Tyrannosaurus Rex, the undisputed king of the dinosaurs, is perhaps not as fierce as we all thought.
That’s according to new research from the University of Manchester, which appears to debunk the popular myth of T-Rex as a ferocious, fleet-footed killing machine.
Far from running down its prey in a frenzy of blood and teeth, it seems Rex was a much more ponderous beast – more snore-us than saurus – lumbering through the Cretaceous like a bad-tempered elephant.
Running on Empty
Studies of tyrannosaurs’ running ability are nothing new. How the animal moved, how it negotiated its environment, it’s all crucial to understanding how it lived – the way it hunted, how it fed and reproduced…
What makes this latest study unique is how they did it…
The team, at Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, began by painstakingly mapping every bone in a T-Rex skeleton to create a digital model, adding virtual flesh to the bones based on anatomical research of birds and reptiles (Rex’s closest living relatives).
All this information was then fed into a sophisticated robotics simulator.
The results were staggering.
Initial estimates put the Rex’s top speed at around eighteen miles an hour, but further tests quickly revealed that anything above a brisk walk would’ve been fatal.
According to lead scientist Bill Sellers: “A T-Rex running at 18 miles an hour would probably have shattered its legs.”
And it’s all down to biomechanics.
A juvenile Tyrannosaur would’ve been fairly light on its feet, similar in size and weight to a modern-day ostrich, and just as swift – around 45 miles an hour at full tilt – more than enough to leave any human trailing in its wake.
But an adult Rex is a different story.
Because of the sheer size and weight of the thing, the forces involved are astronomical.
A two hundred pound man in full flight has to support around five hundred pounds of force each time his foot hits the floor; for an adult Tyrannosaur, weighing in at a scale-busting six tonnes, this equates to a bone-jangling thirty thousand pounds of pressure each time one of its colossal paws strikes the ground.
More than enough to make ripples in your Evian.
And that’s where science and cinema diverge, because unlike the CGI monster in Jurassic Park, apparently able to chase down a speeding jeep, our real-life Rex would’ve been left choking in exhaust fumes.
As Seller explains: “A T-Rex could go at about twelve miles per hour…no slouch, but not a fast runner.”
Twelve miles an hour is about running pace for you or I.
So how did it feed? How did this lumbering leviathan catch its prey?
Based on the data, Sellers believes T-Rex was most likely a scavenger or an ambush killer…and he’s not alone.
Do You Think He Saurus?
If Sellers is right, T-Rex would’ve had to rely on stealth rather than sheer brute strength, stalking its prey like a lion or tiger…
But Sellers isn’t the only brain in town.
John Hutchinson, for one, is sceptical, calling the work (with tongue firmly in cheek), “a very sophisticated computer simulation.”
Unsurprising, then, that Hutchinson’s own work, at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College, puts Rex’s top speed at a far more respectable 15 – 25 miles an hour.
And Hutchinson’s research ties in with another, more controversial theory: T-Rex wasn’t a scavenger at all, or in fact a lone killer stalking the primeval waste.
According to Dr Phil Currie, at Alberta University in Canada, Barney had friends. The T-Rex hunted in fearsome, bloodthirsty packs.
Bone of Contention
Currie’s hypothesis is based on two recent digs, one in the Gobi desert, another in his hometown of Alberta.
In both cases, palaeontologists unearthed multiple specimens, piled one on top of the other.
Currie’s take away – T-Rex lived as it died, in groups.
The mighty Tyrannosaur has fired imaginations ever since the first bones were pried out of the ground more than 200 years ago, and whatever the truth – packrat or lone wolf, fast or slow – it remains one of the most successful carnivores to ever walk the Earth, a colossus, bestriding the ancient plains…
Truly, king of the dinosaurs.