The first Tyrannosaurus rex I ever met was horribly out of date.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.
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.
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.
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