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T. Rex Used a Stiff Skull to Demolish Prey
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Paleontologists have long wondered how the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex could shatter the bones of its prey in one bite—without breaking its own skull.
The answer, according to the University of Missouri, is simple: Its cranium was stiff (like hyenas and crocodiles) rather than flexible (like snakes and birds), as scientists previously thought.
Perhaps to compensate for those infamously tiny arms, the T. rex carried a massive noggin, measuring 6 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 4 feet high—with a bite force of about 6 tons.
“Previous researchers looked at this from a bone-only perspective without taking into account all of the connections—ligaments and cartilage—that really mediate the interactions between the bones,” according to Kaleb Sellers, a graduate student in the MU School of Medicine.
A 3D image of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull showing muscle activation (via University of Missouri)
The team created one of the first 3D models showing how ligaments and joints in the skull of a T. rex work.
To study how the roof of its mouth reacted to the stresses and strains of chewing, they looked at two modern relatives of the theropod king: a gecko and a parrot.
“Dinosaurs are like modern-day birds, crocodiles, and lizards in that they inherited particular joints in their skulls from fish,” Casey Holliday, an associate professor at MU, said in a statement.
Like human hips, the extinct animals’ ball-and-socket joints can lend themselves to snake-like movements.
“When you put a lot of force on things, there’s a tradeoff between movement and stability,” Holliday continued. “Birds and lizards have more movement but less stability. When we applied their individual movements to the T. rex skull, we saw it did not like being wiggled in ways that the lizard and bird skulls do, which suggests more stiffness.”
An illustration of the key features of a stiff T. rex skull (via University of Missouri)
Beyond advising paleontologists, researchers believe their findings can help advance human and animal medicine by providing better models of how joints and ligaments interact.
“In humans, this can also be applied to how people’s jaws work, such as studying how the jaw joint is loaded by stresses and strains during chewing,” lead study author Ian Cost explained.
“In animals, understanding how those movements occur and joints are loaded will, for instance, help veterinarians better understand how to treat exotic animals such as parrots, which suffer from arthritis in their faces,” he added.
Mizzou scientists made another Cretaceous claim earlier this month, revealing that blood vessels in the T. rex‘s enormous head may have acted as a prehistoric “air conditioner,” keeping it cool in hot weather.
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