National Geographic

Drawing Tyrannosaurus – You’re Probably Doing it Wrong

The first Tyrannosaurus rex I ever met was horribly out of date. Propped upright in the Cretaceous dinosaur hall at the American Museum of Natural History, the snarling tyrant held the same tail-dragging pose that it had for the past eight decades, seemingly in defiance of paleontologists who were promoting an updated rendition of T. rex as a speedy killer with a more horizontally-oriented spine. The dinosaur’s new persona was struggling to subdue the old.

By 1994, the AMNH renovated their dinosaur halls and gave their T. rex a proper spinal adjustment. And the spectacular cinema dinosaurs of Jurassic Park instantly popularized the adjusted posture and supercharged nature of the tyrant. T. rex was not a tottering Godzilla wannabe. Yet, twenty years after Stan Winston’s dinosaurs tore up the screen and over four decades since the “Dinosaur Renaissance” sparked a major revision of the way we understand dinosaurs, the specter of the unbalanced T. rex  still clings to our imagination.

W.D. Matthew's reconstruction of Tyrannosaurus rex, showing the classic tail-dragging posture. This art appeared in H.F. Osborn's 1905 description of the dinosaur. Image from Wikipedia.

W.D. Matthew’s reconstruction of Tyrannosaurus rex, showing the classic tail-dragging posture. This art appeared in H.F. Osborn’s 1905 description of the dinosaur. Image from Wikipedia.

Ask an elementary school student to draw a T. rex, and they will probably depict the tyrant with a sloping back and drooping tail. College students are even more likely to make the same error. That’s what paleontologists Robert Ross, Don Duggan-Haas, and Warren Allmon found when they asked students to do just that in an effort to see how public perception of dinosaurs matches up with scientific understanding. Despite museum displays, carefully illustrated works of paleo art, and even blockbuster films, young students from elementary school to university envision the classic dinosaur in a pose that is strikingly similar to the reconstruction paleontologist William Diller Matthew drew over a century ago.

In the first illustration of a T. rex skeleton, published with the theropod’s initial description, the dinosaur’s spine sloped at an angle of 57°. Modern illustrations tend to depict the dinosaur with vertebral column held between 0 and 10° in respect to a flat surface. Most of the drawings by the sampled students didn’t even come close to the current representations. Within a sample of 111 Ithaca College undergraduates and 205 elementary to middle school students who visited the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York, students most often drew T. rex with a spinal angle of over 40°, with the college students being more likely to draw the dinosaur with the incorrect posture than precollege students. In the minds of some students, at least, T. rex is lagging a century behind the science.

T. rex at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History showing the updated, scientifically-accurate posture. Photo by ScottRobertAnselmo, image from Wikipedia.

T. rex at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History showing the updated, scientifically-accurate posture. Photo by ScottRobertAnselmo, image from Wikipedia.

Why should such a discrepancy exist? With the exception of a very few – such as the high-kicking T. rex at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science – reconstructions of the famous tyrant dinosaur in most of America’s major museums have been adjusted into more accurate poses, and modern T. rex have been stomping around movies and television documentaries for decades. Obviously the illustrations of precollege students involve a fair bit of imagination and artistic license – accuracy was not necessarily at the forefront of my mind when I scribbled dinosaurs in elementary art class – but why would university students taking a geology class be so far off the mark?

Ross and co-authors suspect that pop culture is the culprit. Despite scientific advances and some real outreach successes in updating the public image of dinosaurs, there’s a ton of dinosaur kitsch and crap out there that still presents T. rex circa 1905. Everything from cookie-cutters and cartoons to dinosaur-shaped chicken tenders and plush toys show T. rex in the wrong posture. Even “Buddy” from the popular kid’s show Dinosaur Train perpetuates the old T. rex imagery! Amazing, scientifically-accurate reconstructions and restorations of T. rex are totally swamped by oldschool images that establish the outline of what a dinosaur is from the time kids are first introduced to the prehistoric celebrities.

If you haven’t asked this already, by now you’re probably wondering why tyrannosaur posture matters. It seems a rather frivolous bit of dinosaurian arcana to get frustrated about. But even though this specific example might seem inconsequential, the trend Ross and colleagues found among the sampled students pinpoints a significant problem with the “deficit model” of science communication.

Comfortable assumptions to the contrary, the public is not some amorphous and empty vessel that will readily accept scientific knowledge as soon as they hear an expert speak. Some of the most pressing issues in science communication today are not going to be solved by more scientists simply speaking at greater length at at higher volume. The perpetually-broken back of T. rex in amateur art underscores the complexity of getting good science out to the public.

Not only have paleontologists and paleoartists been able to present up-to-date visions of T. rex in museum exhibits attended by millions each year, dinosaur experts have had great success at presenting their science through documentaries and even Hollywood films. Despite all this, though, everything from the toys museums sell to internet memes perpetuate discarded science. Getting people to understand something as simple as the way T. rex stood isn’t merely a matter of a paleontologist saying “This is the way the dinosaur looked” and the public responding “Huh. Ok. Thanks!” Scientific facts and imagery are intertwined with, and often compete with, pop culture tidbits that can distort even the simplest of findings. To replace those misunderstandings with what we know and how we know it, we must first identify how those misconceptions evolve. I doubt that awkward, wobbly T. rex are going to disappear anytime soon, but perhaps researchers can use these ungainly and incorrect dinosaurs as a springboard to explain how much more amazing  the real king of the tyrant dinosaurs was.

Reference:

Ross, R., Duggan-Haas, D., Allmon, W. 2013. The posture Tyrannosaurus rex: Why do student views lag behind the science? Journal of Geoscience Education. 61: 145-160

There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Sheril Kirshenbaum
    March 11, 2013

    Surely some of those students remember this, no? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jdx_zQLtme4

  2. Flippy Doodle
    March 11, 2013

    I think that perhaps most people think that the horizontal-spine is simply a posture – i.e. that the T-Rex is leaning forward and charging at it’s prey.

    And when people want to depict the T-Rex just standing around, not doing much, they think it should be drawn “standing up”, hence the vertical depiction of the spine.

  3. Zach Miller
    March 11, 2013

    Well, that’s depressing. Interesting that college students get it wrong MORE often. It implies they’ve stopped sucking up new information while younger kids still give a damn.

  4. Peteykins
    March 11, 2013

    I can’t remember who said it, but I always loved the description of T-Rex as “a teeter-totter with teeth at one end.”

  5. Sparticus
    March 11, 2013

    I’m kind of a dinosaur nerd so I’ve been drawing t-rex in the right posture since Jurassic Park (middle school, for me). I even toyed around with putting feathers on it for the lulz at points! XD

  6. HP
    March 11, 2013

    We’ve had a nesting pair of Canada geese overwintering at my office this year instead of heading further south, so I’ve been taking some time to look at extant therapod posture.

    I notice that the geese have a resting posture somewhere between the old Godzilla-style T-Rex and the new horizontal T-Rex. They also have a strongly recurved neck (cf. the Naish/Witton et al work of sauropod necks).

    OTOH, geese lack a heavily muscled tail, and have relatively massive breast muscles and forelimbs.

    But I have to echo Flippy Doodle in wondering whether the resting/alert posture of a T-Rex wasn’t more upright than is currently shown in reconstructions, if not exactly a “tripod” posture.

  7. 4u1e
    March 12, 2013

    Just as bad is the number of preschool books I’ve seen with three fingered T-Rexes.

    I thought having only two fingers on each ‘hand’ was the one thing everyone knew about T-Rex.

    Maybe I should tell my son that the three-fingered ones are Allosaurus, but that will only work until he can read!

  8. SP
    March 12, 2013

    Were they also asked to draw a mouse? If so, did it look like Mickey? If it did, would you conclude that most students think mice are bipedal?

  9. Adrian Tchaikovsky
    March 12, 2013

    I wonder, with the Rex posture example specifically, if there isn’t a bias because the old posture makes the animal taller. Taller = bigger = more impressive. You can’t do that Godzilla loom with the correct Rex posture. This might be another reason why the incorrect look has such persistence.

  10. BJ Nicholls
    March 12, 2013

    A couple of observations from an artist:
    Most people don’t draw most things very well. You’d think people would be good at drawing human faces if seeing faces portrayed accurately helped them to draw accurately. Most of us have to learn to filter out what our mental maps make us draw inaccurately. Most people will draw eyes much larger than life-size and will place eyes too high on the head (they’re really about mid way between the chin and the top of the head).

    And artists who do realistic figurative drawings have to do a lot of anatomical study to be able to imagine a figure and create a realistic image. There’s a reason we have all those wooden manikins and use live models. Some of us need them more than others, but its rare to find an artist that doesn’t have to grapple with perceptual biases.

    Frankly, although it’s interesting to try to extrapolate education from drawings, I think this says more about our perceptual biases than about science education. Would the study group draw pelicans any more accurately than Tyrannosaurs? I doubt it.

  11. JC
    March 12, 2013

    If i’m not mistaken, recent finds have shown that Tyrannosaurs were three fingered. The smallest most delicate finger rarely survived fossilization.

    [Tyrannosaurus retained a little splint of bone left from the third finger, but it's not something you would have seen looking at the dinosaur's hand. Tyrannosaurus and similar late, derived tyrannosaurs were definitely two-fingered carnivores. - Brian]

  12. Zach Miller
    March 12, 2013

    They retain a sliver of metacarpal, not actual finger. It would be like not having a pinky, but the “hand” part of the bone is still embedded in the meat of your hand.

  13. Jack Pollock
    March 12, 2013

    Interesting experiment, but I see a lot of substance in SP’s comment about asking the subjects to draw other animals like mice. Most people can’t draw. They can’t draw things they see everyday. They can’t draw their own likeness or that of their friends and family. The common child’s human figure is a round or oblate head atop either a stick or series or elongate rubberband shapes; looking more like a balloon animal than a human. It’s sort of like the statistics on people’s understanding of evolution. How many surveys also ask the public about their understanding of basic Newtonian physics? I think you’d get similarly alarming shows of ignorance.

  14. chris y
    March 12, 2013

    I blame Ryan North.

  15. John Hutchinson
    March 13, 2013

    I wonder how much of this is an artifact of drawing paper in addition to lingering obsolete concepts. A tilted-up T. rex fits better on a vertical sheet of paper. If you make students draw on a square or horizontally turne sheet of paper would results differ? Maybe not but would be fun to test this.

  16. Edward Martin III
    March 13, 2013

    Off the top of my head, I think we have a little trouble imagining something that powerful. We tend to build weaknesses into our popular monsters, and the meme of t. rex having useless stubby arms and being all upright is comical. Of course, I could be wrong, but I suspect it continues to exist BECAUSE it’s comical and because we need it to be comical (lest we accept that we aren’t A#1).

  17. Johnny O
    March 15, 2013

    T-rex was a scavenger. There was just too many large dinosaur carcasses rotting on the late Cretaceous landscape that would have provided a handy meal for it. Also, the dynamics of its legs don’t allow for it to chase prey in the same way that a lion does – but then again, the herbivorous dinosaurs of its time weren’t exactly antelope-like. Furthermore, please do not compare its legs’ stance to anything in bird: birds keep their femurs rigid, even when running; tyrannosaurs, on the other hand, swung their femurs as part of their gait.

  18. Ben J
    March 20, 2013

    I’m with Nicholls on this one. I’m an art instructor and my students have a tendency to make mistakes in drawings even after the facts have been presented to them. If a model did a pose where they were bending over, most of my students would diminish the angle of the back. Muscle memory plays a huge part in drawings so if someone is used to drawing upright figures, it will be a struggle for them to draw a biped that has a horizontal spine and a good sense of balance. I’d bet that art students would be more likely to get the angle of the back correct in a drawing than biology students would.

  19. Noah
    March 20, 2013

    Maybe it’s because WE stand upright.

    DUH.

  20. Tim
    March 23, 2013

    The T-Rex is called a T-Rex because, in profile, its silhouette is shaped like a T – spine and tail forming a perpendicular angle to its legs.

    Easy.

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