Recently I was leading friend and fellow-writer Seth Mnookin through the Natural History Museum of Utah’s prehistoric exhibits when he asked a question that has popped up in my own mind from time to time–why is Tyrannosaurus rex so popular? There were stranger carnivores, and journalists love to delight in the announcements that slightly bigger theropods have dethroned the tyrant king. Yet T. rex remains the quintessential dinosaur.
Part of the secret, I think, is cultural inertia. Paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn named Tyrannosaurus rex in 1906, during a time when paleontologists were still dealing with a bare bones outline of what dinosaurs were like. Very few species were known from partial skeletons, much less complete ones, but Osborn’s field man Barnum Brown discovered two exquisite T. rex skeletons in rapid succession. The massive carnivore burst onto the scene as the largest carnivorous dinosaur ever found, and the second, more complete skeleton Brown discovered was quickly turned into an iconic mount that inspired many generations of paleontologists.
T. rex remained unchallenged until the mid-1990s. After nearly a century at the top, it was impossible to knock down the heavyweight. No museum display was complete with at least a T. rex tooth, if not a cast of a skeleton, and films such as King Kong and Jurassic Park underscored the savage power of the dinosaur. From the time of its discovery, we have celebrated T. rex as the acme of destructive dinosaurian power. The dinosaur so dominated the cultural landscape that it overshadows all others.
But, as Seth pointed out while I laid out this hypothesis, the dinosaur’s reputation is fully deserved. Some giant carnivores might have been a little longer or heavier–we don’t really know, since they’re not known as completely as T. rex–but there is no question that T. rex was among the top four gargantuan dinosaur predators and the biggest meat-eater in its Late Cretaceous ecosystem. Even though our general image of the tyrant has changed, from changes in posture to the addition of fuzz, T. rex has remained the biggest and baddest dinosaur from America’s badlands. The reputation of T. rex has not been diminished. To the contrary, the more we learn about the paleobiology of the theropod, the more fearsome T. rex becomes. And to that, I say “Long live the king!”