This Week In Tyrannosaurs

I’ve written before about my love for the noble and majestic tyrannosaurus rex. Sure, it’s the Coke of dinosaurs and it’s not edgy or cool to say it’s one’s favorite dinosaur. Everybody knows that serious dinosaur hipsters go for other carnivores like Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, or Carnotaurus, but for me, it’s all about the the T.rexes. I recently got to see a T.rex skeleton for the first time during my trip to the Toronto and it was pretty awesome:

Pictured above: pretty awesome.

Which is why this article about the T.rex’s bite force has me grinning for all sorts of reasons:

Recent computer models predict that the back teeth on an adult T. rex were capable of generating a bite force between 30,000 and 60,000 Newtons. That’s about how much force you’d experience if you found yourself trapped beneath a sitting elephant. It also makes T. rex ‘s bite the most powerful of any creature to ever walk the Earth . . . Ever.

Admittedly, this still puts the T.rex out of the running compared to the Megalodon’s bite force of 100,000 newtons . . . but it sure as hell means that the T.rex could out-bite the larger Spinosaurus with its rather wimpy bite force of 30,000 newtons.

Suck it, Spinosaurus.

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.

Jurassic Park IV: Hopes & Fears

I feel confident in saying that the shot of the Brachiosaurus in the first Jurassic Park was my generation’s “Star Destroyer” moment. A Star Destroyer moment, for the less nerdy, is the first film that showed you something truly magical through special effects, in this case, the opening shot of Princess Leia’s Rebel ship being overwhelmed by the massive Imperial Star Destroyer. Seeing that Brachiosaurus brought to life through jaw-dropping CGI was a cinematic milestone and an introduction to the worlds of possibility that we can explore through film.

Jurassic Park is an important movie to me and my affection for it remains undiminished despite the rather lackluster sequels (T. rex parents=very cool, T.rex being killed by a freaking Spinosaurus=bullshit). The leaked details about the upcoming Jurassic Park IV have me tentatively excited; cautiously optimistic, if you will.

Reasons for Optimism

  • The description of the plot sounds like a return to what made the first Jurassic Park great. We’re back at the theme park and this time, it’s up and running in full swing. This is something I always wanted to see; how much worse can it get when the dinosaurs break free while the park is filled with tourists, instead of just previewers?
  • The trained dinosaurs also intrigue me. I think it has the potential to carry forward some of Crichton’s core concepts in that humans like to meddle with things we don’t understand. The problem was that the idea that formed the core of the first film was worked to death like a piece of used gum by the third. The idea of trying to “tame” dinosaurs has the potential for a fresh new critique of how humans interact with animals and the dangerous aspect of anthropomorphizing these creatures.
  • The T.rex is back. I love me some T.rexes and all films with T.rexes are better than films that do not have T.rexes.

Reasons for Caution

  • The description of the exhibit for seeing underwater dinosaurs (well, previously extinct marine reptiles, technically) sounds cool, but the description of it being “Sea World-like” immediately made me think of the premise for Jaws 3, which was absolutely terrible.
  • The “main antagonist” dinosaur will be something new, which has the potential to be either awesome or awful. The last time they tried to replace the T.rex as the main antagonist, we were given a Spinosaurus that was supposed to be more dangerous “because it was bigger” even though it was a fish-eater that lacked the power of a rex’s bite.

I’ll go see it either way, of course, and these leaked details have all been unconfirmed. Who knows what will change between now and 2015, assuming any of these details are even accurate to begin with? Either way, I’ll be looking forward to the next movie; it’s nice to see this movie finally get out of development hell.