Are retro '90s Tyrannosaurs making a comeback?

4 min read

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Paleo-King's avatar
Well, I have to admit it.
It was tempting to draw large tyrannosaurs with a heavy coat of feathers. It proved VERY tempting. But I stuck to my guns and held out on it. Why? I wasn't convinced the evidence would favor it.

I had already seen pictures of skin impressions attributed to the neck and chest of T. rex, and they were scaly. But this wasn't published and therefore people were casting doubt on it (I wonder if they did the same when Yutyrannus photos showed feathers, before it was formally published and described?). Now some may ask what I have against feathered tyrannosaurids, since that is the new orthodoxy in much of paleo-art (just as lizard-like restorations were orthodoxy in the time of Knight and Burian). The answer is actually: nothing. But when talking about giant tyrannosaurids there was no actual evidence of feathered skin. Not only that, but being roughly 1.5 times the length of the still taxonomically controversial Yutyrannus, the largest T. rexes at 12 meters were over twice the mass, and in addition they were living in a time with warmer global temperatures and increased SO2 and volcanic activity.

I maintained that if T. rex had any feathers as an adult, they would probably be in very limited areas, for display. Something that big would not need them for insulation, and as a warm-blooded predator in the Maastrichtian epoch with rising global temperatures, it would likely overheat with a heavy coat of feathers.

Now we have a paper just out confirming that big tyrannosaurids were probably scaly over the majority if not all of their body surface - and that feathers were lost relatively early in the evolution of true Tyrannosauridae.
And this isn't some fringe paper in a fake journal by creationists or BANDits. It's Royal Society, and Phil Currie, Bob Bakker, Darren Tanke and Pete Larson are all among the co-authors. You don't get more solid in credentials than that. I don't even think Jack Horner would take issue with their scaly conclusion, given his historically conservative approach to dinosaur biomechanics and metabolism.

Now I can imagine some people having nightmares over their entire post-dotcom idea of a poofy T. rex being overturned. So what does this really mean for the big picture of tyrannosaurs?

Does it suddenly mean they were cold-blooded overgrown alligators? NO. Warm-bloodedness is not dependent on feathers or fur, especially not at those sizes.
Does it mean that they were unrelated to birds and we need to rip up the theropod family tree? NO. The paper states that the tyrannosaur lineage lost their feathers, not that they never had them.
Does it mean that all the old pre-Bakker images of sluggish tail-dragging T. rexes were correct? NO and no. These certainly weren't the only unfeathered tyrannosaurs ever drawn or painted, and definitely not the most anatomically informed (Burian was even famous for not looking at fossils or estimating proportions) - and just because the paper found that Tyrannosaurus, Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus, Daspletosaurus and Tarbosaurus were scaly over at least the majority of their body, it still doesn't mean that we have to burn The Dinosaur Heresies or throw four decades of warm-blooded paleo-ecology and histology evidence (and ever-improving paleo-art) out the window. It doesn't even mean that the ugly DK or Horizon/JP 'rexes of later years are suddenly more current. Those had lots of anatomical gaffes too.

But I'll tell you what it does mean... It means there's a good chance that the science-based Bakkerian and post-Bakkerian scalies are more accurate than a lot of feather-happy tyrannosaur images today.
What it does mean is that sleek, athletic, warm-blooded, fast-running and nonetheless scaly tyrannosaurs of the 80s and 90s - the "classic" scaly jumpsuit tyrannosaurs in all your favorite Greg Paul and Brian Franczak paintings from the heyday of the Dinosaur Renaissance - are probably the closest thing to a lifelike portrayal (aside from the hand posture). And you know what? That's not a bad thing at all.

Image result for greg paul t. rex  Image result for brian franczak t. rex 
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