Was the T-rex feathered or scaled? Jurassic Park’s scale model from 24 years ago might have been more accurate than we thought.
When it comes to the ancient world of dinosaurs, few are as well known as the Tyrannosaurus rex.
Much of this fascination can be traced back to the 1993 classic Jurassic Park, which featured an impressive scale model of what was, at the time, science’s best understanding of what the giant creature would have looked like.
In the many years that followed however, the image of a scaly dinosaur was gradually replaced by a distinctly more feathered one, drawing further links between the reptiles and modern day birds.
As recently as 2013, National Geographic quoted one researcher who described the creature as being “small, fast and fuzzy … not much at all like the giant T-rex of Jurassic Park.”
To reach this conclusion, a team of international scientists managed to track down samples of T-rex skin, along with several samples from its older cousins in the tyrannosaurid family, to create a database of fossilised hide impressions.
These samples included skin patches from around the neck, pelvis and tail of creatures that roamed the Earth between 99m and 65.5m years ago – the era during which the asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs for good hit.
By analysing these samples, the team was able to conclude that the “extensive feather coverings” associated with the T-rex were actually found only on these earlier cousins, which lived around the late Cretaceous period.
May still have had some feathers
“Our discovery of fossilised scaly skin similar to that of modern reptiles on the bodies of a wide variety of tyrannosaur species (including T-rex) … paints a more traditional scaly-skinned picture of these huge predators,” the research team said.
If they were feathered, they add, the feathering would have been limited to parts of T-rex’s back.
However, the possibility of a scaled T-rex only begs more questions, as palaeontologists will now need to figure out why the ancestors of the creature evolved from scales to feathers to scales again.
This discovery follows on from news in March that, despite its image as a ferocious monster, the 20ft tall creature’s skin was actually quite sensitive, making the mating process more intimate.
“In courtship, tyrannosaurids might have rubbed their sensitive faces together as a vital part of pre-copulatory play,” the researchers said at the time.