Tall Tales of the T-rex
When you picture a T-rex does it hold its head up like in Jurassic World, in the image above? If so then you’re picturing them wrong, but it’s not your fault. More than a century ago, the first known T-rex fossil was discovered in Hell Creek by Barnum Brown. More importantly, when T-rex was put together and mounted in the American Museum, he unwittingly posed the animal in an impossible position. Brown foolishly stood the beast upright with its tail down on the floor and the head way up high. It was even made from bones other than T-rex. He just cobbled together parts and made Frankenstein’s monster. If the animal would have actually tried to stand up like he imagined it would have broken its neck, back, and tail in numerous different places. The truth is that T-rex must have stood horizontally, not vertically. Then, they used their tails to maintain balance while standing and walking, like in the image below from the National Geographic documentary T-rex Walks Again.
Plus, this was far from the only thing that Brown got wrong about this inappropriately named specimen. Tyrannosaurus rex means “tyrant lizard king”, but this was no apex predator. Forget everything you think you know about T-rex. This is just one of many mistakes in nearly every movie and video game version of the dreaded dinosaur out there. Some even depict T-rex with feathers. This is all wrong. Granted the juveniles were feathered, but those went away after T-rex grew to a certain size. The point is that T-rex wasn’t Godzilla or Big Bird. That’s just ridiculous. Furthermore, like most animals, they changed quite a bit over time. About 68 million years ago, T-rex was a predator, but by 66 million years ago it had become a scavenger. Initially, Tyrannosaurus rex had thighs and shins that were approximately the same length, but over time they began to have longer thighs than shins. This is important because fast runners have short thighs and long shins. Thus, T-Rex would have moved rather slowly. They didn’t chase things down like in the movies. Not at all. The image below is wrong for so many reasons.
These were big, ugly, stinky, lumbering lizards that only ever walked. They never ran. By the time they went extinct, they couldn’t run if they tried. Plus, they couldn’t see very well but they could smell way more than even dogs. T-rex could detect a carcass miles and miles away, but they never could have hunted prey. They had a mouth full of sharp teeth with bone-crushing jaws just like a hyena, and for the exact same reason. Jack Horner’s findings have overturned a century’s worth of speculation about the predatory nature of T-rex. Even in the beginning, T-rex was probably only ever an ambush predator. This simply could not have been an apex predator. Then, they just realized that it was easier to chase away smaller predators after a kill than to actually try and hunt on their own. So, they became slow-moving scavengers, never really having ever been fast-paced predators. It’s all part of the hype that has led to the monster movie mythos surrounding the life and times of this extinct creature. As boring as it may be, T-rex simply wasn’t a ferocious blood-thirsty killer like we imagine it to have been. The bottom line is that Barnum Brown got it wrong, but thankfully Jack Horner got it right. There is an excellent documentary that features him and his work entitled Valley of the T-rex.
As cool as it looks to see them with feathers, adult tyrannosaurs just didn’t have them. However, T-rex did have feathers in their juvenile form, as shown in the museum model of a one-year-old in the picture above. The hatchlings were only about 3 feet long, weighing in at around 5 pounds. Chicks had feathers all over their bodies, to help keep them warm. Of course, T-rex didn’t have feathers on their face, hands, or feet, to help keep them clean. Again, they fed on carrion. Regardless, the point is that they could grow to be 40 feet long and weigh 12,000 pounds by their late teens, but once they put on a few hundred pounds they would lose all their feathers. Until then, the chicks looked like baby vultures with really diminutive wings. However, contrary to what many scholars have come to believe, they didn’t retain their plumage as an adult, so the picture below is inaccurate. The image that follows appeared as one of the accompanying slides during the 2014 Science on a Winter’s Evening lecture entitled Tyrannosaur Discoveries, given by Dr. Stephen Brusatte. Granted, the idea did make sense at the time, especially considering how closely related Tyrannosaurs are to birds. Just look at how fast this artist depiction has T-rex running. They would have been far too afraid of falling and breaking an arm or rib to ever try and move like that. They weren’t majestic in any way.
The thing is that in June of 2017 an academic paper was published in which Phil Bell and his colleagues described the fossilized remains of skin and skin impressions from T-rex. According to their findings, Tyrannosaurus rex definitely had reptilian-like scaly skin covering its whole body. There’s no doubt about it. T-rex adults simply didn’t have feathers on any part of them. Still, in spite of the latest evidence, authors continue to perpetuate the notion of feathered adults. This has to stop. Science has to be provisional to work properly, so everyone has to keep up. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of the Lost World just came out in 2018, and the following illustration from page 193 shows T-rex bristling with something that they couldn’t have had.
The fact is that T-rex would have looked much more like they do in the latest version of the video game Saurian, as shown below. The designers underwent a year-long project to reshape their T-rex, and the remodel clearly reflects their hard work. I applaud them for their dedication to the truth. After having given the fans the feathered version that they so desperately wanted, the company somewhat reluctantly decided that they needed to make a model of the creature that is as lifelike as possible. This is what they came up with, and I have to admit I’m highly impressed. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite as vile looking as the ones in Valley of the T-rex. I completely agree with the notion that Tyrannosaurus rex would have had more-or-less permanently blood-stained faces. Other than that this is remarkably lifelike, at least based on everything known to paleontologists up to this point. RJ Palmer really outdid himself with this.
Note the horizontal posture, reptilian scales, vestigial arms, lizard lips, and more. This is essentially the way that you should be visualizing tyrannosaurs. They had extremely short and scrawny vestigial appendages for arms. The only thing that they could have possibly done with their hands is just barely scratch their bellies. Tyrannosaurus rex never could have used their arms to grab things or to help them get up off the ground. So, to sum it all it up, T-rex was a scavenger, not a predator. The bottom line is that they were carnivores who became content with eating carrion. Plus, they stood up horizontally, not vertically, and they only walked. They could never have run if they tried. Also, T-rex only had feathers until puberty. Of course, there’s really no way to know what color their skin was, but other than that RJ Palmer did a phenomenal job of accurately depicting a long since extinct animal. So, the next time you want to picture T-rex think of the game Saurian, not the movie Jurassic World. No matter what though, every part of T-rex always needs to be examined and re-examined, and then examined some more.
Note: I plan to update this essay in light of any new evidence that might arise as time goes on. With that in mind, I will add new information when I can, if you care to check back later.
Thanks for reading!!!
 In Saurian the tongue of T-rex may actually be a bit too flexible. However, this is rather inconclusive. Still, a very persuasive paper written by Li, Zhou, and Clarke seems to indicate that pterosaurs had immobile tongues like alligators. The team also speculates that this should transfer over to other dinosaurs as well, including the tyrannosaurs. If so, then the following image is wrong, to that extent. As nitpicky as it is for me to say, that one tiny detail is just slightly off, and every part matters just as much as any other.