When Dinosaurs Ruled The Mind #36: Dinosaurs Over The Years: Tyrannosaurus

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Tyrannosaurus rex.

Just the name is enough to give you shivers.

T. rex is perhaps the most famous dinosaur in existence. Everybody knows what a T. rex is, but not everyone has an up to date knowledge of how it may have actually looked. We’ve known about this dinosaur for more than a century, and it has remained a pervasive part of dinosaur pop culture. So many people have their own idea of what this monster looked like and how it behaved. Today, we’ll look at the history of this famous beast and recount how this creature was portrayed from the start of the 20th century to the modern day.

When Tyrannosaurus was first discovered, there wasn’t enough fossil remains to paint a complete picture of the dinosaur. We only the bottom part of the skull at first, leaving some of the earlier reconstructions looking a bit frog faced.

It wasn’t until later when scientists got a better idea of how the dinosaur looked that we got a much better image of Tyrannosaurus.

The above image, painted by Charles Knight in the 1930’s, remained the quintessential look for the dinosaur all the way up to the 80’s! For the most part (with the above image being one of the few aversions!) two legged dinosaurs were portrayed as walking upright with their tail dragging on the ground. So naturally, Tyrannosaurus was portrayed the same way.

A classic Tyrannosaurus museum mount. Ah the nostalgia.

From Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glenn Rose, Texas. Cool place to visit, just don’t take these models to seriously.

Actually a Tarbosaurus, but still gets my point across.

Upright T. rex with appropriately upright hadrosaurs (sarcasm).

See, it’s reconstructions like this that emphasize T. rex’s puny arms.

It wasn’t until scientist realized ‘if we have to break tail bones in order to mount skeletons like this they probably didn’t walk upright’ when Tyrannosaurus (and every other biped dinosaur as well) was mounted in the modern horizontal posture. Although this image was gaining ground with scientists at the time, it wasn’t until Jurassic Park came out when Rexy’s new look became imprinted in the public’s conscience.

First impressions are always important.

So from then on, the public accepted T. rex’s new stance.

This image remained unquestioned for several years until scientists stated to wonder ‘wait, could T. rex have feathers?” The idea was proposed before, and really started to get ground when it was discovered that tyrannosaurs were closely related to small coelurosaur dinosaurs, which are known to have feathers (it was once thought that tyrannosaurs were related to other large carnivorous dinosaurs like Allosaurus). However, many dismissed the idea, saying that tyrannosaurs were to big to have a large amount of feathered covering, much like large mammals today like elephants and rhinos are almost completely devoid of hair. Still, this intrigued artists to illustrate tyrannosaurs with at least as much feathers as elephants have hair.

Some feathers, but not enough to lose that classic T. rex figure.

But nobody was for sure until Yutyrannus was discovered with a large body of feathers.

Yutyrannus wasn’t a tyrannosaur (although it was thought to be at first) but actually an carcharodontosaur. Still, it was a large carnivorous dinosaur covered completely in feathers, so it was the OK for many to completely cover their Tyrannosaurs in feathers.

But you may ask yourself “what about those scaly skin impressions from a Tyrannosaurus?”

Well, those skin impressions prove a presence of scales, but they don’t disprove the presence of feathers. Perhaps Tyrannosaurus wasn’t completely covered in feathers like Yutyrannus was. Yutyrannus lived in a cooler environment than T. rex, and may have needed more covering. What if scientists discovered evidence of dence fur on woolly mammoth and woolly rhinos and then used that to prove that modern rhinos and elephants must have also been covered in fur?

I’m sure feather distribution varied from dinosaur to dinosaur, even ones who inhabited the same habitat (just like fur distribution varies from mammal to mammal). Still, I’m fairly skeptical that Tyrannosaurus had no feather covering. I believe it was there, but may not have been as extensive as other members of it’s family. However, we won’t know for sure until we find definitive proof, but until then we can always speculate.


Reconstruction showing off the scaled and feathered look.

One word: awesome.

My personal favorite. Kind of denotes the ferocity of an eagle and a grizzly bear.

Very few media attempts have portrayed tyrannosaurs with feathers, with the only ones coming to mind are the Gorgosaurus’ from March of the Dinosaurs…

…and a Tyrannosaurus from a movie called Dinosaur Island.

Wow, colorful.

I can find next to nothing about this movie, with only a trailer I found online to view. It doesn’t seem to be very high profile, and looks like a generic kids film anyway, but the dinosaur depictions are certainly interesting. I would love to do a review of it, but sadly can’t find very much information. That being said, we are in desperate need of a high budget mainstream dinosaur movie to ingrain the image of a feathered T. rex into the public’s mind. Sadly, I don’t think that will happen for a long while.


You are completely useless!

In the mean time, we can hope, speculate, and continue to make fun of depictions like this.

No, not this.

Look how adorable that is! We used to think that’s what you looked like.

Join me next time as I take a look at modern paleontology in my top 10 recent discoveries that have changed the way we look at dinosaurs (I’ll think of a better title later).

10 thoughts on “When Dinosaurs Ruled The Mind #36: Dinosaurs Over The Years: Tyrannosaurus

      1. I’ve been following Luis V Rey’s blog, and he says that he has seen some skin impressions that have greatly influenced his depiction of Triceratops, including the decision to add quill like structures to them. I’ll mention it a bit on the next post I’m working on, and I’ll leave a link on the post where he talks about it. I’m pretty sure these quills are a form of feathering, and stem from coverings that more primitive ceratopsians like Psittacosaurus had. And with the discovery of Tianyulong and Kulindadromeus, I’m pretty confident that feathers and feather like structures were found on pretty much all dinosaurs, at least when they were young (I don’t think large sauropods were fluffy, but their babies may well have been).


  1. I really admire your work, DG, and everyone is free to live his life, but why do you all call it Tyrannosaurus REX and don’t call the other dinos: apatosaurus AJAX, triceratops HORRIDUS ecc.
    What do you think is it because?


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