I am one of those people who gets emotionally attached to certain science facts that I learned in childhood. Sometimes I have a hard time when new findings update my ‘facts.’ For instance, despite assurances from the scientific community that Pluto wasn’t going to fall out of the sky or anything, I was still inexplicably sad when it lost its status as a planet. I even bought a ‘Pluto: revolve in peace’ shot glass.
Dinosaur facts are, for me, even more emotionally charged. I actually cried when I learned that Brontosaurus, my very favorite dinosaur, never really existed at all (I was four years old). The creature named Brontosaurus had already been discovered as some other uncool thing called an ‘Apatosaurus.’ Apatosaurus means ‘deceptive lizard.’ How apt. How true. For surely it deceived us all.
But last week I learned that at least part of my childhood dinosaur paradigm has been upheld! For the past 100 years, some scientists have painted Tyrannosaurus Rex, majestic king of eviscerating other dinosaurs, as a slow and clumsy creature that couldn’t hunt and merely scavenged. But a recent discovery might just put the scavenger idea to rest.
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Kansas paleontologist David Burnham and co-authors describe a fossil from a duck-billed dinosaur called a Hadrosaur. Something strange was stuck between two of its tail bones. After they scanned it with a medical device, they found out it was a tooth—a Tyrannosaurus tooth.
Of course, plenty of tooth marks on dinosaur bones show that T. rex ate other dinosaurs. But that doesn’t prove that T. rex actually killed his dinner. Perhaps, as the scavenger-boosters suggest, the T. rex’s sizeable olfactory lobes helped him sniff out and munch pungent dino carcasses. Many scavengers, including vultures, have large olfactory lobes.
But this fossil was different, and very special. The Hadrosaur’s bone had fused and grown around the tooth, meaning that the Hadrosaur had survived the attack with a T. rex tooth lodged in its tail as a souvenir.
“It’s the bullet from the smoking gun,” Burnham says. “Here you have attempted murder, and here we are able to identify the perpetrator.”
Still, the fossil doesn’t prove that T. rex didn’t also scavenge. After all, many predators like lions and hyenas happily eat a convenient carcass. It’s likely that T. rex ate any meal it could, hunted or scavenged.
Paleontologists work to understand ancient ecosystems, and this discovery provides scientists with a more complete picture of the Cretaceous food chain and T. rex’s role in it. But a special fossil that offers a glimpse at a specific event or behavior lets us more accurately imagine a moment of time in a long-gone world.
I admit that, despite all that this fossil adds to our understanding of the Cretaceous ecosystem, I am personally most excited that it reveals Tyrannosaurus rex as the ferocious hunter I’d imagined when I was four, playing with my small plastic dinosaurs.
As Burnham says, “T. rex is the monster of our dreams.”