All you ever wanted to know about T. rex

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The Spec­ta­tor

Tyran­nosaurus rex is the great­est celebrity of all time. The 68 to 66-mil­lion-year-old car­ni­vore is far older than any actor or mu­si­cian, in­clud­ing Keith Richards, and yet is still must-have tal­ent for Hol­ly­wood block­busters, comics, mu­seum dis­plays and more. But all that fame comes at a cost. There seems to be as much mythol­ogy as science sur­round­ing the ‘‘tyrant lizard king’’. Bri­tish pa­le­on­tol­o­gist David Hone seeks to slice through fic­tion and chew over fact in The Tyran­nosaur Chron­i­cles.

From the ti­tle, you can be for­given for think­ing this is the jour­nal of an angsty T. rex. Rather, Hone has writ­ten a hand­book to al­most every­thing you’d want to know about the cel­e­brated di­nosaur and its var­i­ous kin.

Early on, he points out that when he wrote the book there were 29 recog­nised tyran­nosaur species span­ning about 165 mil­lion years — with the re­cently named timurlen­gia bring­ing the to­tal to an even 30. T. rex and other late Cre­ta­ceous gi­ants get all the love, but the very first tyrants didn’t re­ally de­serve the ti­tle at all: they were small sauri­ans no more than 2m long, with long arms, thin snouts, and cov­ered in downy fuzz. Tyran­nosaurs stayed this way for tens of mil­lions of years, only be­com­ing Juras­sic Park’s gi­ants in the last 20 mil­lion years of their reign.

All of these ad­di­tional tyrants get some space — crea­tures such as lythronax, nanuqsaurus and qianz­housaurus so new that they’ll likely be un­fa­mil­iar to most read­ers — but even they are over­shad­owed by the mighty T. rex. As Hone ac­knowl­edges, that’s be­cause T. rex is un­doubt­edly the most stud­ied pre­his­toric crea­ture of all time: there’s sim­ply more to say about it be­cause more re­search has been con­ducted on it. The di­nosaur is as beloved by sci­en­tists as by the public, and so al­most ev­ery idea or study gen­er­ates more de­bate.

Take its food, for ex­am­ple. There’s a wide­spread im­pres­sion that T. rex was noth­ing but a filthy scavenger, lazily horf­ing down car­rion in­stead of hunt­ing for it­self. This idea did not come from any fos­sil find or study, how­ever; it was pop­u­larised by pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Jack Horner in the 1990s as a way to kick the fos­sil hor­nets’ nest and make his col­leagues test as­sump­tions about the tyran­nosaur’s preda­tory abil­i­ties.

Thanks to Horner’s au­thor­ity, and ba­sic ca­ble tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries pop­u­lar­is­ing the idea, though, the im­age of scav­eng­ing T. rex had legs, and so Hone goes into de­tail in hopes of dis­patch­ing the myth once and for all. The anatomy of the di­nosaur, healed bite wounds on other di­nosaurs, and what we know about pre­his­toric ecol­ogy all un­der­score the fact that T. rex hunted live prey but wouldn’t pass up a free meal if it sniffed one out.

The Tyran­nosaur Chron­i­cles will do more than up­date read­ers on the nitty gritty of T. rex and its kin, though. In due course Hone cov­ers the way di­nosaur species are named, how their re­la­tion­ships to each other are sorted, what we know of di­nosaur ecol­ogy, the me­chan­ics of evo­lu­tion, and more. T. rex is the star at­trac­tion here, but Hone con­tin­ues to put the di­nosaur through its paces as an am­bas­sador for pa­le­on­tol­ogy and what we know about di­nosaurs. What was true for T. rex was also true of many other di­nosaurs, and so, by trail­ing T. rex, Hone also de­liv­ers an up­dated view of the ‘‘ter­ri­ble lizards’’ as a whole.

If there’s any draw­back, it’s that the book ex­ists in a strange place be­tween pop­u­lar science nar­ra­tive and text­book. Ev­ery page is packed with di­nosaurian in­for­ma­tion, but Hone’s writ­ing style is a lit­tle dry. Diehard di­nosaur fans won’t mind this, but ca­sual read­ers may have a more dif­fi­cult time plod­ding through the ba­sics of di­nosaur anatomy and sys­tem­at­ics.

Nev­er­the­less, in a sin­gle book Hone has been able to of­fer an up-to-date and ex­haus­tive look at al­most every­one’s favourite di­nosaur. What emerges is not T. rex the movie star or T. rex the mon­ster, but a liv­ing, breath­ing an­i­mal that we are re­ally just be­gin­ning to un­der­stand. This was a car­ni­vore that walked, slept, pooped, mated and, yes, ate, and new finds are al­low­ing us to en­vi­sion all those pro­cesses with greater clar­ity than be­fore. The an­i­mals them­selves are long dead, but through science and imag­i­na­tion the tyran­nosaurs will con­tinue to sink their teeth into our minds.

Long-time favourite Tyran­nosaurus rex

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.