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T. Rex Renaissance: Big Decade For Dino Research

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T. Rex Renaissance: Big Decade For Dino Research


T. Rex Renaissance: Big Decade For Dino Research

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

It's been a big year for a big dinosaur: the Tyrannosaur. Scientists have identified six new species of the animal, and recently found T. rex feathers and maybe even the remains of some soft tissue. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, the T. rex renaissance is partly due to new techniques and partly due to its charisma.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Scratch a dinosaur scientist and underneath you'll find a kid.

Dr. TOM HOLTZ (Paleontologist, University of Maryland): Oh, wow. I would love to see hunting T. rex.

JOYCE: That's Tom Holtz, a paleontologist at the University of Maryland. While he's writing sober, clinical studies of carnivorous dinosaurs, he sometimes gets carried away.

Dr. HOLTZ: Tyrannosaurs are sort of bruiser skulls, have these deeply rooted thick teeth and so forth, but these dinky little forelimbs. So it appears that they're just grabbing on with their jaws, crunching down, crushing through meat, crushing through bone, twisting and tearing and ripping out big chunks of flesh.

(Soundbite of movie, "Jurassic Park")

JOYCE: Just as T. rex did it in the first�Jurassic Park�movie - in this case, eating the lawyer, one of my favorite scenes.

This week, a group of scientists has published a paper in the journal�Science,�laying out all the fun things they've recently learned about the�capo di capi�of carnivores. Here's Mark Norell, curator of fossil reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Dr. MARK NORELL (Curator of fossil reptiles, American Museum of Natural History): You know, we've really doubled the tyrannosaur diversity in the last 10 years, and found, you know, ones that aren't just the giant ones like Tyrannosaurus rex, but smaller ones like raptorex, feathered ones like dilong and stuff like that. So it's really been, you know, this really big sort of renaissance, and tyrannosaurs are probably studied more than any other dinosaur that's ever been found.

JOYCE: The reason, he says, is partly due to their celebrity.

Dr. NORELL: I mean, if you ask anybody in the street if they know one dinosaur, they know Tyrannosaurus rex.

JOYCE: Norell says the public's fascination with tyrannosaurs also infects scientists. Biologists who study the biomechanics of elephants or chemists who study proteins in bone have turned their attention to T. rex fossils. They've refined its posture. They've determined the length of its adolescence 10 to 15 years. They may have found remains of T. rex tissue, though that's still in question.

Dr. NORELL: What I find really interesting, is just what you can do with this sort of eclectic and very diverse group of scientists all focused on one animal.

JOYCE: The discovery of the first T. rex skull in 1905 was a sensation for scientists. It soon took the film world by storm as well, becoming the�bete noire�of celluloid monsters.

In 1933, it was T. rex who tried to make lunch out of Fay Wray.

(Soundbite of movie, "King Kong")

Ms. FAY WRAY (As Ann Darrow): (Screaming)

(Soundbite of roaring)

JOYCE: King Kong was having none of it.

Film didn't catch up to science until the�Jurassic Park�series, one that Tom Holtz at the University of Maryland, says incorporated a lot of the latest dino-science. For example, when a T. rex pursues a jeep full of human prey.

(Soundbite of movie, "Jurassic Park")

Mr. JEFF GOLDBLUM (As Dr. Ian Malcolm): Must go faster.

Dr. HOLTZ: Jurassic Park�really helped introduce the world to T. rex, as we now understand it, with its more horizontal posture.

JOYCE: Tail out back for balance, and toothy head out front, looming in the jeep's rearview mirror, which showed the helpful message that objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

The jeep outpaced the dinosaur, which also reflects recent research suggesting that T. rex only in the 10- to 20-mile-an-hour range.

Scientists predict more discoveries. Holtz says computer scans of T. rex skulls are revealing things like an acute sense of smell. He says the creature keeps earning new respect.

Dr. HOLTZ: They are the inheritors of tens of millions of years of dinosaur evolution and have selected for, really sophisticated behaviors.

JOYCE: Though not sophisticated enough to have avoided extinction. Thankfully.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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