T.Rex: Return of the King

It’s no secret that I love dinosaurs. Like most kids, I could wrangle my mouth around a word like pachycephalosarus before I could spell my own name. I’m not sure whether my continuing love for the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods is because I’m still secretly eight years old in my soul or because dinosaurs are just really that awesome. I find that I don’t care what the reason is.

My favorite dinosaur is the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex. Admittedly, it’s a vanilla choice; it’s easily the most popular and well known dinosaur in the world. For a while in my teenage years, I flirted with lesser known tyrannosaurids like Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, and Dilophosaurus. After passing through this phase of dinosaur hipster-ism, I returned to my first love and have remained an enthusiast of the Tyrannosaurus rex ever since. I’ll still rant about the Spinosaurus vs. Tyrannosaurus duel in Jurassic Park 3 if someone is unwise to mention it around me.

One of the longest running debates in paleontology is whether the T. rex was actually worthy of the name “tyrant king of lizards” or if it was really more akin to an overgrown, reptilian hyena. There’s a good summary of the feeding strategy arguments for T. rex over on Wikipedia and there is strong evidence for each side of the “scavenger vs. predator” debate. Ultimately, this has led most to concur that the T. rex took its food wherever it could find it, whether that meant killing other dinosaurs, stealing kills, or scavenging carrion. For most, the case has been closed, let’s talk about something else.

Despite the general consensus, there have been a few prominent hold-outs for the “T.rex was a scavenger” argument. Dr. Jack Horner is the most prominent one and if you’re familiar with the work of one modern paleontologist, it’s probably him. He was the consultant on the Jurassic Park movies and has been a prominent speaker in the arena of public opinion. To be fair, I don’t blame him for any of the historical inaccuracies of the movies; a consultant does not have the power of a director, after all, and Spielberg has never been shy about the fact that he makes films to entertain, not to teach.

The frilled, spitting dilophosarus was cool looking, even if it doomed us all to explaining to our friends and family that no, they didn’t really do that, for the rest of our lives.

Horner has been credited with keeping the T. rex scavenger theory going, although he’s never published a formal paper arguing the point. This theory has inevitably led to buzz-killing and downer articles with titles like T-rex’s Hunting Habits Disappoint Fans of Carnage and Was Tyrannosaurus Rex a Fearsome Predator or Just Another Scavenger? Nobody wants to see their champ get reduced to “just another scavenger.” Even if it’s true, it totally ruins the awesome story of a fearsome, bad-ass dinosaur tearing its way across the prehistoric food chain.

However, we now have compelling evidence that T. Rex was indeed a predator! From an article on IO9 (which is where I seem to get almost all of my cool shit these days):

But owing to a discovery made at a site in South Dakota by paleontologist David Burnham and his graduate student Robert DePalma, we now know that T-rex did indeed hunt its prey.

The scientists found a Tyrannosaurus rex tooth lodged in the tail vertebrae of a plant-eating hadrosaur (sometimes referred to as the “duck-billed dinosaur”). Moreover, their analysis of the fossil showed that there was fresh bone growth surrounding the tooth, an indication that the hadrosaur survived the attack.

Eh, so maybe our champ doesn’t have a perfect fighting record, but hey, the important thing is that the T. rex is back! The killing machine of our childhood dreams (and sometimes nightmares) actually matches reality. I always enjoy when reality obliges me by matching up with the cool story version that was in my head.

Not everybody is enthusiastic about this news, however. Dr. John Hutchinson has a few words on this subject:

The T. rex “predator vs. scavenger” so-called controversy has sadly distracted the public from vastly more important, real controversies in paleontology since it was most strongly voiced by Dr Jack Horner in the 1990s. I find this very unfortunate. It is not like scientists sit around scratching their heads in befuddlement over the question, or debate it endlessly in scientific meetings. Virtually any paleontologist who knows about the biology of extant meat-eaters and the fossil evidence of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs accepts that T. rex was both a predator and scavenger; it was a carnivore like virtually any other kind that has ever been known to exist.

Ouch. And, you know, on many points, I agree with him completely! For the paleontology community as a whole, the door was closed on this issue a long time ago; the fossil evidence suggested T. rex could do both hunting and scavenging and there was no reason to assume it only engaged in one type of feeding behavior. This particular issue is, if you’ll allow me to be hyperbolic, the dinosaur community’s “faked moon landing” controversy, in that the controversy doesn’t really exist except in the minds of those talking about the non-existent controversy.

But, man, there’s something in me that gets excited about this news anyway. I think it’s because, as a lay-person, I don’t have to deal with recurring misconceptions over and over again. I don’t have to continually point out there there is no controversy on the issue. If I did, I imagine I would get tired of it very quickly.

On the other hand, I’m not so quick to write this news off as irrelevant, because in my opinion, any news that gets people excited about dinosaurs is worth talking about. The worst thing that could happen to paleontology is if nobody cared, in my opinion, because if nobody cares, nobody is going to shelling out the funding for research on dinosaurs.

If you need an example of what waning public interest can do a field, compare the rate of space exploration during the Cold War vs. the last two decades. We were supposed to colonizing Pluto by now, not bitterly revoking its status as a planet.

Keep in mind that my perspective is informed by my employment in a public library system. This is the reason I place such a premium on the public interest, because for us, staying relevant in the public consciousness is the different between having a job and not having a job.

Even if it’s just one more bit of evidence in an already convincing body of work, there’s nothing bad about an announcement that gets people talking about dinosaurs. That’s a success, if only because a tiresome false controversy isn’t the worse thing; the worse thing is finding out that the public just doesn’t care.

Apathy might not be considered a destructive force of nature. Maybe it should be.

3 thoughts on “T.Rex: Return of the King

    1. My biggest problem with the apatosaurus/brontosaurus thing is how to properly pronounce “apatosaurus.” I’ve always pronounced it as “ah-pat-oh-saur-us” but I’ve heard it also pronounced as “ap-ah-tow-saur-us.”

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