What did T.Rex look like?

Today’s post is by Bryony from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about fossils, please visit the Curator’s blogPalaeo Manchester.

Amazing Preservation – What Did T. rex Look Like?

“What did T. rex look like?” you ask… Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Just look at this picture:

t-rex_1Tyrannosaurus rex picture from label, Fossils Gallery, Manchester Museum.

Problem solved!

…Or is it?

Well, the honest answer is that it’s tricky to tell, fossilisation is a rare thing to begin with – only a few hundred dinosaur species described and named so far. To compare that to today, there are around 10, 000 species of birds in the world at the moment, and the ‘age of the dinosaurs’ actually covered so many millions of years that we should, theoretically, have multiple sets of different species for (for example) the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

This goes to show how exceptional a fossil is in the first place, and of course – as you’ve probably noticed – it’s generally only the hard parts that are preserved, such as bones and teeth. So how can we tell anything other than its basic shape?

I’ve given you a clue already by using birds rather than reptiles to compare to. With relatively recently-discovered fossils, it looking less and less like that many dinosaurs resembled what we would think of as reptiles at all …

Here, for example, is a picture of a dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx, discovered in the Liaoning province as part of an amazing deposit showing the “Jehol biota” in China – a wonderful ecosystem that we can see preserved in full, showing the flora and fauna of Northeastern China between 133 and 120 million years ago. This is thanks to it being part of a Lagerstätte, the term for an exceptionally well-preserved fossil site. The very fine volcanic ash from a nearby volcano means that we can see details we wouldn’t normally…

t-rex_2Sinosauropteryx fossil – a dinosaur shape with hairlike feathers on the outside. A closer look at the tail shows that this dinosaur was stripy. (Image from: naturalhistory.si.edu)

Look at those feathers! Now, Sinosauropteryx was a very early example of a theropod (that is, dinosaurs of this sort of shape, with two legs and a long tail) which means that feathers were probably present on the ancestral, basic forms of many other theropods that we’d recognise more from a lot later on in the timeline.

t-rex_3Cretaceous bird fossil from Liaoning, China, on display in the Fossils Gallery at Manchester Museum. Yes, this is a bird fossil rather than a dinosaur – notice the lack of tail!

Which all of course means that there’s exciting new information about the way larger theropods, such as T. rex, might have looked. This for example is a part of a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, known as the Yutyrannus huali – ‘Yutyrannus’ just means ‘feathered tyrant’.

t-rex_4Yutyrannus huali skull, showing short feathers on the outside (Image from: theconversation.com)

It was discovered quite recently, in 2012 – feathered tyrannosaurs had been discovered a little before then, but not large ones like the nine-metre-long Yutyrannus. To this date, Yutyrannus remains the largest theropod to be confirmed to have feathers.

These feathers aren’t for flying though – they’re much shorter and downier than that. It’s likely that they could have evolved for warmth – the Jehol biota was thought to be a colder climate than later on in the Cretaceous period. It could also serve a useful purpose if it was for display, like the striped tail-end of the Sinosauropteryx.

So, even though in a real-life Jurassic Park you might expect this:

t-rex_5Screencap from Jurassic Park (1993). Image from moviepilot.com 

What you might really get would be this:

t-rex_6A breed of chicken called the Silkie, bred with feathers very similar to those that dinosaurs had. Image from: backyardchickens.com 

Not quite as scary as he looks, is he?

t-rex_7‘Stan’ the Tyrannosaurus rex, looking imposing in the Fossils Gallery, Manchester Museum.

Bryony Rigby

P.S. Extra fact – also, actually, it would be called Cretaceous Park, as T. rex is from much later on than the Jurassic – about 60 million years away, which to put it in perspective is almost as long as the gap between us and T. rex… but that’s outside the scope of this blog post!

Find out more:

To read more about dinosaurs and fossils, visit the blog of the Curator of Earth Science Collections, ‘Palaeo Manchester’ – palaeomanchester.wordpress.com

Read more stories from the Fossils gallery from the Visitor Team:
Volunteers’ Week: What is a dinosaur?
The Bison – Emperor of the Forest
Talking With Dinosaurs
Stan The T. Rex Visited By ‘Long Lost Family’


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