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Brendan Lynch
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Tooth is 'smoking gun' evidence that Tyrannosaurus rex was hunter, killer

Mon, 07/15/2013

LAWRENCE — Tyrannosaurus rex has long been popular with kids and moviemakers as the most notorious, vicious killing machine to roam the planet during the age of the dinosaurs.

From left, Robert DePalma II and David Burnham.So, it may come as a shock that for more than a century some paleontologists have argued that T. rex was a scavenger, not a true predator — more like a vulture than a lion. Indeed, a lack of definitive fossil proof of predation in the famous theropod has stirred controversy among scientists — until now.

“T. rex is the monster of our dreams,” said David Burnham, preparator of vertebrate paleontology at the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. “But ever since it was discovered in Montana and named in the early 1900s, there’s been a debate about whether these large carnivores were scavengers or predators. Most people assume they were predators, but the scientific evidence for predation has been really elusive. Yes, we’ve found lots of dinosaur skeletons with tooth marks that had been chewed up by something. But what did that really prove? Yes, these large carnivores fed on other dinosaurs — but did they eat them while they were alive or dead? That’s where the debate came in. Where was the evidence for hunt and kill?”

Now, Burnham is part of a team that has unearthed “smoking gun” physical proof that T. rex was indeed a predator, hunter and killer. In the Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota, Burnham and colleagues discovered the crown of a T. rex tooth lodged in the fossilized spine of a plant-eating hadrosaur that seems to have survived the attack. The team describes the find in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Burnham’s KU co-authors are Bruce Rothschild and the late Larry Martin, along with former KU student Robert DePalma II of The Palm Beach Museum of Natural History and Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

“Robert DePalma was a student here at KU doing his master’s thesis in the Hell Creek formation,” said Burnham. “He found a specimen that represents the tail of one of these hadrosaurs. It had a distorted-looking bone growth. He came to me and said, ‘What do you think is causing this?’ So we cleaned it and could see a tooth embedded in one of these duck-billed dinosaur vertebrae. Then we went to Lawrence Memorial Hospital and used a CT machine to scan the bones — and we saw all of the tooth.”

Previous evidence for predation included T. rex fossil discoveries with preserved stomach contents that included the bones of a young ceratopsian (e.g., Triceratops or one of its kin). However, there was no evidence to conclude whether the ceratopsian was alive or dead when the T. rex made a snack of it.

By contrast, Burnham said the tooth was definitive evidence of hunting, after carefully measuring its length and the size of its serrations to ensure that it came from the mouth of a T. rex.

“Lo and behold, the tooth plotted out just exactly with T. rex — the only known large theropod from the Hell Creek formation,” he said. “We knew we had a T. rex tooth in the tail of a hadrosaur. Better yet, we knew the hadrosaur got away because the bone had begun to heal. Quite possibly it was being pursued by the T. rex when it was bitten. It was going in the right direction — away. The hadrosaur escaped by some stroke of luck. The better luck is finding this fossil with the preserved evidence.”  

Because T. rex regularly shed its teeth, the predator went away hungry, but otherwise no worse for the encounter. It would have grown a new tooth to replace the one left behind in the hadrosaur’s tail. This could have been a typical example of T. rex’s hunting efforts, even if it didn’t result in a meal.

“To make an analogy to modern animals, when lions go attack a herd of herbivores, they go after the sick and the slow,” Burnham said. “Most of the time, hadrosaurs traveled in packs. This hadrosaur may have been a little slower, or this T. rex may have been a little faster — at least fast enough to almost catch a duck-billed dinosaur.”

This concrete proof of T. rex’s predation continues a long relationship between KU paleontologists and the theropod, which lived in North America during the Late Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago. KU graduate Barnum Brown discovered the first documented remains of the dinosaur in Wyoming in 1900.



Happy Kansas Day, Kansans! We caught sunflowers standing tall at the Grinter Family Farms just outside Lawrence last fall. You may wonder how the sunflower came to be the State flower in 1903 and we found an excerpt from Kansas legislation: Whereas, Kansas has a native wild flower common throughout her borders, hardy and conspicuous, of definite, unvarying and striking shape, easily sketched, moulded, and carved, having armorial capacities, ideally adapted for artistic reproduction, with its strong, distinct disk and its golden circle of clear glowing rays -- a flower that a child can draw on a slate, a woman can work in silk, or a man can carve on stone or fashion in clay; and Whereas, This flower has to all Kansans a historic symbolism which speaks of frontier days, winding trails, pathless prairies, and is full of the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present, and richly emblematic of the majesty of a golden future, and is a flower which has given Kansas the world-wide name, "the sunflower state"... Be it enacted ... that the helianthus or wild native sunflower is ... designated ... the state flower and floral emblem of the state of Kansas.

Have family visiting Lawrence? #exploreKU and take them to the @KUnhm like @ChrisCanDesign did. http://t.co/PTDSdpSakh
Explore KU: The Bells of Mount Oread KU’s Campanile, a 120-foot-tall timepiece that tolls automatically on the hour and quarter-hour, not only sounded in the 2015 New Year at midnight with 12 mighty gongs, but also regularly rings up memories for many Jayhawks – the 277 faculty and students who gave their lives during World War II, the graduates who walk through its doors at commencement, and aspiring students who have strolled through the Lawrence campus. (See http://bit.ly/1xjjwJj). For nearly 60 years, KU’s 53-bell carillon has been tolling the sounds of peace and serenity across Mount Oread since it was installed in June 1955 inside the landmark World War II Memorial Campanile, which was dedicated in 1951. (See http://bit.ly/1BoL9jv) The carillon is also a four-octave musical instrument, which is played with a giant keyboard and foot pedals. University Carillonneur Elizabeth Egber-Berghout (http://bit.ly/14fiBPl), associate professor of carillon and organ, climbs 77 steps up a spiral staircase in the bell tower to perform recitals several times a month.


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