More than 60 million years ago, a Tyrannosaurus rex thundered across prehistoric Montana, terrorizing prey with its killer roar, ripping flesh from bone with its 9-inch fangs, painting the nursery yellow and wondering where to register for baby shower gifts.
This class of dinosaur, perhaps the most fearsome carnivore of all time, is rarely presented as anything but a rapacious eating machine. Most any portrayal of the T. rex shows its cavernous jaws open and smeared with blood.
But new research shows a softer side to the tyrant lizard, a tender and nurturing quality one might associate with a mother duck. This particular Tyrannosaurus, chemistry now tells us, was not only female but pregnant. It stalked its prey for two.
“We all tend to think of dinosaurs as just skeletons,” said Lindsay Zanno, a paleontologist with N.C. State University and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. “It’s fun to think about them as real animals instead of movie monsters.”
This is, of course, a finding of enormous scientific weight.
Because of Zanno’s work with Mary Schweitzer, also an N.C. State and museum paleontologist, we now possess strong evidence that shows dinosaur gender – a new dimension to their bony remains.
We know that this T. rex’s femur contains medullary bone, a tissue found only in female birds and present only while they are laying eggs. We now know that pregnant dinosaurs carry a chemical fingerprint – a key to finding females in the future. Beyond all that, we can follow this evolutionary trail from egg-laying dinosaurs to egg-laying birds.
But being a layman’s layman, crude to my non-medullary bones, I’m interested in this research because it has fired my imagination on the topic of dinosaur love.
Zanno explained that we know virtually nothing about Tyrannosaurus mating habits. All those crests and frills they sported on their armored bodies might as well be Jurassic hood ornaments. They came standard with all models, male and female. Whether one Styracosaurus tipped a horn to another as a prehistoric form of winking, who can say?
But at some point, our T. rex gal in Montana must have caught the eye of a T. rex fella. Who was hunter, and who was prey? Who bit first, and who bit back? I like to picture T. rexelle raising her head from a Triceratops carcass, noticing a strong but silent male across the prairie and waving a tiny arm hello.
And then, once way leads on to amorous way, how does this reptile pair manage to ... you know. Thanks to YouTube and National Geographic, I have considered the example illustrated by both birds and crocodiles. But I am still mystified by the mechanics of T. rex reproduction. To my thinking, the tail presents a considerable problem, as do the stumpy arms.
Research in this vein presents the opportunity to reposition the world’s dinosaur exhibits in more revealing and thoroughly hilarious ways. Science, I trust, will forge ahead and present us with the details we crave.