Pity poor Tyrannosaurus rex. He may have been the carnivorous king of his prehistoric jungle, but he lived no life of leisure.
Sure, he "could" have bitten a Buick in half, but forced to prey on herds of fast-moving, vegetarian behemoths - and fight off his own cannibalistic kind - he often died early, a battered wreck of a 10,000-pound giant.
T. rex fossils have been found with broken bones, open wounds, holes in the head and scrapes.
In reality, dinosaurs with a yen for veggies were far better off.
The perception of dinosaurs continues to evolve, making them ever more fascinating to Robert T. Bakker, curator of paleontology for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, who got hooked on the subject as a kid reading a 1954 Life magazine article.
"In that year all dinosaurs were coldblooded, slow, stupid, bad parents, usually green, stuck up to their armpits in some fetid swamp and totally extinct - and all of those things we now know to be wrong, totally wrong," he said.
Despite learning of those disheartening limitations, Bakker was intrigued by the implied energy behind the supposedly plodding beasts.
And since then, he has done much to vindicate the objects of his admiration from such character assassinations, as have his colleagues.
"We've learned that big plant-eaters like triceratops and brontosaurus were not plodders at all," he said. "They were high-stepping and fast. Some of them were pretty dang smart, they weren't stuck in the swamps, and they were superb - I repeat superb - parents, paragons of parental values. That makes them even more interesting."
"Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries", which opens Friday at Houston Museum of Natural History, reflects this relatively new perception. The exhibit includes recent major fossil finds, computer simulations and life-size models.
Mark A. Norell, chairman and curator of the division of paleontology for the American Museum of Natural History, is the curator. It's entertaining and educational, he said, whether or not you're a dinosaur nut.
"People - whether they're really interested in dinosaurs or not - become interested by symbiosis," Norell said. "It's a combination of real specimens, new technologies and 3-D images that foster that kind of learning experience."
Dinosaur fossils have been observed for millennia, though their true nature was elusive. They were thought to be the bones of dragons or even giants. T. rex, which means "tyrant lizard king," was found in 1902 in Montana. It lived during the late Cretaceous period, about 65 million to 66 million years ago.
The story continues to evolve because - biggest shocker of all - dinosaurs are not extinct.
"You can proclaim, you can shout down the hall, that dinosaurs are not extinct, because birds "are" dinosaurs," Bakker said. "They're not cousins, they're not nieces and nephews, they're not relations that crossed the bayou. They "are" dinosaurs. If you want to understand the essence of Tyrannosaurus rex, you must think big bird, really big bird."
Still, the big guys aren't rampaging through the streets today. What happened to them?
Norell said it's impossible to say for sure.
"Even though we know that a meteorite hit the planet, we know the climate was changing, we know volcanoes were erupting," he said, "I don't think you can point to one thing. It's much more complex than that."
Norell was part of the team of scientists who, in 1998, announced the discovery in northeastern China of two 120 million-year-old dinosaur species, both of which show clear evidence of feathers. He also discovered the fossil of an oviraptor nesting on eggs, which proves parental care and establishes another link to modern birds.
Finds such as these have influenced pop culture. Dinosaurs in the first "Jurassic Park" film, released in 1993, looked and moved differently from those in subsequent movies in the series, Norell said.
"In the newer movies they are feathered, agile and active, smart and warm-blooded," Norell said. "We wouldn't expect these things - from what the inside of their heads look like - to be slow, sluggish animals. We would expect them to be highly active animals."
Despite all this, many adults persist in thinking of dinosaurs as lizardlike slugs - if they happen to consider them at all. Today's dinosaur experts - other than paleontologists - are largely found in elementary-school classrooms.
"The most dino-literate part of the public anywhere are the second-graders," Bakker said. "Kids' books evolve so fast that any new breaking research on dinosaurs shows up in a kids' book or on a TV show in a few months. It makes you want to go back into the second grade."
Bakker said role-playing kids like to pretend to be Tyrannosaurus rex, but they'd be much healthier as plant eaters.
"If you want to live a long time, be a vegetarian," he said. "A zebra lives longer than a lion, a water buffalo lives longer than a hyena. It's really hard to be a top predator."
Still, T. rex was fearsome. He may be related to birds - bird-type feet, chest, heart, kidneys and lungs - but that didn't make him a pushover. Just imagine a rotund, 10,000-pound, earthbound eagle giving you the eye.
"If you have a pet parakeet, treat it with respect - it has powerful kin," Bakker said.
DINOSAURS: ANCIENT FOSSILS, NEW DISCOVERIES
When: Friday-July 30
Where: Houston Museum of Natural Science, 1 Hermann Circle
Tickets: $15 for adults; $10 for children, seniors and college students
Information: 713-639-4629 or www.hmns.org
Watch: a robotic, 3-D Tyrannosaurus rex walk.
Touch: the surface of a 150 million-year-old fossil of an apatosaurus' foreleg.
Marvel: at mounted dinosaur skulls.
Travel: to the prehistoric Liaoning Forest in eastern Asia, a re-creation of a 130 million-year-old site.
Experiment: with DinoMorph technology that allows scientists to reassemble fossils.
View: the Dinosaur Prophecy, an action-filled film in the Burke Baker Planetarium. $6 adults; $4 children.
Photos: 1. WALK THIS WAY: A 6-foot scale model illustrates how paleontologists and other experts study the ways dinosaurs move; 2. SET IN STONE: A cast of a fossil of a Sinornithosaurus millennii.
Source Citation:Mcclelland, Eileen. "DINOSAUR KING; Being T. rex is for the birds; Expert clears up misconceptions about dinosaurs." The Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX) (March 7, 2006): 1. General OneFile. Gale. Alachua County Library District. 16 Oct. 2009
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