Neck posture, yet again: T. rex‘s neck is pathetic

June 3, 2009

Here at SV-POW! Towers, we often like to play Spot The T. rex — a simple drinking game that can be played whenever you have supply of palaeontology-related news reports.  Each player in turn takes a report off the stack, and if T. rex is mentioned anywhere in the report, the player drinks.  We lay in a lot of beer when we play this game, because as it turns out, T. rex is nearly always mentioned (and nearly always spelled “T-Rex”, no italics, no full stop, gratuitous hyphen, capitalised trivial name).  For example, suppose someone publishes an innocent paper arguing that a particular Eocene clam was an obligate scavenger: then the story in the press will be “… just as has been argued for the terrifying T-Rex, which had teeth like steak knives”.  Or if someone names a new Miocene rodent, it will be introduced as “… which lived 50 million years after the terrifying T-Rex, which had teeth like steak knives”.   (Drink twice if the steak knives are mentioned.  Three times if they are described as “banana-sized”.)

So we didn’t feel our neck-posture paper was real until it had somehow been tied in with T-Rex.  Happily, the Great North Museum came to the rescue: by coincidence, they unveiled their T. rex cast the weekend before the paper came out, and the Sunday Sun wanted our opinion on the way the neck had been mounted.  Here’s their mount (not quite ready to exhibit):

Tyrannosaurus rex mounted skeleton at the Great North Museum.  From journallive.co.uk

Tyrannosaurus rex mounted skeleton at the Great North Museum. From journallive.co.uk

Of course, everything we said about the necks of sauropods in the paper also applies to every other extinct land vertebrate — we only concentrated on sauropods because (A) they are the group whose neck posture has been claimed to depart from the tetrapod norm, and (B) they are cool.  In particular, non-avian theropods such as T. rex are in the same extant phylogenetic bracket as sauropods are (i.e. birds plus crocs), so we’d expect strong extension at the base of the neck and strong flexion at the head joint in habitual pose.

So I replied that “the Newcastle mount has the neck and torso in more of a straight line [than a Vidal-compliant posture], which would probably not have been the habitual pose.  It looks to me as though this animal is crouching down to take a drink”, and I’m pleased that the resulting news story included a rather gracious response from the GNM curator.

I don’t know whether the notoriously litigious Disney corporation would be so mellow, though, regarding their truly horrible mount of a cast of “Sue”:

Tyrannosaurus rex "Sue" cast, at Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Florida.  From wwarby's Flickr photostream.

Tyrannosaurus rex "Sue" cast, at Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Florida. From wwarby's Flickr photostream.

I’m really not sure what the people who mounted this were getting at: unlike the Great North Museum mount, the legs are erect, so it’s not going into or coming out of a crouch; and it’s not going into a drinking posture, because the head is pointing straight forward.  But for some reason, it’s below shoulder height.

Here’s how it should be done:

Tyrannosaurus rex at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Mike Taylor

Tyrannosaurus rex at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Mike Taylor

It’s good to see that the biggest natural history musuem in the world is ahead of the curve, and has its T. rex mount in a pose consistent with how other land vertebrates habitually hold their necks.

I leave you with the news the T. rex‘s neck is pathetic.  Here is the skull and neck of that same AMNH mount, composited with a single cervical vertebra (C8) of Sauroposeidon.  Please note that the Sauroposeidon cervical is way longer than the whole T. rex neck.

T. rex's neck is pathetic

T. rex's neck is pathetic

No references today!

[You don't need to be told the reference for Taylor et al. (2009) again, do you?]

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29 Responses to “Neck posture, yet again: T. rex‘s neck is pathetic”

  1. Matt Wedel Says:

    I’m really not sure what they people who mounted this were getting at: unlike the Great North Museum mount, the legs are erect, so it’s not going into or coming out of a crouch; and it’s not going into a drinking posture, because the head is pointing straight forward. But for some reason, it’s below shoulder height.

    Well, it’s Fred Flintstone’s dog, see, and it’s pointing a Stone Age duck(bill) that Fred has just shot with his azhdarchid-a-pult.

    But the Flintstones are a Hanna Barbera property and now owned by Warner Bros. Maybe the Disney T-Rex (note proper newspaper spelling) is sniffing out a copyright infringement…

  2. Nathan Myers Says:

    It’s ducking its head because it thinks you’re shooting at it. “Wow, that one barely missed!”

  3. Vertebrat Says:

    You know you’ve been reading SVPOW too long when you see the Sauroposeidon cervical in that last picture and think, hey, that looks familiar… :)

  4. Zach Miller Says:

    Holy shit–Sauroposeidon must be the longest dinosaur that ever lived, or perhaps longest animal that ever lived.

  5. Casey Says:

    Not to defend Disney, but the mount you have posted was put together by RCI, Research Casting International. So the Mouse is off the hook for that one. However! During the Sue preplab years down there, there was a large tent-pavilion called the “Dinosaur Jubilee” which was populated with various Black Hills casts (e.g., Stan) and several Triebold mounts. It was a nice setup. A hurricane was coming through and the Jubilee tent and its contents had to be struck. Afterwards, Disney (not BHI) reassembled the casts and mounts. Lo and behold, arms were backwards and upside down on numerous casts and there was the potential for mass hysteria if more than 2 paleontologists had strolled through. Stan’s scapulae were concave up, Hesperornis’ legs were scratching its skull, and it was the Pachycephalosaurs that were mincing around tent with odd “high-five” arm postures. The other Jubilee denizen was a bronze Acrocanthosaurus skull at floor level. People would stick their little kids in its mouth…and imagine that… little kids would show up at the infirmary with small scratches and puncture wounds on their thighs. So, the lovely bronze teeth were sanded down. fun times… Casey

  6. Peter May Says:

    Hey Matt,

    After mounting well over 500 skeletons we have independantly come to the conclusion that T-rex, sauropods and many many other vertebrates can move their necks and heads up and down and side to side. It’s nice to see that different skeletal poses can create such an animated discussion and in this case a published paper.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hey, Peter, good to hear from you. We did give you mad props for your excellent work on the Berlin brachiosaur remount — see this page if you haven’t already: http://svpow.wordpress.com/2008/11/27/shedloads-of-awesome-part-1-the-humboldt-brachiosaur-remount/

    But just because an animal CAN adopt a particular posture doesn’t mean that it did so habitually. Humans can crawl on hands and knees, but that’s not how our skeletons are normally mounted in museums! If you were involved in the Disney T. rex, it would be interesting to know more about the pose: what did you envisage that it was doing?


  8. Well, the head and neck on the AMNH 5027 mount are great, but don’t get me started on the hindlimbs… Cast from a more robust individual, reconstructed with a too-broad, too-short, non-arctomet foot: ARGH!!!

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    Mike, I think you’re overreaching in your criticism of the Disney Sue. The Vidal posture is the alert posture, which is often different from the posture an animal adopts during locomotion and feeding. And that mount is clearly supposed to be locomoting.

    Also, people are not compelled to mount their skeletons in the Vidal posture. Any posture that an animal might reasonably adopt in life ought to be fair game, as you pointed out following the criticism of the NHM Diplodocus. So what is the Disney Sue doing? Probably sneaking up on her prey. Mammalian and even reptilian carnivores often adopt that head-straight-out pose when they’ve spotted their prey and are closing in. What say?

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Matt, maybe you’re right — heaven knows I am no expert on theropod locomotion — and of course it’s true that people can mount their skeletons in whatever the hell posture they like. Still and all, the Disney mount doesn’t look to me as though it’s doing anything that animals normally do — unlike, as I’ve said, the Great Northern T. rex, which looks like it’s part way through sitting down or standing up.

    There’s also this one at the California Academy of Sciences: http://sanfrancisco.about.com/od/attractionslandmark1/ig/California-Academy-of-Sciences/Altered-State-Rex.htm
    Looks like its body is posed to as though to reach up, but the head’s changed its mind and is reaching down. Weird.

    (That’s in contrast to the NHM Diplodocus, whose neck and torso seem in harmony with each other — probably more inevitable with quadrupeds.)


  11. How’s the neck of the T. rex mount in Philadelphia?


  12. The new Carnegie T. rex mounts are particularly nice, in my opinion. As they are arguing over a dead Edmontosaurus, they have a reason for their mouths to be open.

  13. Matt Wedel Says:

    Looks like its body is posed to as though to reach up, but the head’s changed its mind and is reaching down. Weird.

    I have seen birds do this–raise the body and lower the head–in displays or battles. That said, that mount does not immediately suggest a dominance display. FWIW, it’s even uglier in person. I used to get to Cal Acad fairly often when I was at Berkeley, and I have never been around a mounted T. rex that I spent less time looking at.

  14. anon Says:

    “the terrifying T-Rex, which had teeth like steak knives”

    I’d like to thank you for allowing me to finally figure out what T. rex was doing with those puny little forelimbs: it not only had an impressive battery of steak knives, but a perfectly adequate set of pickle forks.

  15. Nathan Myers Says:

    And here I thought it only used its claws like chopsticks.

    Of course it had to toss its nigiri morsels in the air and catch them in its mouth, because it couldn’t reach, but that only added to the fun. Cornichons must gave gone the same way. I suppose cucumber sandwiches were quite beyond it, so it would be a decided faux pas to serve them, perhaps leading to one’s own self substituting on the menu.

  16. Nathan Myers Says:

    Speaking more seriously, doesn’t the tininess of the arms suggest that it would have needed to keep its head drawn back as far as possible, most of the time, just for balance?

  17. John Scanlon Says:

    That SF rex looks like its neck’s been broken in about three places, but as it’s still standing it must be a zombie. Do not ever turn your back on it, or it will jump off the pedestal and eat your brain.

    The Disney one reminds me of one I saw chasing a jeep once. They were probably trying for a dynamic horizontal pose, which is at least commendably post-1960s; and bringing the head low keeps it closer to the paying customers.

    PS re Open Access – I’ve now got lots more papers posted on my web page. Hardly anything on sauropods, but some other stuff on vertebrae here and there.

  18. Nima Says:

    I just noticed that the Great Northern T.rex has a very different skull from the others… It looks like the Smithsonian’s huge (and unusually shaped) black T.rex skull on the second floor of the dinosaur hall, labeled “T. rex osborn”.

    Now is this rex skull casted from the Smithsonian one, or is it a copy of Sue, or something different entirely?

    And I know that stinkin’ theropods aren’t really the specialty here, but does anyone know the significance of “T. rex osborn”? Is is a unique subspecies, or is it just a bad misprint that left out the words “discovered by”?

  19. Mike Taylor Says:

    I don’t think that “osborn” here is a subspecies name or anything like that, but a taxonomic authority — since it was Osborn (1905) who described and named the genus Tyrannosaurus and the species T. rex.


  20. Nima,

    A note about that specimen: it is a copy of MOR 555 with a funny history (see below). The premaxillae were not known on it, and quite frankly restored highly incorrectly (in fact, contradicting the information we know about the highly-distinctive premaxillae of T. rex). So that is why it looks different.

    Mike Taylor is quite correct: the Osborn is simply the attribution of the author.

    The funny history: this is Newt’s rex. Back in the 1990s, when dinosaur fan but would-be-eliminator-of-the-US Geological Survey Newt Gingrich became the Speaker of the House of Representatives, he wanted a T. rex for his office. He contacted the Smithsonian (as the National Museum), but they didn’t have any casts other than the cast of AMNH 5027 on display. So the Smithsonian talked with Jack Horner at the Museum of the Rockies, who arranged for a cast of MOR 555 to be donated to the Smithsonian, which could then loan it to Newt. After Gingrich’s ignominious fall from grace, the next Speaker wasn’t interested in having a rex skull in his office, so it reverted back to the Smithsonian, which put it on display.

  21. Nima Says:

    Interesting! I’d heard about Newt’s rex, though I didn’t know it was the same one as the dark-chocolate-tinted cast in the Smithsonian.

    “Tyrannosaurus rex Osborn” must be an error of printing then, because it’s written on the exhibit in a genus-species-subspecies format (i.e. same font, same style, no extra spacing….. which could easily confuse the average dino-fan who doesn’t know who Henry Fairfield Osborn was…)


  22. [...] too can play ’spot the things that were not in the press release’ and the SVP ‘banana drinking game‘ if you click on the above [...]

  23. John Lee Says:

    After visiting the travelling Sue exhibit, my kids and I were having a discussion on inertial feeding in birds/crocs and how it contrasted with snakes using lateral flexion of the neck to push prey down the esophagus. This came up while speculating on possible anatomical functions of the thin transverse processes on Sue’s cervical vertebrae. We have since been unsuccesful at finding any references that may educate us about what is hypothesized to be the significance of those structures. My son’s theory is that they could be supports for circumferential muscularture

  24. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi John,

    By the thin transverse processes I assume you are referring to the cervical ribs (you can check here, and let me know if we’re talking about the same thing). If so, yep, they’re muscle attachments, specifically for the lateral and ventral neck muscles. They’re basically ossified tendons. Birds have the same system in a less ossified state–check out the last photo in this post.

  25. Doug Says:

    Folks, I am an expert in human anatomy vs dinosaur anatomy but I’d like to be knowledgeable for my kids when we stop by museums. If I want to be a truly educated observer of Tyrannosaurus rex mounts, what 5 things should I look for in a reconstruction to assess if it is true to our current scientific understanding? I’m not talking tail dragging/upright at this point…we are well past that I hope.

  26. Matt Wedel Says:

    Doug, I didn’t know the answer to your question, so I pushed it to the front page, in the hope of getting other, more knowledgeable folks to give us the answers we seek. Fingers firmly crossed!

  27. Doug Says:

    Thanks…can’t wait and sorry it wasn’t about apatosaurus…next time!


  28. […] Cast of Sue at Walt Disney World, Orlando. Source […]


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