Twenty-five years ago, the film "Jurassic Park" appeared on the big screen. At that time, I was a college student working in the paleontology lab of the Museum of the Rockies, where Jack Horner (on whom the lead character Alan Grant is based) was the curator. I even made molds of dinosaur bones used to create props for the excavation site sequence in the movie, so I couldn’t wait to see the premiere.
Seeing the dinosaurs, not as jittery stop-motion models or clumsy rubber puppets, but as living, breathing animals was tear-inducingly awesome. And of all those extinct creatures depicted with such stunning realism, the most famous and fearsome was Tyrannosaurus rex.
It’s hard to imagine T. rex not having a starring role in a movie about dinosaurs. Everybody recognizes T. rex, even people with no interest in dinosaurs at all. But why? What makes it so special?
The public was first introduced to the name Tyrannosaurus rex (tyrant lizard king) by the paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn in his original description of the animal in 1905. The first specimen (now displayed at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh) was found in Montana, and despite being incomplete had enough bones preserved to identify it as a bipedal carnivorous dinosaur larger than any others known.
A second and more complete skeleton (displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York) was soon discovered, offering a more complete look at the skeleton of this huge beast. Putting these impressive specimens on display in two of the nation’s largest natural history museums during a time when public interest in paleontology was rapidly growing got T. rex off to a good start.
Being a gigantic and terrifying beast with teeth the size of bananas, huge clawed feet, and comically small arms provided lots of fuel for the imagination. T. rex soon moved beyond the museum setting, and began showing up in art and illustrations, comics and graphic novels, and later moved to the silver screen and to television (even commercials) and popular music. Despite such popularity, for decades those two museums were the only places where a standing T. rex skeleton could be seen.
Fortunately, that changed. As more specimens were discovered, opportunities to see them increased and our understanding of the species continued to evolve. The addition of a few more whole (mostly) skeletons in the 1980's and 1990's (especially the famous and controversial “Sue” specimen now displayed at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago) expanded the options for T. rex viewing in the United States in a westward direction.
The past two decades have yielded still more specimens, increasing the amount of data available for analysis of the ontogeny (changes during growth/development of an individual) and phylogenetics (evolutionary history) of T. rex.
We’re learning more about their origin, their locomotion, vision, feeding, metabolism, injuries/diseases, and reproduction every year. Some specimens have been replicated by molding and casting, allowing copies to be displayed worldwide (Antarctica is the only continent which hasn’t exhibited one) and further expanding the reach of this iconic dinosaur (despite those short arms).
Today there are around three dozen specimens of T. rex held in museum collections and accessible to science, including just 17 partial or complete skulls. You can now see one of those skulls right here in Seattle, and it’s a beauty!