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Towering models, engaging interactives, and virtual reality bring the Tyrannosaurus rex to life

T. rex: The Ultimate Predator

Mark Norell, curator
American Museum of Natural History
Through 9 August 2020

Head down and jaws wide, drool running down its banana-sized teeth, the Tyrannosaurus rex is a nightmare incarnate. The unsettling eyes only add to the effect. Children are nudged forward by their parents to gaze at the king of the tyrant lizards.

No museum seems complete without this Cretaceous celebrity. The new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City only feeds the dinosaur’s fame, putting on the most elaborate celebration of tyrannosaur biology ever assembled.

T. rex has been a star from the outset. During the early 20th century, the AMNH’s own Henry Fairfield Osborn described not one, but two, enormous Cretaceous predators excavated from the American West by Barnum Brown and his field teams in 1905: Dynamosaurus imperiosis and Tyrannosaurus rex. Osborn soon realized that the two specimens were the same animal, and—given the choice—he picked Tyrannosaurus rex as the creature’s name. The museum quickly reconstructed a pair of tyrannosaur legs for display that led the New York Times to dub the dinosaur “the prize fighter of antiquity.”

© AMNH Library 121779

Charles Lang and Barnum Brown work on a T. rex skeleton in 1942.

The discovery of a third T. rex in 1908 was even better because it included a complete, if slightly smooshed, skull. Known to specialists as AMNH 5027, and reconstructed as a towering, tail-dragging monster by the museum in 1915, this skeleton became the standard image of the dinosaur for decades.

But it would be a mistake to think that what we know about T. rex today, and what the new exhibition displays, is the result of a slow and steady accumulation of data. T. rex has been a household name for decades, but the tyrant king was largely ignored as a reptilian aberration for much of the 20th century—good for drawing in museum crowds but of little scientific interest.

It was only from the 1970s onward, when paleontologists found reinvigorated interest in dinosaurs as animals, that the T. rex and its relatives received more detailed attention. What we’ve come to understand about T. rex is a case study of how much modern paleobiology differs from the “Bone Wars” days of scientific trophy hunting.

© AMNH/D. Finnin

A simulated CT scanner shows visitors how scientists study the T. rex.

Visitors enter the exhibition via a darkened room where a fuzzy sculpture of a baby T. rex stands before the animated shadow of an adult, while ominous music underscores where the journey will lead. What follows is a brief display of the dinosaur’s backstory—its discovery and ties to the AMNH—before opening into a paleobiological tour. Visitors participate through various activities and “choose your own adventure”–style puzzles covering everything from the dinosaur’s ancestry to what its skin might have looked like.

Some of the activities, such as a magnet puzzle in which different tyrannosaurs can be assembled in their appropriate habitats and a virtual reality experience in which visitors can reconstruct and then feed a digital T. rex, appear best suited for controlling visitor flow and entertaining younger dino fans. But a number of the interactives draw visitors in to consider tyrannosaurs on their own terms.

At various points, visitors are asked to think like a T. rex at different points of its life, deciding, for example, whether a hatchling should leave the nest to catch bugs for lunch, wait for parents to return with food, or wander further afield. Another interactive table lets visitors draw a simulated laser scanner over a facsimile of tyrannosaur poop, the bits of bone inside lighting up as the scanner passes, and revealing what the coprolite says about the dinosaur’s digestion.

© AMNH/D. Finnin

Dilong paradoxus
was the first tyrannosaur found with fossilized feathers

Most spectacular of all, however, are the life-size models of various tyrannosaurs scattered throughout the exhibition. There are multiple views of T. rex, decked out in various amounts of protofeathers to keep up with the dinosaur’s changing image. Relatives such as the fuzzy Proceratosaurus, Dilong, and Xiongguanlong, which have only more recently been welcomed into the tyrannosaur family, appear as well.

The dinosaur that emerges from the exhibition depends on the eye of the beholder. Visitors looking for an enormous chomp monster surely won’t be disappointed. Fossil fans who want to understand the life of the animal, from its growth through its running speed, will likely walk out with a better understanding of how paleontologists investigate dinosaur lives. Ultimately, there is little question that tyrannosaurs still rule the scientific and public imagination.

About the author

The reviewer, formerly known as Brian Switek, is the author of Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus and Written in Stone.