April 27, 2010
It has now been 105 years since the famous dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex was described by the paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, and just about every major dinosaur museum has at least one skeleton of the terrifying predator in their paleontology exhibits. Thanks to the discovery of numerous individuals and nearly-complete specimens, there is perhaps no dinosaur that is better known, but the first Tyrannosaurus to be put on display for the public was largely incomplete.
On December 30, 1906, the New York Times ran an article on the debut of the first Tyrannosaurus mount. Consisting of little more than the legs and hips of the animal, the partial skeleton was set up in the fossil halls of the American Museum of Natural History, and the skeleton of a large bird was set up between its legs to further impress visitors with just how enormous the dinosaur was. (Little did paleontologists know that Tyrannosaurus was a relatively close relative of birds and may have even been covered in feathers during some part of its life.) It would not be until some years later, with the discovery of a much more complete skeleton from the famous Hell Creek Formation, that the rest of the skeleton would be put into place, creating the towering reconstruction that delighted me when I first visited the museum as a child in the late 1980s.
Despite the fact that most of the skeleton could not be put on display, however, the New York Times reporter heralded the mount as representing the fiercest predator to have ever lived. “Prize Fighter of Antiquity Discovered and Restored” the headline crowed, and there could be little doubt that the size and stupidity of Tyrannosaurus made it a ravenous meat-eater always on the hunt for its next meal. Given that Triceratops was known to be a contemporary of the giant carnivore, the reporter speculated that it was the preferred prey of Tyrannosaurus and wrote:
So long as this three-horned monster [Triceratops] faced his adversary he must have been quite invulnerable. But he was a vegetarian, his teeth were comparatively harmless, and he was as slow in his movements as the brontosaurus. Thus, pitted against the alert and towering tyrant lizard, who ran with great agility on his two hind feet and could play frightful havoc with his savage canine teeth, the triceratops must have waged a rather unequal combat.
Tyrannosaurus was unstoppable. No horns, hide, or armor would give its victims a reprieve, yet ultimately it was a failure. The article celebrating the partial restoration of Tyrannosaurus closed by reminding the readers that it left no descendants, hence “an evolutionist would classify him as a leafless, flowerless branch on the tree of animal life.” Clearly the dinosaurs had done something wrong, perhaps growing too big for their brains, and this allowed mammals to regain their birthright as the giant Mesozoic monsters began to fade away.
Today, of course, we know differently. Dinosaurs were a highly successful group of animals that were not as slow, stupid, or drab as early 20th-century paleontologists presumed, and while the Tyrannosaurus left no living descendants, at least one group of predatory dinosaurs did give rise to birds. Nevertheless, Tyrannosaurus was such an imposing predator that over a century after its discovery by science it still causes us to gossip about its life and habits. It remains the “Tyrant king” of the dinosaurs.
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