Chasing Dinosaurs

Be sure to check out Tyrannosaur Chronicles for a scintillating read that tracks the giant 100 million year-old lizards

By Steve Donoghue

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Thu 21 Jul 2016, 10:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 22 Jul 2016, 12:58 AM

Dinosaurs ruled the surface of Earth for a mind-boggling 231 million years, and science has so far uncovered nearly 1,000 different species of every size, from every continent, in every type of ecosystem. Their fossil record expands virtually daily, and their variety extends to include herbivores the size of apartment buildings and wee things hardly larger than pigeons. And yet, despite all that staggering multiplicity and variety, when you say the word "dinosaur," only one kind of animal springs to mind: the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex. As David Hone admits right up front in his fantastic new book The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, the tyrannosaurs were "icons of evolution, and of dinosaurs as a whole."
Hone, a well-known dinosaur researcher based at Queen Mary University in London, is naturally aware of his subjects' star power. "Jurassic Park and King Kong would not have been the same without [them]," he writes, "and visitor numbers increase every time a museum displays a new skeleton or animatronic model." But the chief strong point of his book is how earnestly it puts substance ahead of flash; The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is much more than just a celebration of the most charismatic of dinosaurs - it's also an in-depth look at what we know about them, and how we know it, although Hone warns that given the speed of dinosaur research, his book will be "out of date by the time it is published."
Such cautions might be wise for Hone's fellow specialists, but general readers will find this book a wealth of research and detail very unlike the typical popularist look at dinosaurs. In these pages we get the whole story of tyrannosaurs as that story has unfolded to researchers since the first T. rex known to science was named by bone collector Barnum Brown of the Museum of Natural History in 1905.
The enthusiasm Hone brings to his subject touches on every part of the life of the "tyrant dinosaur," including the one that's perhaps central to our imagining of the Tyrannosaurus rex: eating. The creature's head was mostly mouth, and its mouth was mostly wrench-sized serrated teeth, but even here, there can be surprises: according to Hone, findings indicate that the T. rex was a more careful eater than popular imagination would have it. Fossilised Tyrannosaurus droppings contain smashed-up hadrosaur bones, he tells us:  "The digestive tract of a large tyrannosaur might well have been a rather hostile environment - the stomach is, after all, a big, churning sack full of acid - but this evidence does suggest some degree of oral processing before the hadrosaur was swallowed." (By "oral processing" our geeky author, rather adorably, means "chewing.")
The book has many astonishments, but the greatest ongoing one is just how much science can know about the details of these long-vanished animals. Using an array of inquiry methods, paleontologists have mapped out an incredible number of specifics about tyrannosaurs, their behaviour, their anatomy, their appearance, their evolution, and watching Hone reason through these specifics is unfailingly gripping. Whether discussing larger questions like the warm-bloodedness of dinosaurs (after hatching, tyrannosaurs grew very fast - one of many indications that they had the kind of high metabolisms that can only be supported by a warm-blooded metabolism) or even the picky details of how an animal the size of a full-grown T. rex got up in the morning (large animals can be ungainly, Hone tells us; "watching a giraffe get up in a hurry can be quite an education"), The Tyrannosaur Chronicles presents scientific investigation as a thrilling combination of discovery and informed guesswork. The book's subject would have ignored its prose and eaten its author, but everybody else will love it.
- The Christian Science Monitor

More news from