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King of Dinosaurs: Was the tyrant poultry?

New tissue samples coming from a 70-million-year-old bone of a T-Rex resemble those of an ostrich. Did the huge dinosaur wear plumage?



Did Tyrannosarus Rex wear feathers like this rooster in Bhutan?
Picture by T. Micke

Tyrannosaurus Rex has been the most fascinating dinosaur for generations of children. There is hardly a nursery where a plastic toy of the huge dinosaur doesn't come storming into dolls' houses and Lego villages to spread a little fear and create some change. But often he is also the reason why little children suddenly become interested in a museum visit to learn more about biology, history or science.

Surprisingly we hardly know anything about this giant. For example it is still not clear if T-Rex was a cold-blooded animal like lizards and crocodiles or a warm-blooded animal like birds or mammals. Some say he was as fast as 70 km/h while others think he could only make 18 km/h. Was he brown, green, striped or colorful? Maybe he wasn't a hunter but a scavenger. About a year ago Chinese scientists managed to prove that some dinosaurs did wear plumage after all. Maybe T-Rex did as well? Had the scariest animal of the Cretaceous period a feathered skirt? It seems unbelievable but possible.

The main reason for our nescience is that T-Rex has been dead for 65 million years and the only thing we still have left of him today are his fossil bones. And even those are very rare and usually incomplete. For example until this day only 3 complete skulls have been found. If scientists now find bones of a T-Rex they do their best to conserve them instead of fractionalizing them like a team of US-scientists in Montana did.

Mary Schweitzer and Jack Horner made a sensational find when they took the bone apart: they were able to take some soft elastic tissue out of a hipbone. The tissue looks like blood vessels and bone cells and under the microscope it has a fascinating resemblance with the tissue of an ostrich.

Although it can't be ruled out that this spectacular find actually didn't come from the dinosaur, there are already a lot of speculations being made. Will more soft tissue be found in older bones? Are the egg-laying dinosaurs direct ancestors of birds after all? And were they therefore warm-blooded and wore at least partial plumage to keep up their body temperature? Would it be possible to resurrect T-Rex just like in "Jurassic Park" if DNA would be found in some bone tissue?

Prof. Mary Schweitzer: "I think it is quite impossible. But it is however possible that T-Rex had something like feathers, especially his pups." The toy industry will probably keep on producing T-Rex dolls without feathers.


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© A report by Tobias Micke (10-04-05) – Contact