Whenever I’m down in the McClung Museum’s basement, I stop to pay my respects to an old friend.
Old, that is, in a relative sense. This is a cast facsimile of a T. rex skull rather than the real thing. But this bad boy (girl?) and I go back a long way. My dad used to indulge my dino obsession by taking me to the McClung Museum on weekends so I could hang out in the old geology and fossil exhibit, where the T. rex skull went on display sometime back in the early or mid-nineties.
That exhibit has now gone the way of the specimens it once showcased. The McClung’s current geology and fossil gallery opened in 2002 with some new dino skull casts and gorgeous dioramas, but sans tyrant lizard king. Now the T. rex is enjoying semi-retirement downstairs, although we wheel him out for school tours from time to time.
Those of you who are fellow paleo-nerds may recognize the skull as a copy of one of the most famous dinosaur specimens in the world: AMNH 5027, excavated by the great fossil hunter Barnum Brown in Montana back in 1908. The original skull is on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York……right in front of the skeleton it was once attached to. Fossil T. rex skulls are so heavy that it’s hard to mount them at standing height, so most museum specimens have lighter copies stuck on the ends of their necks. AMNH 5027 wasn’t the first T. rex specimen to be described. But it was the first to be found with an intact cranium, making it a popular choice for replication. (Check out the wonderful Extinct Monsters blog for the history of T. rex on display and the proliferation of 5027 clones in museums all over the world.) If you’re at a museum that has a tyrannosaur cast, one easy way to tell if it’s a copy of 5027 is to look at it head-on. The original looks a bit smashed on the upper left side, as if it’s starting to collapse inward like a rotting pumpkin. You can see the distortion in this photo of UC-Berkely’s replica: One other thing to take note of when you’re looking head-on at a T. rex is the position of the eye sockets. Although they’re on the sides of the head, they’re oriented so that the eyes themselves would have faced forward, which probably meant good depth perception. In fact, research by Kent Stevens indicates that T. rex had superb vision. Combine an eagle’s eyesight, an exceptional sense of smell, and a bone-crushing bite, wrap it all up in a forty-foot package, and you’ve got one of the most remarkable carnivores in the history of life on this planet. In other words, it’s probably not a good idea to stand still and hope he doesn’t notice you.
Anyway, as awesome as this guy looked in the old exhibit, I’m sort of glad he’s taken up quarters behind the scenes. As a kid, I used to stand in front of his display case and wonder what it would feel like to run my hands across those bony protrusions and along those fearsome jaws. Now I don’t have to wonder, and it’s one of many reasons I love my job.