But a new exhibition at London’s Natural History museum suggests the vicious monster of films such as Jurassic Park may have had a bad press.
“T-Rex – the killer question” asks whether the supposed monster meat-eater was instead a lumbering bully which lived on rotting corpses or used its bulk to rob smaller dinosaurs of their prey.
“I believe it was a scavenger pure and simple because I can’t find any evidence to support the theory that it was a predator,” palaeontologist Jack Horner said at the exhibition’s opening on Thursday.
Horner, the inspiration for Sam Neill’s scientist character in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, said the lumbering giant was too slow, its arms too small, and its sight too poor to catch anything moving.
On the other hand, the part of its brain dedicated to smell was huge and its giant jaws were bone crushers not flesh cutters.
“I believe it was a scavenger pure and simple because I can’t find any evidence to support the theory that it was a predator” –Palaeontologist Jack Homer
“Everything says this dinosaur lived on dead meat. Even statistically we find that plant-eating dinosaurs were far more common than predators, and T-Rex is the second most common dinosaur,” said Horner.
However, although Natural History Museum palaeontologist Angela Milner agreed that T-Rex was not built to run far or fast, she said there was nothing to suggest it could not catch and kill slow moving prey.
But she does think that falling over might have been a problem.
“Research in the United States suggests that falling over while running might have been fatal because of its bulk. But I think it was partly a scavenger and partly a hunter. I believe it could have killed old or weak animals,” she said.
Visitors to the exhibition will get the chance to make up their own minds over the next nine months.
But a show of hands by the group of children at the opening already suggested the likely answer – almost all said T-Rex was probably a combination predator-scavenger.
“The answer is that we will probably never be certain, but as long as we keep asking the questions we are serving science,” said Horner.