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.

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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.

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“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.

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Parent T. rexes showing affection. Illustration: Luis V. Rey.

“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.

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T. rex battling Triceratops… and losing. Illustration: Luis V. Rey.

“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.

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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.

HMNS is warming up for Spirits and Skeletons. Are you?

For thrills and chills and looks that kill, there’s no Halloween party bigger or better than Spirits and Skeletons at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Hundreds of costumed creatures pack the museum floors each year for drinks and dancing and a ghoulish good time. Where else can you celebrate with the hottest crowd in Houston, surrounded by huge dinosaur bones, real mummies and live creepy crawlies? The answer is nowhere.

From 8 p.m. to midnight on Oct. 31, we’ll open all four floors to the public (21 and up) with 30 cash bars spread throughout the museum, five food trucks outside for a quick bite and two DJs to get your bones moving. With numbers like that, you can count on a good time, but if you’re a visual learner, check out these shots from previous years.

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You can’t bust a move in costume underneath a Triceratops or a T. rex unless you’re at HMNS. Don’t miss the chance to party in the Morian Hall of Paleontology for Halloween.

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Outside the front doors, take a break from the dance floor and grab a bite to eat. With five of Houston’s best food trucks, you’ll find something to munch on.

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While you’re chowing down, you can meet a character or two and show off your fancy costume. Come dressed for success, though. For our party, folks can really bring it. You can go sweet and cute…

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…or scary and traditional.

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You can go as a supervillain…

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…or go completely nasty.

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Maybe get silly like this half-man, half-dog from Spaceballs…

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…or put your hard-earned dollars to good use.

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Go aboriginal…

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…or take an original spin on the native look. Taking a friend or five can open up even more ideas.

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Pay homage to your favorite cast of characters…

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…be members of the crew…

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…or put your heads together, and who knows what you’ll come up with?

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Maybe you just broke out…

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…or just broke out some teeth. However you choose to dress, just remember, this is HMNS, where you never know what you’ll see around the next corner.

Don’t miss Spirits and Skeletons this year! It’s the most fun you can have in costume. Tickets $50, members $25.

Additional note: Throughout the month of October, keep an eye on our HMNS social media platforms under #ChillsatHMNS for Halloween tricks and treats to warm up for the big party. Because at the museum, we do spooky up big. Look us up on Facebook for holiday highlights, drop in on Instagram for 31 Days of Skeletons and follow our story on Snapchat for Halloween humor. Scan our Twitter feed for updates on all things museum and streaming video feed through Periscope.

 

 

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.

Dinosaur Drama Makes for a Stellar Documentary: Dinosaur 13 screening coming to HMNS December 9

Join Peter Larson and Robert T. Bakker at HMNS for lecture and final screening of Dinosaur 13 in the Giant Screen Theatre Tuesday, December 9.HMNS Dinosaur 13 screening December 9

When paleontologist Peter Larson and his team from South Dakota’s Black Hills Institute made one of the world’s greatest dinosaur discoveries in 1990, they knew it was the discovery of a lifetime — the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found. The dinosaur quickly became known to the world as ‘Sue,’ named after amateur paleontologist, Susan Hendrickson, who located the first fossil fragments of the historic find.

Larson recalls the exhilaration of the find, and of toiling in more than 100°F to recover the skeleton before it could be damaged by weather, oxidation, and other forces of erosion: “We all wanted to see what the skeleton was going to look like,” Larson says in the film.

“It was – it still is today – the most exciting, the most wonderful excavation – the most incredible thing we have ever done,” his brother, Neal Larson echoes.

Through interviews with the principal players in the story that unfolds, filmmaker Todd Miller portrays what happened next. Shortly after the excavation, a ten-year battle ensued with the U.S. government, powerful museums, Native American communities, and competing paleontologists over the legal custody of Sue. 

Academic paleontologists were outraged that a historic find would be planned for exhibition at a commercial facility (the Black Hills Institute), Native American communities filed complaints that the find was improperly removed from land that belonged to them. And, in an unusual argument, the federal government requested nullification of the sale of the prospect rights for the fossil by the landowner, who now also argued that he had never intended to sell Sue to Larson. 

In the government’s view, the fossil had become land, making it inappropriate to transport, attempt to auction, or purchase Sue without legal standing. Larson and his crew soon found themselves fighting for their own freedom. 

To celebrate the global television premiere of Dinosaur 13 in the US on CNN on Thursday, December 11, Lionsgate and CNN are presenting a special screening of Dinosaur 13 on the giant screen at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on December 9.

For more information about Dinosaur 13, please visit www.cnn.com/dinosaur13.

Lesson learned from Sue?
Being a dinosaur hunter takes great “Rex Appeal”— what happens when art, technology and politics blend into one epic tale.

So what happened to Sue?
With help from Disney and McDonald’s, Sue was purchased by the Field Museum at an auction in 1997 for $8.36 million. Since May 2000, she has been on display in the entry hall of the museum. She has been seen by an estimated 20 million visitors there.

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Sue at the Field Museum

Want to learn more about this amazing story?

If your answer is yes, you are in luck. We have 3 ways to learn more — all wrapped up in one fantastic evening at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on December 9.

  1. Peter Larson and Dr. Robert Bakker—live and in person—will share the inside scoop on the story of Sue.
  2. See the new documentary Dinosaur 13 on the Museum’s giant six-story screen.
  3. Purchase Peter Larson’s book Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life, which he will sign for you, and read it cover to cover before midnight. (HMNS was able to secure a stash of this out of print book acclaimed by paleontologists.) “[this is] the book anyone who loves dinosaurs must have!” says Dr. Robert Bakker.

Lionsgate & CNN Films present a film screening and panel for Dinosaur 13 followed by a lecture by Peter Larson and Robert Bakker, Ph.D.
Tuesday, December 9, 6 p.m.
Houston Museum of Natural Science 

Join paleontologists Peter Larson and Dr. Robert T. Bakker for a lecture on this important period in paleontology, followed by a screening of Dinosaur 13— featuring Larson and Bakker – presented by Lionsgate and CNN Films.

Paleo activities for kids of all ages begin at 4:30 p.m. in the Grand Entry Hall. McDonald’s open until 6 p.m. Book signing by Peter Larson and Dr. Robert T. Bakker will follow the program.

Click here to purchase tickets in advance.

Want Peter Larson to keep you posted on his dinosaur finds?
Follow him on Twitter: @PeteLarsonTrex

Dinosaur 13 Peter Larson