T. rex vs. Prey: Imagining battles between ancient gladiators

When I was super young, say around five or so, I remember playing in the bath tub with my plastic toys. Some were super heroes like He-Man or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, others were monster trucks and die-cast matchbox cars by Mattel, but most were dinosaurs.

This might be TMI, this story about the kid in the bath tub with bubbles on his head, ramming plastic characters into one another and dreaming up their backstories, the bellows of challenge they traded, and the choreography of their battles, but I know there are other adult children out there with similar memories.

During this epoch in the evolution of me, I distinctly recall pitting Tyrannosaurus rex against Stegosaurus, which, as I’ve discovered in later life, was completely wrong, as was most of what I thought around five years old, but you know, who can blame a five-year-old for muddling up the fossil record?

T. rex is one of the most famous dinosaurs in history, easily identified by its massive, heavy skull, long steak-knife teeth, powerful back legs and tail, and ridiculous vestigial arms, but due to her status as dinosaur royalty, the length of her reign and her identity is as often confused by adults as it is by naive five-year-olds. The T. rex lived for two million years in the Late Cretaceous, never in the Jurassic, as her appearance in Jurassic Park might suggest, but we can forgive this fiction for its oversight. (After all, InGen, the engineering firm responsible for cloning extinct dinosaurs in the movie, infamously mismatched animals from different eras within the same park.) And she wasn’t the only two-legged carnivore.

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In a dramatic representation, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus duke it out in the Jurassic. Morian Hall.

In the time of Stegosaurus, between 155 and 150 million years ago (the real Jurassic), the apex predator was the Allosaurus. Smaller than the T. rex, but with more capable arms with three fingers ending in talons, this baddie no doubt picked battles with Stegosaurus, putting its life on the line for a meal. With its polygonal plates down its back, viciously spiked tail, flexible spine and toes that allowed it to rear up, Stegosaurus could give Allosaurus a true walloping.

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Allosaurus remains feature prominent eyebrow ridges and three-fingered hands with sharp claws.

Forget about jaws and claws. One solid hit from the bone spikes could deeply puncture the neck or torso of any shady Allosaurus looking for a bite, and its plates would protect its spine from being severed by teeth until it could land a blow. It isn’t difficult to imagine eyes gouged and jugulars perforated, many Allosauruses bleeding out after botched predatory encounters with Stegosaurus. There were certainly easier things for Allosaurus to eat, but few battles with other species could match the gladiatorial epicness of this match-up, at least not in this era.

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Even as an herbivore, Stegosaurus would have made a formidable opponent against Allosaurus in the Jurassic, using a spiked tail and bone plates along its spine as defenses.

Fast forward 90 million years to the Late Cretaceous, the reign of the “tyrant lizard.” Tyrannosaurs roamed North America and Asia, preying on a variety of other famous megafauna like Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, and duck-billed hadrosaurs including Edmontosaurus, Brachylophosaurus, and Parasaurolophus. There’s no way T. rex even knew Stegosaurus was a thing. More time passed between these two than between dinosaurs and Homo sapiens.

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As the largest predator of the Late Cretaceous, the T. rex is one of the fossil record’s most iconic species.

Nor was the T. rex the only one of her kind; she was just the largest, hence the name, “king of tyrants.” Among her smaller contemporaries, Tarbosaurus, Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, and Gorgosaurus, she was the Queen B, big and bad, in spite of the competition. She had excellent vision, a sense of smell that could detect prey from miles away, and decent hearing, though high-pitched sounds would have been lost to her. Food wouldn’t have been difficult for the T. rex to find, but that food really, really didn’t want to be eaten.

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T. rex couldn’t have fought Stegosaurus, but it preyed upon Triceratops, another iconic species that lived in the same time period.

There’s no more famous match-up than Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. With two long horns and a bony frill like a samurai helmet to guard its neck, as long as the trike met the T. rex head-on, there was no contest. But if Triceratops charged and missed the mark, the tyrant’s big jaws could take out its backbone in a single bite, neutralizing the threat of horns. Recent discoveries of casts of Triceratops‘s hide reveals nodules that might have housed quills, making even a bite to its back a dangerous one if T. rex ever got around the impenetrable helmet. You can imagine this battle yourself in the Morian Hall of Paleontology, where Lane the Triceratops takes a defensive position under an aggressor T. rex.

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T. rex preyed upon Denversaurus and its famous cousin, Ankylosaurus, but both would have made a difficult meal, protected by bony armor.

Against Ankylosaurus and its cousin Denversaurus, also on display in Morian Hall, tyrannosaurs likely had a more difficult time. Both Ankylosaurus and Denversaurus developed the adaptation of a wide, low body and armored plating, making access to its soft underbelly impossible for tyrannosaurs unless kicked onto its back, but Ankylosaurus had another advantage. The tip of its tail bore a mace-like club that, like Stegosaurus’s spiked tail, could maim the jaws of predators that didn’t pay enough heed. One swing from this heavy weapon could break open a T. rex‘s face, cripple its legs, or shatter its ribs, and with arms too small to defend itself, dodging seems the only tactic at her disposal against this tank of a creature. An encounter with an Ankylosaurus could mean either a meal or certain death, depending on the T. rex‘s experience hunting.

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Armor plating on the back of Denversaurus would have protected against a bite from the T. rex and other tyrannosaurs of the Late Cretaceous, but if flipped over, its soft underbelly would be exposed.

A more easy meal for any tyrannosaur would have been Edmontosaurus and other duck-billed dinosaurs. These hadrosaurs had few defenses. No armor plating, no spikes, no claws, no wings, no sharp teeth. But it’s possible they had a different advantage, though it’s tough to deduce through fossils alone. Hollow chambers in the skulls of many hadrosaurs suggest these creatures, like geese and other water fowl, had the power of sound at their disposal. A deafening bellow might have stopped a tyrannosaur in its tracks or sent it running in the other direction. T. rex isn’t known for its sensitive hearing, but as we all know, if the sound is loud enough, it can be excruciating. And T. rex had no fingers to put into her ears, nor could she reach them.

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Edmontosaurus, a duckbilled hadrosaur and cousin of Parasaurolophus, appears to have lacked natural defenses. However, the hollows in its skull suggest it could have protected itself with deafening bellows like giant geese.

Understanding these species as they once were, interacting with one another, is more than bath tub child’s play for paleontologists; it’s a career and a discipline. It’s in the Greek roots of the word “paleontology,” the study of being and beings in the ancient world. The study of what life on Earth might have looked like eons ago. The work of these scientists is more like philosophy than fiction, but building careful theories via the fossil record and considering every angle does require a measure of imagination.

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An artist’s representation depicts Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex in an age-old feud set in the lush swamps of the Late Cretaceous, an imagined scene deduced from evidence in the fossil record. Morian Hall.

I suppose, apart from the spikes and teeth and horns and claws and body armor and all the other things that make these terrible lizards seem like something out of science fiction, or monsters invented by a puppeteer, it’s the daydreaming paleontology requires that holds my attention. To understand their world, you must build it in your mind.

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 5/18-5/24

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week! 

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Behind-the-Scenes Tours
Tuesday, May 19
6:30 p.m. 
Samurai: The Way of the Warrior
Witness the exquisite objects related to the legendary Samurai warriors of Japan in the special exhibition Samurai: The Way of the Warrior. Museum master docents will lead you through the collection that includes full suits of armor, helmets, swords, sword-hilts, and saddles, as well as exquisite objects intended for more personal use such as lacquered writing boxes, incense trays and foldable chairs.

China’s Lost Civilization
Tour the stunning display of ancient jades, bone, pottery, elephant tusks and monumental bronzes that were discovered in Sanxingdui, China by construction workers. This after-hour tour of China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui is led by HMNS master docents.

Opening of Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology 
Friday, May 22
The Texas coast is a natural treasure to many Texans, but few know about its ecologic and economic importance. The new Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology will show visitors how a healthy environment is paramount to maintaining and sustaining a healthy economy. 

Opening of Secret Ocean 3D
Friday, May 22
Filmed over 3 years in vibrant marine environments from the Bahamas to Fiji, the first 3D theater film directed by Jean-Michel Cousteau provides a compelling breakthrough look at a secret world within the ocean that is perhaps the biggest story of all-that the smallest life in the sea is the mightiest force on which we all depend. 

Opening of Fate of the Maya
Friday, May 22
Explore ancient Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque; experiencing the elegance and power of these great Maya cities. Watch astronomers observing the heavens to predict the future. Then visit lagoons and sink holes to discover what destroyed this advanced civilization — a fate that still threatens great urban centers around the world. It’s a beautiful story for those who love to explore ancient civilizations and discover lessons carved in silt and stone.

 

James Washington: Being Natural

Discovery Guide James Washington, III, better known at the Houston Museum of Natural Science as “Jurassic James,” has made a career out of going above and beyond the call of duty.

“[My bosses] say, ‘You have your responsibilities. Make sure those are done, but then do whatever you want to do’,” he said. “So of course, me being me, I kept adding things to my job description.”

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James Washington shows off his collection of model dinosaurs, which he has been compiling since he was a young boy. They have since been repurposed into a wildly successful training regimen for HMNS employees.

Five years ago, Washington was tutoring Geology at Lone Star College when his students were offered extra credit for visiting the Cullen Hall of Gems & Minerals at HMNS. He volunteered to spend his Saturdays giving free tours for his students and made an impression on museum staff in the process.

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Washington explains the properties of the mineral pyrite by comparing several examples with other similar minerals.

“The guy who interviewed me was like, ‘You look familiar.’ I told him I did a tour here last weekend for some students. So, they hired me on in front-line visitor services,” Washington said.

Washington could do it all and was quickly promoted into the concierge program before becoming one of the first of the museum’s full-time Discovery Tour Guides. He continued to do extra work that was technically someone else’s job, scheduling tours and handling requests, eventually earning a promotion to Concierge Lead.

But where Washington really found his calling was with training and teaching. It’s what he calls, “the best part of my job.”

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Washington stands before the extensive whiteboard diagrams he drew to model the prehistoric Paleozoic and Mesozoic oceans.

Over the years, Washington has collected fossils, artifacts, and model animals and dinosaurs. Beginning in the fall of 2014, much of that collection made its way to the HMNS basement into a special training classroom Washington developed for the concierge program.

Since that time, the classroom has expanded from one room to three and has grown to cover more topics including geology, paleontology, and more. An entire counter is filled with colorful plastic dinosaur models, a long row of folding tables models the evolution of numerous animal species, and the walls are covered in dry-erase drawings of volcanoes, oceanic layers, and prehistoric reptile anatomy. It’s the end-result of years of hard work.

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Washington hand-drew and colored this 20-foot-long poster board modeling the evolution of life over time, completing the display with models from his personal collection.

“I just kept bringing more and more stuff in and reorganizing. This is not in my job description; I’m only supposed to do tour scheduling, but I end up doing two Adult Education classes and now some home-school classes in the fall,” Washington said.

“Every once in a while, I feel sorry for whoever replaces me,” he added with a grin.

Washington has always wanted to be a science teacher, specifically at the university-level, but for now, his work at the museum allows him to explore the depths of a variety of subjects.

“I like learning about ancient history and earth science and biology and animals and I don’t want to commit to learning just one of those concepts forever. The museum facilitates that. I can learn everything I want and apply it,” Washington said.

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Geologic specimens Washington collected over the years on various digs and field excursions cover this counter in the Museum’s basement.

The first step towards that goal is completing college and earning a bachelor’s degree, and Washington works hard to balance a full-time job with a full-time course load. Between working five days a week and a class schedule that begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 8:30 p.m. on his days off, it’s no wonder that he jokes, “I don’t sleep.”

 

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Washington demonstrates the differences between two versions of Tyrannosaurus rex that appeared in two different Jurassic Park films to show how human understanding of prehistoric life has changed over time.

Washington was always interested in dinosaurs and loved visiting the museum as a kid. He says he puts the museum on a pedestal, so much so that when he first applied, he remembered thinking, “I could never work at the museum. This is the Museum of Natural Science.”

Today, coming up on four years as an employee, Washington is thankful for the opportunities afforded him. He still can’t believe he works here.

“I look at what the Museum has given to me. I am talking to their guests about science. I am being sent out to give talks about fossils. I am doing Skype tours of this place, and I’m just a little kid from Houston,” Washington said. “It’s just really neat that they have entrusted me to do all of these things. It’s a real honor.”

Children and adults alike love accompanying “Jurassic James” on his tours. Visit the museum today, and take one for yourself!

Why you should care about endangered species today, tomorrow, and every day

The truth of the matter is that we humans are bound to this Earth. As the dominant species, it is easy for us to allow industry and propaganda to run rampant, annihilating whole populations of the animals with which we share the environment. One shepherd will kill the wolf who threatens his flock, one company will dynamite a mountain to extract an ore, and that may be fine. But if all the shepherds and all the companies kill and dynamite at once, that is a menace to the natural world. And as long as we continue to take advantage of quiet places virgin to human feet, or villainize an animal as a man-eating monster, the diversity of life on earth will always be in danger.

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A red wolf specimen behind glass appears to be mourning the loss of endangered and extinct species in the case beside it, in Texas, and across the globe. Farish Hall.

The question you have to ask yourself on Endangered Species Day, and every day, is are we really still competing with animals to gain a foothold on this rock we call home, or are we simply the most ruthless? One death by mauling, even 10 or 20 or 120, does not constitute a credible threat to humanity; there are billions of us. Call a shark, a bear, a wolf, a lion, a panther, any apex predator a danger to one or a small group of humans, but the time of fighting to survive in the jungle has passed. True, African villagers still suffer casualties due to contact with lions; yes, trekkers in the Rocky Mountains must remain vigilant for cougars and bears to avoid attacks; and yes, 10 people were killed and 87 were injured worldwide by sharks in 2014, but modern humanity now has the power to slaughter every last individual of any species. It’s not that difficult, and often it’s due simply to the spread of our kind into wild areas for resources or human development.

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Less than 1,000 ocelots are thought to survive in the wild. Farish Hall.

In the case of sharks specifically, 97 casualties in 2014 does not and cannot ever justify 100 million sharks killed every year. That’s about 274,000 dead sharks a day, or 11 shark killings per hour. A shark dies at the hands of a human, somewhere, every six minutes. Even nuisance animals aren’t this systematically destroyed. The World Wildlife Fund lists great white sharks as vulnerable on their endangered species directory, facing high risk of extinction in the wild. We don’t know much about shark biology and behavior, but we do know they play an important role at the top of the marine food chain, according to the WWF. They might all die before we get to know them.

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Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken exists now only in wildlife refuges. Farish Hall.

Sharks aren’t the only species in danger, of course. Many other animal populations have dwindled to mere hundreds. Biologists count 880 mountain gorillas left in the Virunga Mountains of central Africa. Imagine having only 880 humans on the planet. That’s barely the size of a small town in Texas, one of those places Grampaw says you’ll miss if you blink as you pass by. As few as 3,200 tigers live in the wild across the planet, the WWF says, and giant pandas, the mascot of the organization since 1961, number just above 1,800. Our favorite mammals are nearly gone. Just as gone as the dinosaurs. When they’re gone, they will never come back. Ever.

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Native to southern Texas, the jaguarundi is one of many endangered predators. Farish Hall.

In Texas, from the pounding Houston rain to the burning sun of El Paso, the steamy barrier islands to the prairie grasslands and canyons in the panhandle, it seems the big sky country has enough space for everything. But farming and introduction of non-native species, as well as the urban sprawl surrounding our boundless cities, has built a long list of endangered species. Texas Parks and Wildlife lists the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken, the wooping crane and the red-cockaded woodpecker endangered in Harris County, as well as the red wolf, the smalltooth sawfish, the Houston toad, and the leatherback sea turtle. Some of these exist only in wildlife refuges.

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The ivory-billed woodpecker, native to Texas, is critically endangered and thought to be extinct. Animatronic specimen displayed in Farish Hall.

The concrete city landscape of Harris County has replaced the natural habitat, a corner where coastal, wetland, and piney forest environments merge. As the city expands, roaming species like the red wolf are pushed out of their home territories while their numbers decline, but other creatures that rely on this area specifically for the resources the environment provides simply fade away. The Kemp’s Ridley feeds only in muddy or sandy bottom habitats, those brackish areas where swamp meets seawater, and while they migrate across the Gulf, these turtles still require coastline to nest. Other migratory species like the whooping crane use the coast as winter breeding grounds. As development continues, these environments shrink or change enough to kill off such species.

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The Carolina parakeet, once native to Texas and most states along the eastern coast of the United States, was declared extinct in 1939. Farish Hall.

Texas used to have its own native parrot, the Carolina parakeet. This beautiful tropical bird with red, yellow and green feathers, suffered devastating losses from deforestation and feather-hunting. It was declared extinct in 1939. Its range extended in the eastern United States from New York to Texas. The Houston Museum of Natural Science has a mounted specimen on display in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, alongside many other examples of native and endangered species. Apart from taxidermy, this parrot exists only in the imagination.

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The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is losing its habitat in Texas due to loss of the piney woods environment in which it lives and hunts. Farish Hall.

Next week, HMNS guests concerned about endangered species can come to the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, a new permanent exhibit adjacent to Farish Hall opening May 22, to learn more about the relationship between the environment and the economy. Some of Texas’s iconic species, including rare and endangered plants and animals, will appear on display. After touring these exhibits, visit the 100 awe-inspiring images of the 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year display. Some of these, like the photos of legal lion hunting, hyenas eating from a human garbage dump, and prospectors destroying thousands of acres of virginal forest for minerals, reveal just how awful things can get when we neglect the natural world.

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A quote by William Beabe in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife reminds us why we should care about endangered species.

Why should you care about extinction on Endangered Species Day? Because if a species dies out, it never comes back. Every creature is important, unique in its behaviors or adaptations or the shape and color of its body. If these creatures disappear, the only way we can get to know them is through history and in museums, not through personal experience. We will never know what we could have learned from them. We are the stewards of this planet now, not its owners. We rely on it much more than it relies on us. If we don’t help preserve life, these endangered species are as good as stuffed. And when they all die off, we’re next.