The Evolution of Tyrannosaurus rex
The terrible lizards of your childhood have changed quite a bit, despite having been dead for millions of years. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in ol’ Sharptooth: T. rex
Many folks without strong paleontology backgrounds (which, let’s face it, includes most people … including me) don’t appreciate how little we really know for sure about these prehistoric forms. We go to a museum, we see a fossil reconstruction of an immense dinosaur, and we assume that’s how it came out of the ground. That’s not the case.
While the Field Museum’s famous T. rex ”Sue” was 80% complete upon excavation, the first specimen ever constructed was done so with just a suitcase’s worth of bones. See the shaded regions in the upper left drawing? That’s the 108-year-old first reconstruction of T. rex done by W.D. Matthew. And it’s very wrong.
Even into the 1940’s, when Rudolph Zallinger painted The Age of Reptiles mural (top right) for Yale’s Peabody Museum, T. rex was still a clumsy, chubby, upright tail-dragger that looked more like a drunk Godzilla than king of the dinosaurs. By the 1970’s it was clear to scientists that T. rex could not have have held its body that way, and instead moved holding its head and tail nearly parallel to the ground.
But the tail-dragger myth persisted, and in 1988’s The Land Before Time (which, let’s face it, is where most of us first formed our images of dinosaurs) Sharptooth was frustratingly upright (see middle left). Combine that with the ridiculously impossible, ninja-like aerial assault on Littlefoot’s mom, and we have a real dino science stinker on our hands. Stan Winston’s Jurassic Park finally got the head-down pose right (middle right). Yet children and college students still overwhelmingly draw T. rex as upright.
Modern paleoartists (like Raul Martin, lower left) get it consistently right, but the public doesn’t. It shows you just how important it is to deliver good science to kids, because even today I can feel the upright pose of my T. rex dinobot calling me back to wrongville.
And as we continue to learn more about Tyrannosaur relatives and the feathery frills they sported, we are beginning to see many artists add them to the great hunter (lower right, by pheaston). Plumage rarely shows up in fossils, and scientists and artists have to be careful not to make errors of incompleteness like we saw 108 years ago. But considering how good Velociraptor looks with that fancy outfit on, I think we’ll see more and more feathery fury on T. rex in the future.
At least none of YOU will ever draw it incorrectly again, right? :)
For more cool dino illustration, check out Fuck Yeah Dino Art.