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All the Times Science and Pop Culture Tried to Make the T. Rex Less Badass

Jurassic Park III, I’m looking at you

The Tyrannosaurus rex was officially discovered in 1902, and for the first 90 years of its known existence, the T. rex’s stature as king would go pretty much unchallenged.

Now, there were little hiccups along the way, of course: In 1912, for example, the notably larger Spinosaurus aegyptiacus was discovered, but it was an incomplete skeleton that was later destroyed during World War II (more on the Spinosaurus later). Then there was T. rex’s losing fight against King Kong in 1933.

Outside of that, though, both science and popular culture generally respected the Tyrannosaur’s singular stature. But this would come to a crashing halt in the 1990s, starting with a single line of dialogue from Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park: “Don’t move: He can’t see us if we don’t move.”

Despite the fact that both the 1990 book and the 1993 film Jurassic Park gave the T. rex its proper reverence, there was one glaring error in their portrayal of the T. rex which would undermine its real-life ferocity: Its vision. In both the book and the movie, the T. rex is said to have “visual acuity based on movement,” which means — as quoted above — it can’t see you if you don’t move. In the book, this was introduced as a suspense-building plot device, explained away as the T. rex’s vision being limited due to the frog DNA in its system (some frogs do suffer from this, it’s true).

While the film would mostly only improve upon the book (sorry nerds, the movie is better), this trait was carried over for the cinematic version of Rexy, but with the excuse about the frog DNA dropped. Instead, Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant just states this as if it’s known fact.

In reality, however, the T. rex’s vision was believed to be pretty fucking spectacular — similar to that of a hawk, if not better, and up to 13 times better than a human’s. If that weren’t enough, it also had a ridiculously good sense of smell, so there’s no way in hell that he wouldn’t find your stinky ass if you were standing right in front of him, moving or not.

All of which brings us to some of the other recent knocks on the king of the dinosaur’s reputation…

“T. rex doesn’t want to be fed. He wants to hunt.” — Dr. Alan Grant, Jurassic Park
The idea that T. rex was a mere scavenger, rather than a majestic super-predator, was first introduced by a paleontologist named Lambe in 1917, but the debate really only heated up in the 1990s when paleontologist Jack Horner (the real-life inspiration for the character of Dr. Alan Grant) popularized the idea. Since then, debate has raged over the T. rex’s eating habits, among both excitable dino-crazy schoolkids and paleontologists alike. The issue at the heart of it is the fact that T. rex has both traits of a scavenger and a predator. As Wired puts it, “Powerful jaws, impact-resistant teeth and huge size are all associated with predatory behavior. An enhanced sense of smell, small eyes and puny forelimbs are associated with scavenging.”

Horner cited the arms, the relatively slow speed and the bone-crunching teeth as evidence for the T. rex as a scavenger. Further evidence came when fossil records showed that a T. rex had also fed on other dead T. rexes. On the other hand, in 2013, a fossil of a hadrosaur was found with a T. rex tooth imbedded in its body amid fresh bone growth, meaning that the hadrosaur had been attacked by a Tyrannosaur and then lived to grunt about it later.

Occupying the middle ground is a 2011 study that weighed the physical attributes of the T. rex along with the census of dinosaur bones found in its hunting ground. The conclusion was that the T. rex wasn’t totally a scavenger and not totally an apex predator: If anything, it was comparable to a hyena, hunting, scavenging and taking advantage of whatever prey it could get its tiny wee hands on.

This middle ground is where most paleontologists have landed in recent years, with even Horner telling me, “Most evidence suggests T. rex was an opportunist, likely taking down the sick and old, or scavenging.” Regardless, Horner adds, “Scavenger, predator or opportunist, T. rex was obviously a ferocious creature.”

Well… mostly.

“I love you, you love me.” — Barney the Dinosaur
In 1992, the single-most un-intimidating Tyrannosaurus ever envisioned would debut on PBS. Barney the Dinosaur was a squishy, purple, straight-toothed, kid-friendly, song-singing icon that lasted for 13 seasons. It was so popular that it even spawned a theatrical film, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and an endless supply of merch.

“I love that Barney has been able to add to kids’ interest in dinosaurs,” says Bob West, the voice actor behind Barney. And while, as a father, I can appreciate that, another part of me feels like that cuddly menace undermined the T. rex’s terror-factor for a whole generation of kids. (By the way, if you’re keeping up, yes, I interviewed both Barney and the legendary Jack Horner for this piece. That’s how much I care about T. rex’s reputation.)

Anyway, back to Barney. West shares that while Barney may have debuted as a dinosaur, in the original plans he was actually going to be a living blanket, which, if you think about it, makes a lot more sense. West adds, “I think it was natural for the character to evolve into a dinosaur, though. Because part of the core concept of the show was to help kids see that even something that seems scary can turn out to be a positive (or at least manageable). And hey, we’re talking about the smallest of kids here, so it makes sense for the ‘Big Purple Guy’ to be presented as a cuddly vegetarian, rather than an apex predator that sees them as a light snack.”

Fair enough. Still, if you’re like me and you’ve had quite enough sweetness for one T. rex article, please enjoy this video of the Barney balloon being torn to shreds by the wind in the 1997 Macy’s Parade (presented with my personal apologies to Mr. West):

“What if Andy gets another dinosaur? A mean one? I don’t think I can take that kind of rejection.” — Rex, Toy Story
It began in September 1995, when it was announced that a predator larger than T. rex had been discovered in Argentina. Giganotosaurus was about 43 feet long versus T. rex’s 40 feet and weighed about 14 tons, whereas the T. rex was believed to weigh about nine. Since then, a few other larger-than-T. rex dinos have been found, such as Tyrannotitan, Carcharodontosaurus and Mapusaurus, all of which would later be dwarfed by Spinosaurus (hold on, it’s coming).

“Well, we clocked the T. rex at 32 miles an hour.” — John Hammond, Jurassic Park
The next assault on T. rex came in October 1995 from Purdue University’s Dr. James Farlow, who argued that the T. rex could run no faster than 20 mph because if it tripped, it’s forearms couldn’t break the fall and it would die. A 2017 study would slow the T. rex down even more, saying that its body mass would prevent it from going faster than 12 mph. This, frankly, is more depressing than I can bear, so let’s just move on.

“I don’t like confrontations!” — Rex, Toy Story
The final bit of business from 1995 came in November with the release of Toy Story. While I have no ill will toward Rex or the beloved character actor Wallace Shawn, Rex’s fidgety, nervous, cowardly nature hardly helped T. rex’s image. Hell, he couldn’t even play Buzz’s video game right.

“Is that a tyrannosaur?”
“I don’t think so. It sounds bigger.”
— Exchange between Billy and Dr. Alan Grant, Jurassic Park III
Now, there are other shitty Tyrannosaurs in popular — and also wildly unpopular — culture, most of which were from family-friendly fare. There was the lovably cute Chomper from the Land Before Time movies; the hawaiian-shirt-wearing Roy Hess from the sitcom Dinosaurs; John Goodman’s golf-playing Rex from We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story; the adorable, miniature-sized Elvis from the Prehysteria films; the doglike T. rexes from Night at the Museum and Meet the Robinsons; and, lest we forget, Whoopi Goldberg’s sidekick in the abysmal buddy cop film Theodore Rex. None of them, however, have stuck in the craw of T. rex-loving moviegoers quite like the T. rex in 2001’s Jurassic Park III.

In what’s easily the worst of the original Jurassic Park films, the T. rex is quickly dispatched by the much bigger Spinosaurus inside of one minute, by snapping the T. rex’s neck. Now, yes, the Spinosaurus was definitely bigger than T. rex, there’s no disputing that: It measured 10 feet longer and weighed up to 23 tons. But as a lifelong T. rex fan, I had a huge problem with not just the fact that the T. rex had died, but how it died. Snapping T. rex’s neck? I never bought it. So I asked Horner, who was technical advisor on the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films, what he thought.

“Spinosaurus was an obligate pisovore, eating fish,” says Horner. “Spinosaurus was an aquatic animal that likely didn’t leave the water. Its bite force was strong, but nothing like that of T. rex, [who] was a bone crusher. Spinosaurus would not have stood a chance against T. rex. Jurassic Park III needed a villain to dispatch one of the rexes, and the Spinosaurus was fictionalized to do the dispatching.”

And that settles it. Fuck you Spinosaurus.

♪ Oh, he couldn’t masturbate because his arms are too short
They feared him from Kilpatrick down to Galway Bay Port
Luckily he found a wife so he could have sex
The non-masturbatin’ Tyrannosaurus rex ♪
— Irish Folk Singer, Family Guy

In 2009, things hit a new low. While T. rex’s teensy arms had been a source of comedy before — e.g., Toy Story and Gary Larson’s Far Side comic strip — in 2009, the internet meme of the sad T. rex was born. It began inauspiciously, with a strip by artist Christian Blethen, which showed several species of dinosaurs joyously masturbating, while the T. rex just cried due to his limited reach. From there the joke has only grown, and now you can find countless images online of T. rex being woefully inadequate at a great number of tasks, all because of his puny arms.

While I know it won’t stop the meme, I would like to note here that despite their small size, a T. rex’s arm could likely lift as much 430 pounds, even if he couldn’t use that strength to relieve those dino-sized blue balls (or whatever they had).

“Baby T. rex was an adorable ball of fluff.” — Mindy Weisberger, LiveScience
The piling on of the T. rex also continues in the science realm. Just a few weeks ago, a piece in LiveScience was published with the headline “Baby T-Rex Was An Adorable Ball of Fluff,” and the article summarized an exhibit on the Tyrannosaurus rex at the American Museum of Natural History. Now, the debate about whether or not T. rex had feathers has been a semi-recurring one pretty much since the T. rex was discovered: Since 1861 and the discovery of the feathered Archaeopteryx, scientists have known that some dinosaurs had feathers. And since the T. rex’s closest living relative is the chicken, it having feathers probably shouldn’t be that surprising.

In popular culture, however, most representations of the T. rex have been a scaly, featherless beast, so most of the public sees it this way. This image of the T. rex seemed to be confirmed in a 2017 discovery of actual fossilized Tyrannosaur flesh which showed that T. rex had scales, not feathers, but it still leaves room for the idea that the T. rex may have had plumage on its back. Indeed, that new exhibit at the Museum of Natural History does show a T. rex with feathers along his back like the mane of a horse, and at the tip of its tail like a lion’s fur.

There’s not much need to worry about this, though. The adult T. rex still looks pretty badass in a punk sort of way — it’s just the baby T. rex that’s the problem, as he indeed looks like an adorable ball of fluff.

“To be honest, I’m so uncomfortable in my own skin that I want to tear it right off my body.” — The Low-T. Rex, MEL
Much to my dismay, even we here at MEL have gotten into the practice of taking down the T. rex a few notches. Since the debut of our weekly comic strip The Adventures of the Low-T. Rex, about a Tyrannosaur with low testosterone, writer Nick Leftley and artist Brendan McGinley have depicted Rex as a weepy, insecure, muffin-topped, self-loathing, bow-tie-wearing weakling, who can’t even bake a cake without fucking things up.

The Adventures of the Low-T.Rex: Raw Shark

While this strip is clearly just Leftley and McGinley working through their own mental health issues in as roundabout and ineffective a manner as possible — even for men — I still worry that by reading and enjoying these comics myself, I have become part of the problem. By writing this article and compiling all of these Tyrannosaurian inadequacies in one place, in fact, I have probably only further undercut the great king of the dinosaurs.

The eight-year-old me would be so ashamed.