Lambe’s Lazy, Scavenging Gorgosaurus | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Lambe’s Lazy, Scavenging Gorgosaurus

Back when tyrannosaurs were new to science, paleontologist Lawrence Lambe cast them as bumbling scavengers that ate rotten flesh

smithsonian.com

Gorgosaurus as envisioned by Lambe. Clockwise from the upper left - standing, sitting, in repose, and feeding. From Lambe, 1917.

There just doesn’t seem to be any way around it—almost any time a new study about the feeding habits of Tyrannosaurus comes out, there is at least one news story that frames the research with the question of whether the great Cretaceous carnivore was exclusively a predator or a scavenger. There’s no reason for journalists to keep going back to the well for the same opener. The overhyped argument made a splash during the mid- to late 1990s thanks to Jack Horner and Don Lessem’s book The Complete T. rex and a number of cable documentaries, but the debate has been over for years. As articulated by tyrannosaur specialists such as Thomas Holtz, Tyrannosaurus was an active predator but was not above scavenging if there was an easy meal to be had. In this way, Tyrannosaurus may have been something akin to a modern day spotted hyena—an adept hunter, but one also capable of crushing through bone and making the most of any Triceratops carcasses that might be around.

Part of the reason why the idea of Tyrannosaurus as an obligate scavenger took off was because it was presented as a novel and heterodox idea championed by a famous paleontologist. In television documentaries, especially, the argument was framed as a rebuttal to the classic idea of Tyrannosaurus as a powerful and nigh-unstoppable predator. But, as Horner himself pointed out in The Complete T. rex, “T. rex as a scavenger isn’t a new idea.”  About a century ago, when the tyrannosaurs were strange and new, the Canadian paleontologist Lawrence Lambe hypothesized that the huge carnivores relied upon rotting carcasses to survive.

Lambe named and initially described Gorgosaurus in 1914. The skeleton of the giant, carnivorous dinosaur was mostly complete, and Lambe focused on the basic description of the dinosaur in his first paper on the specimen. How Gorgosaurus made a living, however, Lambe saved for a more comprehensive 1917 paper. The picture that emer

About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

Read more from this author |

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus