T. rex: the greatest celebrity of all time

David Hone tells us all we could ever wish to know about our favourite dinosaur in his comprehensive Tyrannosaur compendium

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: The Biography of the Tyrant Dinosaurs David Hone

Sceptre, pp.304, £16.99, ISBN: 9781472911254

Tyrannosaurus rex is the greatest celebrity of all time. The 68–66 million-year-old carnivore is far older than any actor or musician, including Keith Richards, and yet is still must-have talent for Hollywood blockbusters, comics, museum displays and more. But all that fame comes at a cost. There seems to be as much mythology as science surrounding the ‘tyrant lizard king’. The paleontologist David Hone seeks to slice through fiction and chew over fact in his new book The Tyrannosaur Chronicles.

From the title, you can be forgiven for thinking that this is the journal of an angsty T. rex. Rather, Hone has written a handbook to almost everything you’d want to know about the celebrated dinosaur and its various kin. Early on, he points out that when he wrote the book there were 29 recognised tyrannosaur species spanning about 165 million years — with the recently named timurlengia bringing the total to an even 30. T. rex and other late Cretaceous giants get all the love, but the very first tyrants didn’t really deserve the title at all: they were small saurians no more than two metres long, with long arms, thin snouts, and covered in downy fuzz. Tyrannosaurs stayed this way for tens of millions of years, only becoming Jurassic Park’s giants in the last 20 million years of their reign.

All of these additional tyrants get some space — creatures such as lythronax, nanuqsaurus and oianzhousaurus so new that they’ll likely be unfamiliar to most readers — but even they are overshadowed by the mighty T. rex. As Hone himself acknowledges, that’s because T. rex is undoubtedly the most studied prehistoric creature of all time: there’s simply more to say about it because more research has been conducted on it. The dinosaur is as beloved by scientists as by the public, and so almost every idea or study generates more debate.

Take its food, for example. There’s a widespread impression that T. rex was nothing but a filthy scavenger, lazily horfing down carrion instead of hunting for itself. This idea did not come from any fossil find or study, however; it was popularised by the paleontologist Jack Horner in the 1990s as a way to kick the fossil hornets’ nest and get his colleagues to test assumptions about the tyrannosaur’s predatory abilities. Thanks to Horner’s authority, and basic cable television documentaries popularising the idea, though, the image of scavenging T. rex had legs, and so Hone goes into detail in hopes of dispatching the myth once and for all. The anatomy of the dinosaur, healed bite wounds on other dinosaurs, and what we know about prehistoric ecology all underscore the fact that T. rex hunted live prey but wouldn’t pass up a free meal if it sniffed one out.

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles will do more than update readers on the nitty gritty of T. rex and its kin, though. In due course Hone covers the way dinosaur species are named, how their relationships to each other get sorted, what we know of dinosaur ecology, the mechanics of evolution, and more. T. rex is the star attraction here, but Hone continues to put the dinosaur through its paces as an ambassador for paleontology and what we know about dinosaurs. What was true for T. rex was also true of many other dinosaurs, and so, by trailing T. rex, Hone also delivers an updated view of the ‘terrible lizards’ as a whole.

If there’s any drawback, it’s that the book exists in a strange place between popular science narrative and textbook. Every page is packed with dinosaurian information, but Hone’s writing style is a little dry. Diehard dinosaur fans won’t mind this, but casual readers may have a more difficult time plodding through the basics of dinosaur anatomy and systematics. The book, contrary to the title, is not so much The Tyrannosaur Chronicles as a Tyrannosaur compendium.

Nevertheless, in a single book Hone has been able to offer an up-to-date and exhaustive look at almost everyone’s favourite dinosaur. What emerges is not T. rex the movie star or T. rex the monster, but a living, breathing animal that we are really just beginning to understand. This was a carnivore that walked, slept, pooped, mated and, yes, ate, and new finds are allowing us to envision all those processes with greater clarity than ever before. The animals themselves are long dead, but through science and imagination the tyrannosaurs will continue to sink their teeth into our minds.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.99. Tel: 08430 600033. Brian Switek blogs about palaeontology for Scientific American and is the author, among other books, of My Beloved Brontosaurus.

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Show comments
  • the tyrannosaurus was and always be the original bad a** dinosaur, some try to dethrone it’s popularity (spinosaurus and etc.), but this dinosaur is already too popular as it is the 1st time.

  • Ambientereal

    ” … the very first tyrants didn’t really deserve the title at all: they were small saurians no more than two metres long … ” So what? the very first mammals from whom we descend where the size of a rat and looked quite alike.

  • Jack Rocks

    I remember visiting the Natural History Museum many times as a child and seeing the t-rex they had there. Compare today’s more enlightened view of dinosaur physiology with what we had back then – the Diplodocus dragging its tail along the ground for example, with its neck stuck our horizontally as if grazing on grass. They’re so much more dynamic now, and so much more interesting with it.

    • jeffersonian

      It’s fascinating how this area of natural history has evolved. I recall books from my childhood (1970s) where all the larger dinosaurs were portrayed half-submerged in swamps, since the current thinking at the time was that a sauropod couldn’t possibly support its mass on land without (literally) breaking its bones. Now we know that even the great sauropods not only walked on land, but ran on land, and even managed to stand on their hind legs when reaching for food.

      • Father Todd Unctious

        Like the one Fred Flintstone used at the Quarry. WILMA !.

  • Father Todd Unctious

    Well it was mainly Marc Bolan. But Mickey Finn was great too.

  • Mr Grumpy

    T. rex fans should head for Berlin, where the only real (not a cast) one in Europe has just gone on display.

  • Hippograd

    Don’t forget the masterly work of Chuck Tingle!