Which is faster: a grey wolf, a Tyrannosaurus rex or Usain Bolt?

19 Jul 2017

Could Usain Bolt (right) outrun a T-rex? Image: Shahjehan/Shutterstock

New research suggests that a Tyrannosaurus rex would have crumbled under its weight if it ever ran, meaning it’s a slower dinosaur than we thought.

It turns out Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm, should not have been in any real danger when a Tyrannosaurus rex (T-rex) was chasing him.

Travelling at around 70kph, Malcolm and his crew should have broken free from the jaws of the giant dinosaur with relative ease, albeit with a little panic, perhaps.

That’s according to new research from the University of Manchester, which suggests that the most fearsome species ever known to have walked the Earth did just that: walked.

Led by Prof William Sellers from the university’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, the research was published by PeerJ, investigating the gait and biomechanics of the animal.

Using a series of biomechanical techniques to study the movement of the T-rex, Sellers and his team suggested that any high-speed attempts would see the animal’s giant legs buckle under its even larger frame.

Sellers said the results demonstrate that any running gaits for T-rex would probably lead to “unacceptably high skeletal loads”, which means previous predictions of a top speed of 70kph could be way off the mark.

“The running ability of T-rex and other similarly giant dinosaurs has been intensely debated amongst palaeontologists for decades,” he said.

“However, different studies using differing methodologies have produced a very wide range of top-speed estimates, and we say there is a need to develop techniques that can improve these predictions.”

True running gaits

Sellers’ approach was a combination of two separate biomechanical techniques – known as multibody dynamic analysis and skeletal stress analysis – into one simulation model.

Through this, the team seemed to “demonstrate that true running gaits” would probably be impossible.

“Being limited to walking speeds contradicts arguments of high-speed pursuit predation for the largest bipedal dinosaurs like T-rex, and demonstrates the power of multi-physics approaches for locomotor reconstructions of extinct animals,” he said.

Image: Warren Metcalf

Image: Warren Metcalf

The grey wolf can reach speeds of around 55kph, Usain Bolt’s top speed was clocked at nearly 45kph. If a running T-rex could reach 70kph, but it couldn’t actually run, that probably means it comes in a distant third.

The study can be extrapolated out to other giant dinosaurs, such as the Gigantosaurus, suggesting that the size and bipedal nature limits the possibility of any truly athletic lifestyle.

Feather or scale?

This research is merely the latest in a long line of investigations into the T-rex. For example, there has been growing interest in the dinosaur’s exterior in recent years, after Jurassic Park took a stab at what the T-rex looked like in its movie series, beginning in 1993.

The original movie featured an impressive scaly replica of what was, at the time, science’s best understanding of the giant creature’s physical characteristics.

Image: Redfox1980

Image: Redfox1980

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”.

However, a recent study published in the journal Biology Letters has found “compelling evidence” that the T-rex was not a feathered creature, but rather a scaly monster.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic