Old Earth Ministries Online Dinosaur Curriculum

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Lesson 25 - Tyrannosaurus, Part One

     Tyrannosaurus (meaning 'tyrant lizard') from the Greek words tyrannos, meaning "tyrant" and sauros, meaning "lizard" , was a genus of theropod dinosaur. The species Tyrannosaurus rex ('rex' meaning 'king' in Latin), commonly abbreviated to T. rex, is a fixture in popular culture. It lived throughout what is now western North America, with a much wider range than other tyrannosaurids. Fossils are found in a variety of rock formations dating to the last three million years of the Cretaceous Period, approximately 68 to 65 million years ago. It was among the last non-avian dinosaurs to exist prior to the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event.

Like other tyrannosaurids, Tyrannosaurus was a bipedal carnivore with a massive skull balanced by a long, heavy tail. Relative to the large and powerful hindlimbs, Tyrannosaurus forelimbs were small, though unusually powerful for their size, and bore two clawed digits. Although other theropods rivaled or exceeded Tyrannosaurus rex in size, it was the largest known tyrannosaurid and one of the largest known land predators, measuring up to 42 ft (12.8 m) in length, up to 13 feet (4 m) tall at the hips, and up to 15,000 lbs (7.5 tons or 6.8 metric tons) in weight.

T. Rex: On the Hunt
T Rex Bite Force
T Rex Hunting Packs


Quick Facts


Length:  42 feet

Height:  13 feet at hips

Weight:  15,000 lbs

Date Range:  68 - 65 Ma, Maastrichtian Age, Late Cretaceous


Stan Tyrannasaurus

Cast of Trex specimen "Stan"

Tyrannosaurus Scale

(Picture Source)

By far the largest carnivore in its environment, Tyrannosaurus rex may have been an apex predator, preying upon hadrosaurs and ceratopsians, although some experts have suggested it was primarily a scavenger. The debate over Tyrannosaurus as apex predator or scavenger is among the longest running debates in paleontology.

More than 30 specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex have been identified, some of which are

T-Rex Jaw Power
T-Rex Brain Power
T-Rex Nose Power
T-Rex Infant
 nearly complete skeletons. Soft tissue and proteins have been reported in at least one of these specimens. The abundance of fossil material has allowed significant research into many aspects of its biology, including life history and biomechanics. The feeding habits, physiology and potential speed of Tyrannosaurus rex are a few subjects of debate. Its taxonomy is also controversial, with some scientists considering Tarbosaurus bataar from Asia to represent a second species of Tyrannosaurus and others maintaining Tarbosaurus as a separate genus. Several other genera of North American tyrannosaurids have also been synonymized with Tyrannosaurus.

Artist Impression Tyrannosaurus Rex
(Picture Source)

Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the largest land carnivores of all time; the largest complete specimen, FMNH PR2081 ("Sue"), measured 42 feet (12.8 m) long, and was 13 feet (4.0 m) tall at the hips. Mass estimates have varied widely over the years, from more than 7.9 short tons (15,800 lbs) to less than 5 tons (10,000 lbs), with most modern estimates ranging between 6.0 and 7.5 tons (5.4 and 6.8 metric tons). Although Tyrannosaurus rex was larger than the well known Jurassic theropod Allosaurus, it was slightly smaller than some other Cretaceous carnivores, such as Spinosaurus and Giganotosaurus.

The neck of Tyrannosaurus rex formed a natural S-shaped curve like that of other theropods, but was short and muscular to support the massive head. The forelimbs had only two clawed fingers, along with an additional small metacarpal representing the remnant of a third digit. In contrast the hind limbs were among the longest in proportion to body size of any theropod. The tail was heavy and long, sometimes containing over forty vertebrae, in order to balance the massive head and torso. To compensate for the immense bulk of the animal, many bones throughout the skeleton were hollow, reducing its weight without significant loss of strength.

The largest known Tyrannosaurus rex skulls measure up to 5 feet (1.5 m) in length. Large fenestrae (openings) in the skull reduced weight and provided areas for muscle attachment, as in all carnivorous theropods. But in other respects Tyrannosaurus’ skull was significantly different from those of large non-tyrannosauroid theropods. It was extremely wide at the rear but had a narrow snout, allowing unusually good binocular vision. The skull bones were massive and the nasals and some other bones were fused, preventing movement between them; but many were pneumatized (contained a "honeycomb" of tiny air spaces) which may have made the bones more flexible as well as lighter. These and other skull-strengthening features are part of the tyrannosaurid trend towards an increasingly powerful bite, which easily surpassed that of all non-tyrannosaurids. The tip of the upper jaw was U-shaped (most non-tyrannosauroid carnivores had V-shaped upper jaws), which increased the amount of tissue and bone a tyrannosaur could rip out with one bite, although it also increased the stresses on the front teeth.

The teeth of Tyrannosaurus rex displayed marked heterodonty (differences in shape). The premaxillary teeth at the front of the upper jaw were closely packed, D-shaped in cross-section, had reinforcing ridges on the rear surface, were incisiform (their tips were chisel-like blades) and curved backwards. The D-shaped cross-section, reinforcing ridges and backwards curve reduced the risk that the teeth would snap when Tyrannosaurus bit and pulled. The remaining teeth were robust, like "lethal bananas" rather than daggers; more widely spaced and also had reinforcing ridges. Those in the upper jaw were larger than those in all but the rear of the lower jaw. The largest found so far is estimated to have been 12 inches long (30 cm) including the root when the animal was alive, making it the largest tooth of any carnivorous dinosaur.

Tyrannosaurus is the type genus of the superfamily Tyrannosauroidea, the family Tyrannosauridae, and the subfamily Tyrannosaurinae; in other words it is the standard by which paleontologists decide whether to include other species in the same group. Other members of the tyrannosaurine subfamily include the North American Daspletosaurus and the Asian Tarbosaurus, both of which have occasionally been synonymized with Tyrannosaurus. Tyrannosaurids were once commonly thought to be descendants of earlier large theropods such as megalosaurs and carnosaurs, although more recently they were reclassified with the generally smaller coelurosaurs.

Notable Specimens

Tyrannosaur Sue 
Sue, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago (Picture Source)

Sue Hendrickson, amateur paleontologist, discovered the most complete (approximately 85%) and, until 2001, the largest, Tyrannosaurus fossil skeleton known in the Hell Creek Formation near Faith, South Dakota, on 12 August 1990. This Tyrannosaurus, nicknamed "Sue" in her honor, was the object of a legal battle over its ownership. In 1997 this was settled in favor of Maurice Williams, the original land owner. The fossil collection was purchased by the Field Museum of Natural History at auction for 7.6 million (U.S. dollars), making it the most expensive dinosaur skeleton to date. From 1998 to 1999 Field Museum of Natural History workers spent over 25,000 man-hours taking the rock off each of the bones. The bones were then shipped off to New Jersey where the mount was made. The finished mount was then taken apart, and along with the bones, shipped back to Chicago for the final assembly. The mounted skeleton opened to the public on May 17, 2000 in the great hall (Stanley Field Hall) at the Field Museum of Natural History. A study of this specimen's fossilized bones showed that "Sue" reached full size at age 19 and died at age 28, the longest any tyrannosaur is known to have lived. Early speculation that Sue may have died from a bite to the back of the head was not confirmed. Though subsequent study showed many pathologies in the skeleton, no bite marks were found. Damage to the back of the skull may have been caused by post-mortem trampling. Recent speculation indicates that "Sue" may have died of starvation after contracting a parasitic infection from eating diseased meat; the resulting infection would have caused inflammation in the throat, ultimately leading "Sue" to starve because she could no longer swallow food. This hypothesis is substantiated by smooth-edged holes in her skull which are similar to those caused in modern-day birds that contract the same parasite.

Another Tyrannosaurus, nicknamed "Stan", in honor of amateur paleontologist Stan Sacrison, was found in the Hell Creek Formation near Buffalo, South Dakota, in the spring of 1987. After 30,000 man-hours of digging and preparing, a 65% complete skeleton emerged. Stan is currently on display in the Black Hills Museum of Natural History Exhibit in Hill City, South Dakota, after an extensive world tour. This tyrannosaur, too, was found to have many bone pathologies, including broken and healed ribs, a broken (and healed) neck and a spectacular hole in the back of its head, about the size of a Tyrannosaurus tooth. Both "Stan" and "Sue" were examined by Peter Larson.

In the summer of 2000, Jack Horner discovered five Tyrannosaurus skeletons near the Fort Peck Reservoir in Montana. One of the specimens, dubbed "C. rex," was reported to be perhaps the largest Tyrannosaurus ever found.

In 2001, a 50% complete skeleton of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus was discovered in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana, by a crew from the Burpee Museum of Natural History of Rockford, Illinois. Dubbed "Jane," the find was initially considered the first known skeleton of the pygmy tyrannosaurid Nanotyrannus but subsequent research has revealed that it is more likely a juvenile Tyrannosaurus. It is the most complete and best preserved juvenile example known to date. Jane has been examined by Jack Horner, Pete Larson, Robert Bakker, Greg Erickson, and several other renowned paleontologists, because of the uniqueness of her age. "Jane" is currently on exhibit at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois.

In a press release on 7 April 2006, Montana State University revealed that it possessed the largest Tyrannosaurus skull yet discovered. Discovered in the 1960s and only recently reconstructed, the skull measures 59 inches (150 cm) long compared to the 55.4 inches (141 cm) of "Sue's" skull, a difference of 6.5%.

For a complete listing of discoveries, see Specimens of Tyrannosaurus (external link).

Soft Tissue

In the March 2005 issue of Science, Mary Higby Schweitzer of North Carolina State University and colleagues announced the recovery of soft tissue from the marrow cavity of a fossilized leg bone, from a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus. The bone had been intentionally, though reluctantly, broken for shipping and then not preserved in the normal manner, specifically because Schweitzer was hoping to test it for soft tissue. Designated as the Museum of the Rockies specimen 1125, or MOR 1125, the dinosaur was previously excavated from the Hell Creek Formation. Flexible, bifurcating blood vessels and fibrous but elastic bone matrix tissue were recognized. In addition, microstructures resembling blood cells were found inside the matrix and vessels. The structures bear resemblance to ostrich blood cells and vessels. Whether an unknown process, distinct from normal fossilization, preserved the material, or the material is original, the researchers do not know, and they are careful not to make any claims about preservation. If it is found to be original material, any surviving proteins may be used as a means of indirectly guessing some of the DNA content of the dinosaurs involved, because each protein is typically created by a specific gene. The absence of previous finds may merely be the result of people assuming preserved tissue was impossible, therefore simply not looking. Since the first, two more tyrannosaurs and a hadrosaur have also been found to have such tissue-like structures. Research on some of the tissues involved has suggested that birds are closer relatives to tyrannosaurs than other modern animals.

In studies reported in the journal Science in April 2007, Asara and colleagues concluded that seven traces of collagen proteins detected in purified Tyrannosaurus rex bone most closely match those reported in chickens, followed by frogs and newts. The discovery of proteins from a creature tens of millions of years old, along with similar traces the team found in a mastodon bone at least 160,000 years old, upends the conventional view of fossils and may shift paleontologists' focus from bone hunting to biochemistry. Until these finds, most scientists presumed that fossilization replaced all living tissue with inert minerals. Paleontologist Hans Larsson of McGill University in Montreal, who was not part of the studies, called the finds "a milestone", and suggested that dinosaurs could "enter the field of molecular biology and really slingshot paleontology into the modern world."

Subsequent studies in April 2008 confirmed the close connection of Tyrannosaurus rex to modern birds. Postdoctoral biology researcher Chris Organ at Harvard University announced, "With more data, they would probably be able to place T. rex on the evolutionary tree between alligators and chickens and ostriches." Co-author John M. Asara added, "We also show that it groups better with birds than modern reptiles, such as alligators and green anole lizards."

The presumed soft tissue was called into question by Thomas Kaye of the University of Washington and his co-authors in 2008. They contend that what was really inside the tyrannosaur bone was slimy biofilm created by bacteria that coated the voids once occupied by blood vessels and cells. The researchers found that what previously had been identified as remnants of blood cells, because of the presence of iron, were actually framboids, microscopic mineral spheres bearing iron. They found similar spheres in a variety of other fossils from various periods, including an ammonite. In the ammonite they found the spheres in a place where the iron they contain could not have had any relationship to the presence of blood.


Two isolated fossilized footprints have been tentatively assigned to Tyrannosaurus rex.
Tyrannosaurus footprint New Mexico
New Mexico Footprint (Source)
 The first was discovered at Philmont Scout Ranch, New Mexico, in 1983 by American geologist Charles Pillmore. Originally thought to belong to a hadrosaurid, examination of the footprint revealed a large 'heel' unknown in ornithopod dinosaur tracks, and traces of what may have been a hallux, the dewclaw-like fourth digit of the tyrannosaur foot. The footprint was published as the ichnogenus Tyrannosauripus pillmorei in 1994, by Martin Lockley and Adrian Hunt. Lockley and Hunt suggested that it was very likely the track was made by a Tyrannosaurus rex, which would make it the first known footprint from this species. The track was made in what was once a vegetated wetland mud flat. It measures 83 centimeters (33 in) long by 71 centimeters (28 in) wide.

A second footprint that may have been made by a Tyrannosaurus was first reported in 2007 by British paleontologist Phil Manning, from the Hell Creek Formation of Montana. This second track measures 76 centimeters (30 in) long, shorter than the track described by Lockley and Hunt. Whether or not the track was made by Tyrannosaurus is unclear, though Tyrannosaurus and Nanotyrannus are the only large theropods known to have existed in the Hell Creek Formation. Further study of the track (a full description has not yet been published) will compare the Montana track with the one found in New Mexico.

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Tyrannosaur Shopping

     Many fine reproductions of Tyrannosaur teeth, claws, skulls, and even complete skeletons, are available from several companies.  Please click the links below to visit their websites.

Bay State Replicas - T-rex teeth, claws, skulls, jaws, foot, rib, femur, complete skeleton (1/20 scale), brain cavity

Black Hills Institute - Full size skulls, skeletons, 1/6th scale disartictulated skull, teeth, arm, leg, femur, foot, claws.  Wall-mounted half-skull.