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.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Ankylosaurus

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David Temple, the museum’s curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

CHI_4415One of the oldest displays in the Houston Museum of Natural Science is the full scale recreation of the dinosaur Ankylosaurus. This recreation of a late cretaceous herbivore was created by the Sinclair Oil Company for the exhibit “Sinclair Dinoland” which opened at the 1964-1965 Worlds Fair in New York.

Dr. Barnum Brown acted as a consultant to world renowned zoological sculptor Louis Paul Jonas to create a paleontological menagerie of dinosaurs that would showcase the Dinosaurs of the Mesozoic. This would be the end of Dr. Barnum Brown’s long paleontological career and association with Sinclair oil as he died shortly before the fair opened in 1964.

The dinosaurs were created at Louis Paul Jonas Studios and then transported to the fair grounds past New York City on a flat barge in a brilliant and surreal publicity stunt. In addition to carrying the Sinclair banner at national stops by train and flatbed trucks, the dinosaur sculptures were used by Sinclair in other advertising campaigns, such as the print ad you see here, featuring the Houston Ankylosaur advertising the dinosaurs and the Dinoland exhibit.

After the closing of the fair, the models toured the country on specially constructed flatbed trailers. Visiting Houston in 1966 and 1968, the nationwide tours attracted millions of visitors. One of the Houston visits was to Gulfgate Mall- the first shopping mall in the city. The second was to HMNS. The Museum, newly expanded in 1969, had empty space and the popularity of these visits was not lost on Museum staff.

The Jonas Dinosaur menagerie was conceived as being an outdoor exhibit, and after the fair and all the national tours, all but two of the sculptures in the collection ended up as open air exhibits. The Houston Ankylosaurus remained indoors and, though modified, it is perhaps the best preserved of the Sinclair Dinoland models.

Learn more about the ankylosaur: check out David’s post “Ankylosaur at HMNS: A 40-year mystery solved” Or, wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.

Ankylosaurus at HMNS: 40 Year Mystery Solved

One of the oldest displays in the Houston Museum of Natural Science is our full scale recreation of the dinosaur Ankylosaurus.  This recreation of a late cretaceous herbivore was created by the Sinclair Oil Company for the exhibit “Sinclair Dinoland” which opened at the 1964-1965 Worlds Fair in New York. 

sinclair-articleDr. Barnum Brown acted as a consultant to world renowned zoological sculptor Louis Paul Jonas to create a paleontological menagerie of dinosaurs that would showcase the Dinosaurs of the Mesozoic.  This would be the end of Dr. Barnum Brown’s long paleontological career and association with Sinclair oil as he died shortly before the fair opened in 1964.

The dinosaurs were created at Louis Paul Jonas Studios and then transported to the fair grounds past New York City on a flat barge in a brilliant and surreal publicity stunt. You can hear the original audio from the Sinclair Dinoland exhibit labels from the 1964-65 Worlds Fair by clicking here.
 
In addition to carrying the Sinclair banner at national stops by train and flatbed trucks, the dinosaur sculptures were used by Sinclair in other advertising campaigns, such as this print ad featuring the Houston Ankylosaurus advertising the dinosaurs and the Dinoland exhibit. 

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The Jonas Ankylosaurus around 1970

After the closing of the fair, the models toured the country on specially constructed flatbed trailers. Visiting Houston in 1966 and 1968, the nationwide tours attracted millions of visitors. One of the Houston visits was to Gulfgate Mall- the first shopping mall in the city. The second, was to HMNS. The Museum, newly expanded in 1969, had empty space and the popularity of these visits was not lost on HMNS.

By 1969 the tour had ended.  Sinclair Oil was being bought out by Atlantic Richfield and the famous Brontosaurus logo was mostly retired.  Smithsonian Institute had declined the offer of the collection. The dinosaur menagerie was put into storage.

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The Sinclair Worlds Fair models as they appear now
taken recently on a HMNS Field trip.

Texas offered up a unique home.  Dinosaur Valley State Park, located along the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, was in its infancy. The park site contained scores of dinosaur tracks from the early cretaceous and initially it was thought that the entire collection would go to the newly created dinosaur themed state park. However, with the corporate take-over by Atlantic Richfield and competing interested parties, that deal fell through. The park became home for the Tyrannosaurus rex and the Brontosaurus, which can still be seen on display in the park. The remainder of the collection was distributed across the country.  These two models (seen left) originally had moving parts, the jaw opening and closing on the Tyrannosaurus and the neck moving on the Brontosaurus.  These simple motions thrilled the children of the 1960s and represented the first step in the creation of moving lifelike robotic dinosaurs such as the defunct Dinamation, and in 2008 the Toyota Center show Walking with Dinosaurs

So what is the Mystery?

Out of the collection, two dinosaurs are officially listed as whereabouts unknown. Thought by Worlds Fair Historians to be at the Cleveland Zoo and now listed as “lost,” the Ankylosaurus has been exhibited continuously at HMNS since 1970 when it was officially donated to HMNS by the President of Atlantic Richfield.  The Ornitholestes, however remains lost. The smallest of the Dinoland  sculptures at 6 feet long, this small dinosaur could easily be in some enthusiast’s living room, garage,  rock shop or pancake house anywhere in America.


How do you hide an elephant in a cherry tree? You paint his toenails red.

During the time the Sinclair Dinosaurs were touring the United States on flatbed trucks I thought this joke was very, very funny.  In a sense though, that is one reason the Ankylosaurus has remained “missing.” This is not for lack of looking or curiosity. Both the 1964-65 Worlds Fair and the Sinclair Dinoland exhibit have a substantial fan base today, and original souvenirs still sell for a premium.  

Cosmetic surgery is a popular trend now and to stay good looking the Worlds Fair Louis Paul Jonas’ Ankylosaurus had some work done- albeit not in plastic surgery but in fiberglass. So at the time when photographs of exhibits and artifacts were made available via the internet, the Jonas Ankylosaurus had a dramatic new paint job, a bellowing face lift and a dynamic repositioning of his derriere. The makeover also created a new formidable base featuring a large oak-like tree a not to mention a pack of harassing carnivorous Dromaeosaurs.  The missing Jonas Ankylosaurus commission has been hiding in plain sight in Houston Museum of Natural Science Paleo Hall for almost 40 years!

 The Jonas Dinosaur menagerie was conceived as being an outdoor exhibit, and after the fair and all the national tours, all but two of the sculptures in the collection ended up as open air exhibits. The Houston Ankylosaurus remained indoors and, though modified, it is perhaps the best preserved of the Sinclair Dinoland models.