Quirks & Quarks·Q&A

The tall tale of the discovery of the T. rex

In his latest book, David K. Randall takes us back 120 years to the Gilded Age 'bone wars,' when there was a race between American museums to find and display the most impressive dinosaur bones and fossils that they could.

New book looks back at how the fearsome carnivore forever changed the world of paleontology

A child pets the nose of an animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex.
A new book tells the story of the historic discovery of the giant carnivore Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the way it changed our view of the history of life – and ourselves. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It's one of the most ferocious predators to ever walk the earth: Tyrannosaurus Rex. The animals could weigh as much as the largest African Elephant, and could crush their prey with a single bite from their sickle-toothed, four-foot-long jaws. Each bite exerted a force of some 6 tonnes. And the T. rex could run, too: with its powerful bipedal stride, researchers estimate it could charge along at up to 40 km/h.

No wonder author David K. Randall calls the iconic dinosaur "the monster from a child's nightmare made real."

In his latest book, Randall takes us back 120 years, to the first discovery of this fearsome predator, and the people who devoted their lives to bringing T. rex to the public. 

He spoke with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald about The Monster's Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How it Shook our WorldHere is part of their conversation.

A central character in your book and the discovery of T. Rex is a fossil hunter named Barnum Brown. Who was he?

Barnum Brown, he was born at this great time in terms of science, where dinosaurs were just starting to become recognized for what they were. So he grew up on a farm in Kansas and as he was following his dad through the fields one day, he started picking up the seashells and he started to wonder, why were there seashells buried underneath the ground in Kansas, which was 6 or 700 miles away from the nearest body of water? And that was the little match that started the fire. Essentially, he started to realize that there was this bigger world and history of the earth that you can find out by digging in the ground. And he became one of the premier fossil hunters of not only his day, but perhaps in history.

You describe in the book how he ends up in Hell Creek Formation in Montana. What was that area like when he arrived there in the early years of the 20th century?

It was basically the farthest you could get away from the East Coast and human population in general in the United States. It had the grim distinction of being the furthest from any railroad station within the United States and it was kind of the one of those last places, you know like kind of a blank spot on the map. And he was out there basically because there was a race between American museums at this time to find and display the greatest dinosaur bones and fossils that they could. 

A black and white photo of a man under an umbrella in the desert with a pile of massive rocks blown apart in front of him.
In this photo from the year 1940, Barnum Brown is excavating an incomplete Ceratopsian dinosaur fossil in the Big Bend area of the Rio Grand, Texas. Brown discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex in the year 1902. (Roland T. Bird/Keystone/Getty Images)

The American Museum [of Natural History], now it's known as one of the best repositories of dinosaur fossils in the world largely because of Brown. But at the time it was struggling. The head of the museum was this man named Henry Fairfield Osborn and he thought that his chance of becoming an important figure in American science, and by extension, science overall, really rested on finding impressive dinosaur fossils. 

Tell me about the discovery of T. Rex.

Nobody had ever found a carnivore of that size. Dinosaurs at this time were largely thought of as the long necked herbivores. Brown, he was scared at this time that he was going to lose his job. So he was desperate. He was searching through the Hell Creek Formation and he saw an outcropping of rocks and he decided to start digging there. It was incredibly hard rock so he ended up dynamiting the top off of it, and he looked down and he was the first human to ever lay eyes on a T. Rex.

What did he see? 

He saw the hips, he saw some of the neck, but most importantly, he saw some of the head. And he instantly recognized that this was a fossil that no one had ever seen before. And he also recognized how important it was going to be. Part of it was that museum-goers naturally seem to go toward carnivores, gravitate toward them, and part of that is because a carnivore implies a much different ancient or prehistoric earth and life and ecosystem than a herbivore does.

A dark and moody photo showing a skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex next to a similar-sized T-rex head that has been reconstructed with brown patterned skin, fluffy silver feathers, and a golden amber eye.
A model of a feathered Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur is on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Barnum Brown worked for the museum in the early 1900's, travelling the United States and Canada searching for fossils. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

What was the reaction of scientists and ordinary people at the time to this discovery of a carnivorous dinosaur?

It took them another ten years or so to actually clean the fossils and mount them in a display. But once it did, that's what really changed people's ideas of what a dinosaur was. And once they saw that, it almost created this existential crisis for many people because there was this idea that, wow, there's this animal that's so ferocious and so powerful, and I don't need to know anything about science, I can just look at those teeth and I know that it's scary. So how did this creature die out when it clearly was more physically powerful than humans?

People honed in on the idea that dinosaurs died out because of a lack of intelligence... And then they started to take that idea and shift it into humans.- David K. Randall

So that's where you started to get these different ideas about intelligence and eugenics and all these other things that you wouldn't necessarily associate with dinosaurs, but they started to filter into this idea of, how did humans survive and how do some animals survive and some don't? And it started making people think in a different way about human origins.

Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection had been published several decades earlier than this. So how were scientists treating these discoveries in light of Darwin's theory?

They were still trying to put the pieces together. This was before it was well established that a meteor hit the earth and that's what created the extinction event for the dinosaurs, and they really grasped onto the idea that it was intelligence that made dinosaurs die out. You even still see this in some portrayals of dinosaurs, you know, jokes that Stegosaurus had the brain of a peanut or something like that. We now know that a T. Rex was roughly as intelligent as a chimpanzee. They cared for their young. Other dinosaurs could hunt in packs, which implies a different level of intelligence. 

An old, sepia-toned photo of two men in a desert with a large bone unearthed in front of them.
Barnum Brown (left) and Henry Osborn (right) at Como-Bluff during an 1897 expedition funded by the American Museum of Natural History. (Harold William Menke/AMNH/Public Domain)

People honed in on the idea that dinosaurs died out because of a lack of intelligence more than anything else. And then they started to take that idea and shift it into humans and start to think, well, perhaps some types of humans are smarter than others and we need to protect the species by focusing on that.

You talk about that in your book: Osborn, who was in charge of some of the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, what he called the Hall of the Age of Man, tell me about that.

Osborn was somebody who really thought of himself as a higher case than everybody else, and he attributed much of that to his ancestry. He was, what we now easily say, very racist, a racist person. He thought that his so-called Nordic blood made him smarter and more intelligent and more important than others. So he had this position where he could use the public's desire to see dinosaurs and the spectacle of dinosaurs, and they could bring them into the museum. And then he would have other displays that subtly implied that white Anglo Saxons were the pinnacle of evolution. That all these other creatures died out because they lacked intelligence, because they lacked something else that white Anglo Saxons had in abundance. 

But you know, before going into this book, I would have never made a connection between dinosaurs and racism, it just doesn't seem like they would ever be part of the same conversation. But after working on this, you start to see how much dinosaurs were used as a lure to bring people in, and then to expose them to these pseudoscientific ideas. 

Produced by Dan Falk. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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