T. rex to the max

The new T. rex statue, the centerpiece of the exhibit, has feathers on its head, reflecting scientific advances in the study of dinosaurs. Photo: Teddy Son
If you thought you knew Manhattan’s biggest and baddest resident, think again. Here are 10 surprising facts about the city’s favorite dinosaur and its exciting new exhibit
By Teddy Son

The American Museum of Natural History has opened a new exhibit starring its most famous resident — Tyrannosaurus rex. As it celebrates its 150th anniversary, the museum has pulled out all the stops to give visitors a look at the T. rex unlike anything the public has seen before.

“We know more about T. rex than we do about any other dinosaur,” said paleontologist Mark Norell, curator of the new exhibit, called T. Rex, the Ultimate Predator. “T. rex is very closely associated with this museum ever since Barnum Brown collected the first one, and the first one ever mounted was mounted here.”

The museum’s original T. rex exhibit has been adored by museumgoers for generations, and has been a centerpiece of the museum’s fossil collection since it first went on display in the early 20th century.

That said, both the museum and T. rex have come a long way since then, and the new exhibit showcases some mind-boggling new discoveries that have been made about the king of the dinosaurs. Here are five of them.

T. Rex Had Feathers, and So Did Its Family

Now that scientists have deduced that birds are direct descendants from dinosaurs, the link between the two is becoming clearer by the day. Even so, it’s still difficult to imagine the mighty T. rex covered in fluffy feathers. However, the evidence strongly suggests that it was. “We’ve never found T. rex feathers, but we’ve found feathers on very close relatives to T. rex,” said Norell. Indeed, some tyrannosaurs from China, called Yutyrannus and Dilong, have been proven to sport feathers, so it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that T. rex would have shared such characteristics.

T. Rex’s Family was Bigger Than Previously Thought

The tyrannosaur family includes around two dozen species, and those are just the animals we know about. These animals all differed in size and shape, but all shared enough characteristics with T. rex to include them in the prestigious family tree of the king. Norell said that the differences in these animals were most likely niche specializations, with some predators being gracile (slender build) and smaller, while others were bigger and bulkier, not unlike the differences between big cats today. Norell also said that they can all be linked with a number of specialized features, including the shape of their front teeth. “The front teeth are D-shaped in cross section,” he explained.

T. Rex’s Arms Were a Joke ... or Were They?

Sadly for the king, T. rex has also been the butt of many jokes regarding its puny arms. The fossils at the museum and the new exhibit all highlight the tiny arms of the dinosaur, no bigger than a human’s. However, it turns out that some of its smaller cousins had arms relatively bigger, compared to their body size. According to the new exhibit, it’s likely that these arms had a bigger role, to assist with hunting, when tyrannosaurs had smaller, weaker skulls. Once they developed massive skulls like T. rex, however, the arms had little to no purpose because the jaws would do most of the work. Then again, T. rex’s arms still had enough muscle to bench press around 200 kilograms, although that would still have been useless considering the sheer size of the animal itself.

Baby T. Rex’s Were Adorable Little Fluffernuts

Despite their immense size, T. rex did not start out big at all. In fact, T. rex hatchlings were no bigger than modern day chickens, and were covered with feathers to aid in insulation. A model infant T. rex greets visitors as they first enter the exhibit, and they can see that it is just a ball of fluff with sharp teeth and claws. One may have a hard time associating the hatchling with an adult T. rex, but hey, everyone has to start somewhere, right?

T. Rex Was Not the Biggest-Ever Predatory Dinosaur

Many people still believe that T. rex was the biggest meat-eating dinosaur to ever walk the earth. While there is no doubt that it is the most famous one, there were a number of carnivorous dinosaurs that outsized T. rex. Two massive monsters called Giganotosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus, closely related dinosaurs from South America and North Africa, respectively, were both longer than T. rex. Another dinosaur, called Spinosaurus, holds the title as the longest meat-eating dinosaur known to mankind, reaching over 50 feet in length. An unorthodox dinosaur, Spinosaurus was most likely a fish-eating animal, with crocodile-like elongated jaws and huge claws perfect for spearing and holding slippery fish. T. rex may have been shorter than these animals, but its mass was enough to rival, or even dwarf, all three of them.

The exhibit itself offers visual and hands-on experiences that fully do justice to its star. Here are five of its state-of-the-art features:

The Most Scientifically Accurate T. Rex Statue Ever Made

The exhibit’s centerpiece is a hulking T. rex statue unlike any other reconstruction presented in any museum anywhere. With a big belly and immense hind leg muscles, not to mention fearsome looking open jaws, the model captures the immensity and power of the animal. Again, the most notable feature on the model is the plume of feathers sitting atop the crown of the animal’s head, making T. rex look more like a rock star than a Jurassic Park movie monster. Tail plumes also adorn the tip of the animal’s caudal vertebrae. An unorthodox T. rex, for sure, but one definitely worth taking in more than once. You’ll have a hard time not looking at it.

A Cast of the Museum’s Resident T. Rex Fossil Skeleton

The museum’s T. rex fossil has stood proudly in the museum’s fossil halls for over a hundred years. The new exhibit takes it one step further by creating an exact copy of the fossil bones just for the new hall, and repositioning it in a more dynamic pose. Now in a more crouching position with its massive skull closer to the ground, the skeleton offers a new look at how T. rex would have moved in real life. A shadow projector also allows visitors to see how the famed fossil got its wear and tear, as well as a realistic look of how the animal hunted.

Virtual Reality: Build Your Own T. Rex

This particular hands-on experience has instantly become a crowd favorite. Allowing visitors to ‘build’ their own T. rex skeleton, the booth has been attracting visitors nonstop, with the line stretching all the way to the T. rex statue.

Survival Challenges

Various ‘survival challenges’ booths offer three scenarios that a visitor can choose from and then and see the consequences. For example, if you are a T. rex hunting an armored dinosaur, would you a) try to bite its armored back, b) try to disable it by going for its unprotected legs, or c) move on and look for an easier meal? Such challenges allow visitors to look at how survival in T. rex’s time would have been much easier said than done, and that even the king of the dinosaurs could never take anything for granted.

A Look at T. Rex’s Many Cousins

T. rex is the star of the show, it’s not alone in the exhibit. Statues of its cousins join it in the exhibition hall. Proceratosaurus, the earliest known tyrannosaur, kicks off the display, with Dilong and Xiongguanlong, two Chinese tyrannosaurs alongside. There are also a number of fossil displays of closer T. rex relatives, such as Alioramus and Tarbosaurus, two more Asian cousins of the king, and Nanotyrannus, which scientists still debate whether it was a separate species or just a juvenile T. rex. “Ít’s not just facts, we talk a lot about how we figured it out,” said Norell, “I really want people to know that science is a process. It’s driven by creativity, so you ask questions and try to figure it out.”

In that spirit, the new exhibit offers visitors both an educational experience and one of pure enjoyment. They can see and feel the new face of T. rex, learn troves of new information the animal, and spend fun, quality time with the most famous dinosaur species known to man.