This is the skull of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota excavated it. This picture was taken on Nov. 10, 2003 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Credit: © 2003 Calvin J. Hamilton ScienceViews.com
Aside from being one of the largest of the known carnivorous dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex — T. rex, for short — is the dinosaur that has arguably received the most media exposure. It had a starring role in the "Jurassic Park" movies and has a renowned exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The name Tyrannosaurus rex means "king of the tyrant lizards": "tyranno" means tyrant in Greek; "saurus" means lizard in Greek, and "rex" means "king" in Latin. In 1905, Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History at the time, named Tyrannosaurus rex.
T. rex was a member of the Tyrannosauroidea family of huge predatory dinosaurs with small arms and two-fingered hands. Aside from Tyrannosaurs, other tyrannosaurid genera include Albertosaurus, Alectrosaurus, Alioramus, Chingkankousaurus, Daspletosaurus, Eotyrannus, Gorgosaurus, Nanotyrannus, Prodeinodon and Tarbosaurus.
An imposing figure
The largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found was nicknamed Sue, after its discoverer, paleontologist Sue Hendrickson. Measurements of Sue suggest T. rex was one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs to ever live, coming in at up to 13 feet (4 meters) tall at the hips (the beast's highest point since it did not stand erect) and 40 feet (12.3 m) long. A recent analysis of Sue, published in 2011 in the journal PLOS ONE, shows T. rex weighed as much as 9 tons (about 8,160 kilograms).
T. rex had strong thighs and a powerful tail, which counterbalanced its large head (Sue's skull is 5 feet, or 1.5 m, long) and allowed it to move quickly. The 2011 study, which also modeled T. rex's muscle distribution and center of mass, suggests the giant could run 10 to 25 mph (17 to 40 km/h), as previous studies had estimated.
Its two-fingered forearms were puny, making it unlikely that T. rex could use them to kill or even get a meal to its mouth. "We don't know what the tiny arms were used for," said University of Kansas paleontologist David Burnham.
The real work of dispensing with its prey was left to the dinosaur's massive and thick skull. T. rex had the strongest bite of any land animal that ever lived, according to a 2012 study in the journal Biology Letters. The dinosaur's bite could exert up to 12, 814 pounds-force (57,000 Newtons), which is roughly equivalent to the force of a medium-size elephant sitting down.
T. rex had a mouth full of serrated teeth; the largest tooth of any carnivorous dinosaur ever found was 12 inches (30 centimeters) long. But not all of the dinosaur's teeth served the same function, according to a 2012 study in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. Specifically, the dinosaur's front teeth gripped and pulled; its side teeth tore flesh, and its back teeth diced chunks of meat and forced food into the throat. Importantly, T. rex's teeth were wide and somewhat dull (rather than being flat and daggerlike), allowing the teeth to withstand the forces exerted by struggling prey, the study found.
What did T. rex eat?
T. rex was a huge carnivore and primarily ate herbivorous dinosaurs, including Edmontosaurus and Triceratops. The predator acquired its food through scavenging and hunting, grew incredibly fast and ate hundreds of pounds at a time, Burnham said.
"T. rex was probably opportunistic and may have fed on carcasses, but that is not a very abundant or consistent food source," Burnham told Live Science. "T. rex had a hard life. They had to go out and kill for food when they were hungry."
For many years, the evidence that T. rex actually hunted for its meals was circumstantial and included such things as bones with bite marks, teeth near carcasses and foot tracks suggesting pursuits, Burnham said. But in a 2013 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Burnham and his colleagues unveiled direct evidence of T. rex's predatory nature: a T. rex tooth embedded in a duckbill dinosaur's tailbone, which healed over the tooth (meaning the duckbill got away).
"We found the smoking gun!" Burnham said. "With this discovery, we now know the monster in our dreams is real."
T. rex was also not above enjoying another T. rex for dinner, according to a 2010 analysis published in PLOS ONE of T. rex bones with deep gashes created by T. rex teeth. However, it's not clear if the cannibalistic dinosaurs fought to the death or merely ate the carcasses of their own kind.
Scientists are unsure whether T. rex hunted alone or in packs. In 2014, researchers found dinosaur track marks in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia — out of the seven tracks, three belonged to Tyrannosaurids, most likely Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus or Daspletosaurus. The study, published in PLOS ONE, suggests that T. rex's relatives, at least, hunted in packs.
When and where T. rex lived
T. rex fossils are found in a variety of rock formations dating to the Maastrichtian age of the upper Cretaceous period, which lasted from 67 million to 65 million years ago, toward the end of the Mesozoic Era. It was among the last of the non-avian dinosaurs to exist prior to the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which wiped out the dinosaurs.
More mobile than many other land-based dinosaurs, T. rex roamed throughout what is now western North America, at the time an island continent identified as Laramidia. More than 50 skeletons of T. rex have been unearthed, according to National Geographic. Some of these remains are nearly complete skeletons, and at least one skeleton included soft tissue and proteins. [Image Gallery: The Life of T. Rex]
Fossil hunter Barnum Brown discovered the first partial skeleton of a T. rex in the Montana portion of the Hell Creek Formation in 1902. He later sold this specimen to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Another T. rex fossil discovery of his, also from Hell Creek, is on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
In 2007, scientists unearthed what may be a T. rex footprint in Hell Creek, and described their discovery in the journal Palaios. If the track did indeed belong to T. rex, it would be only the second confirmed T. rex footprint ever discovered, the first being a footprint discovered in New Mexico in 1993.
Kim Ann Zimmermann contributed to this article.