Science

Give T. Rex a Rest!

The dinosaur has won the popularity contest—to its own detriment.

A T. rex with a crown and a sash, holding a bouquet of flowers in front of adoring fans.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Image by LeventKonuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Dinosaurs aren’t immune to popularity contests. Some species are beloved because they were the public’s first introduction to the weird world of prehistoric monsters that lurked in the ancient jungles of imagination, such as Stegosaurus and Ceratosaurus. Others got a lucky break thanks to Hollywood, like Dilophosaurus, which took a star turn in Jurassic Park (and definitively did not spit venom, even at entitled computer programmers). Still others, like Brontosaurus, had names that just sounded cool—it’s hard not to be in awe of an animal named the “thunder lizard.”

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But one dinosaur looms above the rest—the most debated and prized of them all. You already know who I’m talking about. Tyrannosaurus rex graces movie posters, and children’s books, but the toothy terror is an A-list star in scientific papers, too. The grandeur of the “tyrant king” certainly made the dinosaur popular from the start, but our modern T. rex has its claws dug in deep thanks to tabloid-level controversy, as well as its enduring appeal as an emblem of masculinity. And I kind of hate it. As a professional dinosaur enthusiast, I am, frankly, tired of talking about T. rex (my protest here notwithstanding). Our obsession with T. rex comes not just at the expense of giving airtime to other dinosaurs—it obscures our understanding of T. rex itself.

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The “tyrant king” was always a media darling. The notoriously cantankerous and racist paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn coined the name Tyrannosaurus rex in 1905 based off a partial skeleton including parts of the jaw, spine, hips, and legs uncovered in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. The dinosaur was clearly the largest—and therefore the most ferocious—carnivorous dinosaur anyone had found at that time. It was seemingly evidence for Osborn’s views that evolution was dictated by the consistent improvement and dominance of some groups over others—all the punier terrible lizards that came before were just leading up to this superlatively fearsome reptile. Newspapers quickly jumped on the hype. When just the legs and hips of that original T. rex were put on display at the American Museum of Natural History the New York Times declared that these disembodied limbs clearly represented “the prize-fighter of antiquity.”

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Osborn’s Upper West Side institution did even better in 1915. By then, multiple specimens had turned up, and the museum had a partial T. rex with a gorgeously complete skull. The specimen was known as AMNH 5027 and served as the iconic image of T. rex that dominated in the decades before the 1990 discovery of the now-famous “Sue.” Being able to see the carnivore’s massive, bulky skull fit with serrated teeth the size of bananas conjured up images of violent Mesozoic battles. In skeletal form, in art, and in the public imagination T. rex was enshrined as the apex of ancient appetite. Even now, no museum hall or dinosaur movie seems complete without at least a T. rex cameo somewhere, though the dinosaur is often the star of the show. T. rex is a staple of paleontology research, too: Every year paleontologists roll out new technical papers on everything from the dinosaur’s population count to its walking speed and whether or not the tyrannosaur was covered in fuzz.

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Paleontological matters are able to generate so much controversy because it’s incredibly difficult to study and understand the basic biology and everyday lives of organisms that went extinct before anyone could see them in the flesh. That leaves plenty of room for debate, argument, and, now and then, unsubstantiated claims that spark years of heated argument over—essentially—nothing of any importance. In the 1990s, for example, paleontologist Jack Horner rode his fame as Jurassic Park’s science adviser to propose that T. rex didn’t hunt. This toothy tyrant, Horner stated, was actually a big, lazy, gnarly scavenger. Horner primarily presented his case to the public in books and documentaries, largely leaving it to other researchers to argue back and forth over what was essentially a nonquestion. Of course T. rex scavenged, just like any other carnivorous animal that comes across a free, if slightly rotten, meal. But the reputation of T. rex made the dinosaur a great target for controversy. If Horner had made the claim about almost any other dinosaur, the issue would have probably been dropped. But because this was about T. rex—already envisioned as a dinosaur that could eat whatever they wanted—the off-the-cuff proposal spurred a pseudo-debate that still stumbles along in the mind of the public even as experts have left the issue behind.

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Even the mention of T. rex can launch what would be a ho-hum scientific disagreement into a battle over fossiliferous minutiae. Earlier this year, a trio of paleontologists proposed that some of the fossils labeled T. rex are different species and should get new names—T. regina and T. imperator. Their colleagues didn’t buy it, which caused no shortage of consternation on the part of the study’s lead author Gregory Paul. “If it had been a paper about putting another dinosaur into different species, nobody would really care,” Paul told the New York Times, calling dissenters “uptight” for not agreeing to the new proposal. That’s not unusual for discussions about an iconic fossil animal that’s framed our understanding of dinosaurs for more than a century.

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Naturally, science isn’t the only realm where T. rex rules. The dinosaur has also become big business. In 1997, the Field Museum’s Sue was famously purchased for $8.36 million at the end of a vicious and ugly custody battle. The sale indicated that dinosaurs—and tyrannosaurs, in particular—could rake in huge sums. Last year, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences purchased a set of Cretaceous skeletons, said to be a juvenile Tyrannosaurus and a Triceratops, for an undisclosed amount after the sellers decided $5.5 million at auction was not enough to meet their reserve price. And that’s to say nothing of black market dinosaur rustling. In 2013, the Southern District of New York made a judgment in the case of United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton involving the bones of a closely related dinosaur—actually named Tarbosaurus—that had been smuggled out of Mongolia and put up for auction, before ultimately being pulled from sale and returned to their country of origin. Even with legal sales, such as the auction of the famed T. rex “Stan” for over $31 million, it’s strange to see museums competing with anonymous buyers who eventually put these dinosaurs up in places like Abu Dhabi, far from the communities where the dinosaurs were found. It seems like everyone wants a piece of the tyrants.

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Given the dozens upon dozens of carnivorous dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes that have been uncovered over the years, it’s still strange to me that T. rex should be the most celebrated and desired. That T. rex is perceived as one of the biggest, last, and most powerful of the nonavian dinosaurs has certainly attracted a particular crowd around it. In both the commercial market and paleontology, whether academically backed or self-styled, it’s primarily white cisgender men who sell T. rex to us. The dinosaur, even when carrying nonbinary pronouns like Sue’s public persona, inevitably bears a masculine gloss, thanks to so many decades of fearsome pop culture portrayals and the fact that it’s almost always men who step forward as the prime interpreters of T. rex biology. In a sense, T. rex is a symbol of toxic masculinity—a dinosaur molded by over a century of male-dominated interpretation with an emphasis on bone-crushing bites and wild power, one that edges out so many other interpretations of what it meant to be a dinosaur. To discover, name, buy, or sell T. rex is about displaying power, exerting control over an animal that—we are breathlessly told—could gobble us up in a few bites.

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We could easily turn our gaze elsewhere, and perhaps learn even more about life on Earth than we presently understand. There’s no shortage of other large, predatory dinosaurs that can benefit from the same kind of techniques and scientific questioning—and no doubt funding—that T. rex has drawn over the years. Immense carnivorous dinosaurs from the Southern Hemisphere, for example, are little-known beyond their names, size estimates, and their preference for meat. Paleontologists should spread the love around and use some of the same cutting-edge techniques for mass estimation, age analysis, and biomechanics that rex is treated to on these lesser-known parts of the ancient world, not to mention the literally hundreds of other dinosaur species about which little is known beyond their status as unique species.

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There is certainly more to learn about T. rex, but there’s little harm in letting those finds come to us in time rather than tussling for control of an animal that’s been dead for 66 million years. We could benefit from a break in the cycle of, frankly, useless arguments over an animal’s biology that often have more to do with men’s aesthetic preferences than the dinosaur itself. I think we need that break, even if just for a little while. Perhaps, if we can let go of our preconceptions and preoccupation with defending the honor of an animal that looked at our ancient mammal relatives as little more than hors d’oeuvres, we might be able to approach and understand the deeper nuances about a long lost reptile that is both strange and familiar. The bones will still be there, waiting for us when we’re ready. For now, though, I think Rex deserves a rest.

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