton, this giant snake was five times bigger than the largest one alive today. Named Titanoboa, the 43-foot snake made headlines around the world when the findings were published in 2009.

No other creature could match Titanoboa in its size and strength. Or, so it was thought, until another discovery in Cerrejon suggested that Titanoboa’s rule was challenged by a giant crocodilian. Secrets of the Dead: Graveyard of the Giant Beasts follows scientists as they try to comprehend the size of this animal and uncover what made it so successful. Close analysis of fossils and scientific experiments reveal unmatched hunting prowess. So which one was the apex predator in Cerrejon 58 million years ago? The answer lies in how the creatures eat and not how they kill.

Secrets of the Dead: Graveyard of the Giant Beasts is a Blink Films production in association with THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET in association with Channel 4. Narrator: Jay O. Sanders. Producer/Director: Elliot Kew. Executive Producers for Blink Films: David McNab and Dan Chambers.  Executive-in-Charge for WNET: Stephen Segaller. Executive Producer for WNET: Steve Burns. Supervising Producer for WNET: Stephanie Carter.

This program is among the full-length episodes that will be available for viewing after broadcast on Secrets of the Dead Online (pbs.org/secrets). As one of PBS’s ongoing limited primetime series, Secrets of the Dead is a perennial favorite among viewers, routinely ranking among the 10 most-watched series on public television. Currently in its 16th season, Secrets of the Dead continues its unique brand of archaeological sleuthing employing advances in investigative techniques, forensic science and historical scholarship to offer new evidence about forgotten mysteries. Secrets of the Dead has received 10 CINE Golden Eagle Awards and six Emmy nominations, among numerous other awards.

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About WNET
WNET is America’s flagship PBS station and parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21. WNET also operates NJTV, the statewide public media network in New Jersey. Through its broadcast channels, three cable services (KidsThirteen, Create and World) and online streaming sites, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to more than five million viewers each week. WNET produces and presents such acclaimed PBS series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend, Charlie Rose and a range of documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings. WNET’s groundbreaking series for children and young adults include Get the Math, Oh Noah! and Cyberchase as well as Mission US, the award-winning interactive history game. WNET highlights the tri-state’s unique culture and diverse communities through NYC-ARTS, Reel 13, NJTV News with Mary Alice Williams and MetroFocus, the daily multi-platform news magazine focusing on the New York region. In addition, WNET produces online-only programming including the award-winning series about gender identity, First Person, and an intergenerational look at tech and pop culture, The Chatterbox with Kevin and Grandma Lill. In 2015, THIRTEEN launched Passport, an online streaming service which allows members to see new and archival THIRTEEN and PBS programming anytime, anywhere: www.thirteen.org/passport.

Photos
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Dr. Alex Hastings, Virginia Museum of Natural History, holds two bones of fossil crocodilians. Credit: Blink Films

CT Scan technicians, Nick Gruszauskas and David Klein, scan the bone of Sarcosuchus and Cerrejon croc. Credit: Blink Films

Dr. Alex Hastings, Virginia Museum of Natural History, examines skull of Sarcosuchus. Credit: Blink Films

Scott Boback holds snake to camera. Credit: Blink Films

Professor Jonathan Bloch, Florida Museum of Natural History, discovering fossil plants in Cerrejon mine. Credit: Blink Films

Professor Jonathan Bloch, Florida Museum of Natural History, Aldo Rincon, University of Florida, and Dr. Jason Head, Museum of Zoology University of Cambridge, working on a fossil turtle in Cerrejon. Credit: Blink Films

Dr. Jason Head, Museum of Zoology University of Cambridge, on a boat in San Salvador river. Credit: Blink Films

Dr. Gregory Erickson, Florida State University, one of the world’s leading experts in crocodilians, with an alligator. Credit: Blink Films

Dr. Gregory Erickson, Florida State University, one of the world’s leading experts in crocodilians, inspecting a skull. Credit: Blink Films

Dr. Alex Hastings, Virginia Museum of Natural History, and a croc vertebrae. Credit: Blink Films