The Facts Machine

"And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide"

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

REBEL WITHOUT A BIRD-SHAPED HIP

Among paleontological circles, the great T-Rex debate of "aggressive hunter!" versus "plodding scavenger!" has been going back and forth for ages. Now some researchers have given us a new wrinkle: "They're like James Dean!"
Tyrannosaurus Rex grew incredibly fast during a teenaged growth spurt that saw the dinosaur expand its bulk by six times, but the fearsome beasts "lived fast and died young," researchers said on Wednesday.

By counting the age rings in dinosaur bones, much like botanists count tree rings, paleontologists have concluded that T. rex grew from 1 tonne to 6 tonnes in just four years before leveling off around age 18 and living out a brief adulthood of about 10 years.

(...)

At the peak of its growth spurt, T. rex added 4.6 pounds (2.1 kg) to its frame each day, developing into an 11,000-pound (5,000 kg) bone-crushing giant.

(...)

"T. rex lived fast and died young," [Florida State University scientist Gregory] Erickson said. "He's sort of the James Dean of dinosaurs," referring to the actor who died in a car accident at age 24.

The scientists compared age rings from 60 bones from 20 specimens that lived between 78 million to 67 million years ago -- seven T. rexes, five Albertosauruses, five Gorgosauruses and three Daspletosauruses -- to those of modern-day descendants such as snakes, lizards and crocodiles.

T. rex grew the fastest and had a growth spurt, unlike crocodiles that tend to grow steadily if food is plentiful.

Thanks to the discovery in recent decades of more complete fossil skeletons of T. rex -- such as the 67-million-year-old "Sue" on display at the Field Museum -- paleontologists have learned much more about how dinosaurs moved, lived and died.

"Sue," it turned out, was 28 years old when it died -- Erickson described it as an elderly "train wreck" with infectious lesions, broken bones and arthritis -- and had stopped growing 9 years earlier.


Close enough?

It's really interesting when you do a Google Image Search for the tyrannosaurus, because there's an approximate 60-40 split between the two sides of the debate. A bit more than half the time, the T-Rex is depicted as an agile, purposeful hunter, leaning forward, ready to pounce or sprint. And a bit less than half the time, the T-Rex is shown as an upright, plodding creature with his tail dragging on the ground, and his head up, presumably so he can deliver whatever witty, humanizing lines his masters at Disney have assigned to him.

One of my favorite toys as a youth was a large (foot tall) blue tyrannosaurus. To this day, a Hamburgler toy from a McDonalds Happy Meal in 1987 is lodged within the mighty beast's hollow interior, due to a spurt of bad, but eventually sentimental playtime judgment on my part. Ok I'd better stop reminiscing before I start thinking about crying at the first day of school, or the time I cut a gash in my hand from the cheap public kindergarten carpet when I was 5, or a week later when I hurled during PE (on baton relay day, no less).

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