Saturday, October 3, 2015

Happy 110th Birthday, T. rex!

Cast of Tyrannosaurus rex "Stan"
Photo by the author, courtesy Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

In 1892, American Paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope discovered the remains of what was then the largest predatory dinosaur ever known. It was not until a decade and three years later, on October 2nd, that the dinosaur would be properly described and be given the fear-inducing name that has been etched into the minds of every four-year old: Tyrannosaurus rex. The tyrant lizard king. Just one look at the creature is enough to convey images of a bloodthirsty monster chasing down terrified prey. 

Of course, since then, our knowledge of the "King of the Dinosaurs," has drastically improved. Like most large predators, it hunted only when need be, and preferred meals that didn't fight back - carcasses. Numerous discoveries paint a complex family tree, which include lookalikes like Albertosaurus, and lesser known theropods such as Stokesosaurus. From other tyrannosaurids and tyrannosauroids can we deduct what the lifestyle of such a fearsome creature was like. Albertosaurus and Daspletosaurus bonebeds point to a more social lifestyle for T. rex - was it possible the tyrant king lived in families, using numbers to take down Trikes and duckbill dinosaurs? More recent discoveries suggest Tyrannosaurus was covered in a feathery down. It's a heated debate that remains unresolved, but such questions are what Paleontologists crave for.

Dinosaur Paleobiology - Speculative image of Tyrannosaurus hunting in gangs to bring down a Triceratops
Image Credit: Gregory S Paul

Many question the time spent studying T. rex. Besides Coelophysis, no theropod dinosaur has been as well researched. Heavyweights Spinosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, Giganotosaurus, and possible Mapusaurus have claimed the title of biggest land carnivore ever, a title previously held for more than 50 years by T. rex. Ultimately, however, Tyrannosaurus represents more than an over-studied rock. For many, including me, T. rex is a reminder of a childhood much like the Cretaceous in that it is lost forever in time. The dinosaur lures the enthusiasts into the exciting world of Paleontology. Most importantly, T. rex serves as an inspiration for young minds all around the globe to contribute to science. And that is why Mr. rex will hold a special place in my heart unlike any other dinosaur. 

Happy 110th birthday, T. rex!

CM 9380 - The holotype specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex
Image credit: Thomas Holtz Jr.

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