World-famous paleontologist Dr. Robert T. Bakker shares the truth about T. rex

No one knows everything, you tell yourself, but after a conversation with Dr. Robert T. Bakker, Curator for the Morian Hall of Paleontology, you might believe there’s someone out there who does.


The world-renowned dinosaur expert is famous for his energetic and entertaining style, and imagining not only the shape and size and habits of creatures extinct for millions of years, but the entire ecosystems in which they lived. Using his imagination to peer through deep time, Bakker sees things other paleontologists wouldn’t — because he chooses to think “outside the box.” This week, he returns to the Houston Museum of Natural Science for three exciting events, sharing his wealth of knowledge on dinosaurs, natural history and geology.

Bakker arrived at HMNS Tuesday morning and hosted the premier of the NOVA science television event Making North America in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre. The show airs on PBS this November.

Wednesday night, he hosts his own lecture titled T. rex — The Shocking Truth at 6:30 p.m., also in the Wortham. Bakker says the presentation will raise an eyebrow about the common reputation of the famous Cretaceous carnivore Tyrannosaurus rex.

bob n rex hall-TrexDMNH

“For example, if you time travel, and it’s at night, and you’re just sitting there watching critters, you hear that the best thing to do is to just sit still,” Bakker said. “That’s what we learn from Jurassic Park. That’s just the wrong answer. T. rex will find you instantly, and all your friends, and the driver of the time-traveling minibus.”

T. rex was a “triple threat,” according to Bakker, with strong vision, hearing and smell, and it was a fast runner. As the apex predator of its time, it was an extremely successful hunter. But that’s not all it was good at. Turns out it was a gentle creature, too.

rex tickler exPages_50-51

Parent T. rexes showing affection.

“The T. rex made excellent parents,” Bakker said. “They were excellent partners, both male and female. If you want to choose really doting, effective, feeling, good role-model parents… be a T. rex.

If you’d like to know how Bakker determined this, you’ll have to come to the lecture, he said.

In spite of his love for the T. rex, a species that piques the imaginations of children and adults across the world along with the animal’s arch-nemesis, Triceratops, Bakker’s favorite dinosaur is and always has been Ceratosaurus.

Trex v ttops

T. rex battling Triceratops… and losing.

“It’s smaller, built lower to the ground, had a muscular tail great for swimming, very sharp, knifelike teeth and a horn on its nose,” Bakker said. “In fourth grade, I saw it in a book called The Fossil Book. And I took a shining to Ceratosaurus. The next year, my parents took us on a trip to Washington, D.C.”

In Washington, Bakker saw the fossil for the first time and was amazed.

“That will change your theology when you’re in the fourth grade in New Jersey,” he said.

The dinosaur is rare and the flexibility of its body and shortness of its legs suggest it probably was best suited to leafing through dense forest and marshland to hunt. The rare dinosaur was found with fish and turtles nearby, likely its primary diet, which would explain the tail suited for swimming, Bakker said.

trex headbump

T. rex squaring off with a competitor, using a head-bump as a fighting technique.

While his experience meeting Ceratosaurus affected him deeply, Bakker wasn’t interested in dinosaurs until he read a 1953 Life Magazine feature on paleontology written by Lincoln Barnett that spanned the entire issue, he said.

“It was arguably the most beautifully-written feature article ever written,” Bakker said. “It was this gorgeous safari through time, starting with the tiny microbes of the Cambrian, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, the Texas Permian red beds, mammoths. … It wasn’t weird prehistoric monsters. The reader asks how and why did these things evolve? … Things were related. The history of life made sense. And I announced to my startled parents that having read Life Magazine, I’m going to grow up and dig fossils.”

His parents continued to believe his affinity for paleontology was just a passing phase, Bakker said, up until the publication of his first book.

“By gum, they read it, and they finally got it,” Bakker said. “Dinosaurs are a part of the history of life on Earth, not a random monster parade.”

Meet Bakker in person at his lecture Wednesday, Nov. 4. and also this Saturday, Nov. 7 at the HMNS Dino Days event Breakfast with Dr. Bakker. Beginning at 9 a.m. on the Morian Overlook and moving downstairs into the Moran Lecture Hall, children and adults can have a meal with Bakker, share ideas about paleontology, listen to a presentation and have a blast doing a variety of dino activities.

Draw A Dino Contest: Winners!

Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who entered the Draw A Dino Contest, in honor of the world premiere exhibition of Leonardo, the mummified dinosaur in Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation.

We were totally amazed and overwhelmed by the fabulous dinosaur drawings that poured through our doors throughout the contest. The creativity – and scientific understanding – of our entrants is astounding.

The contest was judged by HMNS curator of paleontology Dr. Robert T Bakker, and winners were chosen in two categories: Scientific Accuracy and Artistic Effect. It was such a tough decision – and we were so impressed with every entry – that we’ll be posting a slideshow where they can all be seen – I hope you’ll come back soon to check them out – there are some very cool kids out there!

And the winners are…

Scientific Accuracy

Dr. Bakker picked Todd Blackmon’s drawing in the category of scientific accuracy because Todd did something very scientific – he labeled his drawing, pointing out the anatomy of T. rex. This is something Dr. Bakker himself always does in his drawings, because it helps people to learn and remember.

Here’s what Todd had to say about his winning illustration:

“My reason for entering the contest was to have fun. I wanted to follow the rules of the contest and draw T-Rex and point out his features. It was very challenging to look at the huge dinosaur and make him fit on a piece of paper.”

T. rex by Todd Blackmon

Artistic Effect

Dr. Bakker chose Myria Perez’ drawing for the category of Artistic Effect because of the compelling scene she created – a scene that’s both emotionally compelling and based on current scientific understanding of the circumstances surrounding Leonardo’s death, from the hypothesized flooding event to the cracks that can be seen in Leonardo’s abdomen today. If you visit the Dino Mummy exhibit, you’ll see just how accurate Myria’s artistic vision truly is.

Here’s what Myria had to say about her creation:

“Creating “Leonardo’s Death”
Creating Leonardo’s death was a thrilling experience!  I learned so much about his lifestyle.  Before I started the final drawing, I decided to have an action scene because I am certain Leonardo’s last moments were filled with action.  I wanted to draw a picture that showed that action and a lot of detail. 

The first sketch I did of Leonardo was just an idea based on what I could remember about the exhibit and how he died with the wound.  After the initial sketch, I went online to find pictures of Brachylophosaur and thought about different positions I could place Leonardo in.  I decided on a pose for him: slightly tipping, an open mouth out towards the sky, and his tail curved around the wound a Daspletosaurus gave his side. 

Leonardo’s last moments probably included rain and a flood to perfectly preserve him as a mummy.  I decided to have the water up almost to his knee, but with enough room to let you see the details of his wound.  One of my favorite parts about drawing this scene was there was a lot of splashing and action with the blood trickling down and the rain.  The blood from his side oozes from his side and then splashes in the water. 

I was able to show this by shading dark to light under the water ripples so it would look like it faded.  I found it challenging to show the rain hitting Leonardo and sliding down his body off into the water after being blown by the wind.  The part of the drawing that took me the longest was all of the small hard to see scales over the entire body of Leonardo.  The scales are larger on the front of his legs because he would have needed better protection to walk through the brush. 

Creating  “Leonardo’s Death” is a drawing experience that has changed how I will look at my future drawings.  “Leonardo’s Death” has been my most successful drawing so far!”

“Leonardo’s Death” by Myria Perez

Congratulations to Myria and Todd! They’ll both receive $200 gift certificates to Texas Art Supply – keep drawing! – and a signed dinosaur drawing by Dr. Bakker himself. And, thank you to everyone else who entered – we’ll be posting a slideshow of all their creative, fun and thoughtful drawings here soon.

Live from the Field: Until Next Time…

 That’s all folks: digging’s done for this year.

For the past week and a half, the HMNS paleontology team – led by Dr. Robert Bakker – has been back in Seymour, TX, digging for Dimetrodon at a site they’ve now been working for several years. (You can read more of what’s been found already in our daily blog from the field in 2007). Today, they said goodbye to the site for several months, after leaving it covered and safe for the coming winter weather, and pulling out a ton (possibly literally) of new material to study and prepare until then.

David Temple – our associate curator of paleontology and a one of our BEYONDbones bloggers– provides this series’ farewell podcast with a wrapup of their discoveries – and a review of the local cuisine.

Never fear! If you miss the daily update, stop by the museum – members of the team and Museum volunteers often work to preserve these fossils in public areas, like the Paleontology Hall or the Dinosaur Mummy CSI exhibition. You can also check out earlier updates from this dig trip:

Day One: Live from the Fossil Field
Day Two: The Smoking Gun
Day Three: New Discoveries
Day Four: Secondontosaurus Found?
Day Five: Mad Max
Day Six: Fossil Prep
Day Seven: Trench Warfare
Day Eight and Nine: Two for One!

Live from the Field: Two for One!

A Dimetrodon vertebra,
found at the team’s dig site.

Our paleontology team – led by Dr. Robert Bakker – is back in Seymour, TX, digging for Dimetrodon at a site they’ve now been working for several years. (You can read more of what’s been found already in our daily blog from the field in 2007). Today, they’re wrapping things up to come back to Houston – and they’ve sent us two updates.

In the first, David Temple – our associate curator of paleontology and a one of our BEYONDbones bloggers, talks about the darker side of Texas paleontology – cactus spines – and how you protect a dig site for the winter weather.

In the second, we’re pleased to bring you an update from Tim Quarles. Tim was a member of the team that found and excavated Leonardo, the famous mummified dinosaur that is now on display here in Houston. He was also there for our recent trip to Malta, where Leonardo was found. So, the team was thrilled that he happened to be in Texas for a few days, and was able to stop by our dig site.  In his update, Tim gives us his impressions from digging in the Permian for the first time.

You can also check out earlier updates from this dig trip:

Day One: Live from the Fossil Field
Day Two: The Smoking Gun
Day Three: New Discoveries
Day Four: Secondontosaurus Found?
Day Five: Mad Max
Day Six: Fossil Prep
Day Seven: Trench Warfare