T. rex "Tristan" in Berlin : Bad to the Bone?

Berlin's Museum of Natural History has unveiled one of the world’s best-preserved skeletons of a Tyrannosaurus rex. The model will also aid scientific research that might soften the dinosaur’s bad-boy image, writes Sidney Gennies.

T.rex "Tristan" is displayed in the Natural History Museum in Berlin
T.rex "Tristan" is displayed in the Natural History Museum in BerlinFoto: dpa

Early one morning, Daniela Schwarz walked through the dark and dusty halls of Berlin’s Museum of Natural History, each step echoing through the empty, cavernous building.

Ms. Schwarz, a paleontologist, walked by shelves stacked with preserved fish, reptiles and frogs who gazed into the gloom.

She passed Bao Bao, the museum’s stuffed panda, but did not stop. Instead, she entered the far distant past through the door to the Hall of Dinosaurs.

She gazed upward at the world’s largest mounted skeleton. It was the museum’s Brachiosaurus. The herbivore’s characteristic, disproportionally long neck helps the skeleton reach a height of 13 meters, or 42.6 feet.

“This is my favorite time of day,” said Ms. Schwarz, contemplating the skeletal creature. “In the dim light, the dinosaurs seem more real.”

She has made it her business to distance herself from her days spent dreaming about dinosaurs as a child. Because once you get to know them, dinosaurs actually aren’t so scary. Well, one might be, but museum-goers will be able to decide for themselves once they see the institution’s newest exhibit.

Say hello to T-rex, or Tristan, as he’s known at the museum.

He is now in the care of Ms. Schwarz, the Museum of Natural History’s curator for fossilized reptiles and birds. She knows her dinosaurs, has examined all sorts, mainly herbivores like her long-necked subject in the hall.

Her newest object of study seems far more menacing. It’s the most dangerous dinosaur, the villain of primeval times and an award-winning Hollywood star: Tyrannosaurus rex.

The skeleton of the T. rex debuted to the general public last week. In a special exhibition room, they gazed upon his black petrified bones, all 12 meters of his skeleton, bent forward, and his gigantic sharp teeth. It’s one of the world’s best-preserved skeletons of a T. rex and the only one in Europe.

A Tyrannosaurus rex has approximately 320 bones. In Tristan’s case, 157 were found. The missing bones have been replaced by plaster replicas.

Berlin scientists will be able to carry out research on Tristan for at least three years. There are so many research teams and collaborative efforts underway that even the museum doesn’t know exactly how many scientists and experts are involved.

Dinosaur research is detective work. The tiniest traces in bones can provide indications of who Tristan really was. How he lived, what he ate, whether he was really a Tristan or perhaps a Tricia. And each new finding will remove some of the gloss from the T. rex myth.

No one knows that better than Johannes Müller, professor of dinosaurs at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

“Even as a young boy, I thought dinosaurs were super-cool,” said Mr. Müller, 42.

His office is in an annex of the Berlin museum, far away from institution’s dinosaur star. Mr. Müller had to leave the main building because of renovation work, and he’s quite happy about that: “Back here, it’s quiet and peaceful.”

The dinosaur professor knows how to disillusion the uninformed dinosaur fan.

“Tristan probably looked like a giant turkey,” he said.

Mr. Müller doesn’t say that lightly. For him as well, research dashed his childhood imaginings of huge, dragon-like creatures. Recent excavations show that most dinosaurs didn’t have scales; the creatures had feathers.

“When you gaze at the baked goose on Christmas Eve, the shoulder girdle, the wishbone – everything is just like T. rex,” he said. “T. rex is much more closely related to the fowl than to the crocodile.”

Johannes Müller und Daniela Schwarz werden den T-Rex erforschen.
Johannes Müller and Daniela Schwarz have dedicated their life to dinosaurs.Foto: Mike Wolff

The lore of Tyrannosaurus rex is filled with misunderstandings. That also has to do with its cult status. But it was not the bloodthirsty monster that hunted baby dinosaurs, as viewers saw in the animated film “The Land Before Time.” And not nearly as savage as those in “Jurassic Park.”

As far as Jurassic Park goes, Mr. Müller said: “T. rex lived in the Cretaceous period, around 66 million years ago – not in the Jurassic period,” which ended about 79 million years earlier.

Many researchers, including some in paleontology, focus more on making sensational findings than propelling advances in science, he said.

“There are people who study fish. And then there are some who research only great white sharks,” said Mr. Müller, who added that what irritates him most of all is that the tactic works. “It’s easier to get research money for creepy dinosaurs.”

He, too, has dug for dinosaur bones. His most recent expedition was to Sudan. Many fossils are suspected to be there, and the area has not been thoroughly investigated.

Lively interest in dinosaurs is mostly limited to developed nations. There are experienced paleontologists in many African countries, but those researchers use their expertise about geological eras for purposes of mining or drilling to find oil reserves.

For his part, Mr. Müller knows he is lucky to be able to conduct research to increase knowledge. His specialty is micro-fossils and other things that reveal information about the ecosystems in primeval times.

For example, Hadrosaurus, also called the duck-billed dinosaur and therefore unlikely to be featured in an action film, lived at the same time as Tristan and was perhaps even T. rex prey. Hadrosaurus footprints millions of years old have been found amid crushed eggshells.

“This provides evidence of a very complex social behavior,” he said.

Hadrosauruses most likely shared in brood care and possibly lived in colonies, like albatrosses today. Footprints show that the creatures traveled in herds, with larger footprints along the herd’s edges, smaller ones in the middle – indicating that adults were protecting the herd’s younger members.

Mr. Müller is fascinated by such details.

“In comparison, a T. rex is unwieldy,” he said. “You find yourself standing in the desert and trying to figure out how to get thighbones onto a pickup truck.”

But since T. rex has become such a pop star, some of Mr. Müller’s colleagues have concentrated on finding the most spectacular fossils possible.

“Then they exclaim, ‘Wow, it sure is big!’ and that’s that,” he said.

In Berlin, sensation and research could come together. The Tristan skeleton is owned by London investment banker Niels Nielsen, 39. He bought it from Craig Pfister, an American who discovered the fossil remains in Montana in 2012. Mr. Nielsen declines to reveal the purchase price, but the fossil is insured for about €10 million, or $10.8 million. Mr. Nielsen named the skeleton after his young son.

The banker is loaning the Tyrannosaurus rex to the Museum of Natural History for free but subject to two conditions: The skeleton must be displayed to the public and be the focus of scientific research. A team of Berlin scientists has already gone to Montana to collect rock samples and explore Tristan’s former home.

Ms. Schwarz at Berlin’s Museum of Natural History has to make sure that Tristan is displayed correctly. Her specialty is functional morphology. From the character of the bones, the paleontologist can draw conclusions about the appearance and movement of a dinosaur. Whether it moved erect or bent forward, was quick or slow. She spends most of her time at the computer. On a recent day, she used it to see CT scans of dinosaur bones.

“By comparing the pictures, you can determine which bones are hollow, for example,” she said. That’s important because it explains how dinosaurs, despite their immense size, remained light enough to be able to move.

Tristan as well was measured in this way. The bones were scanned by experts at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. Tristan had appointments in between those of human patients. In Tristan’s case, doctors are on the lookout for diseases and trying to find out if the creature perhaps had arthritis or rheumatism and also to determine the cause of its death. But how did Tristan look?

“We know he wasn’t a young animal,” Ms. Schwarz said.

At around age 14, a T. rex entered a sort of puberty and gained up to five tons within a few years. Tristan’s size indicates that he was sexually mature and thus at least 17 years old, with a weight of six tons. A typical T. rex didn’t grow much older than 30.

“And he was capable of running fast,” Ms. Schwarz said.

At least faster than the herbivores that he hunted. Montana, where he was found, was fundamentally different during his era. In terms of climate, it was comparable to today’s Kenya – hot. But there were no savannas nor forests, just an open landscape dotted with trees and bushes. Still a puzzle for Ms. Schwarz are the short but strong arms possessed by every T. rex. Perhaps the arms were used to hold prey tightly or perhaps for use during mating.

And Tristan might have been pretty smart – for a dinosaur. Because the skull is unusually well preserved, an examination can be made of the apparently large brain chamber. Tristan’s actual skull would have been too heavy for the supporting frame in the museum, so scientists at Berlin’s Technical University made an exact plastic model via a 3D printer. The original is displayed in its own glass cabinet.

Even if today all eyes are directed to Tristan, Ms. Schwarz will remain true to her own favorite dinosaur: the comparatively small Dicraeosaurus, which is also in the Museum of Natural History. Ms. Schwarz said she is just like her daughter.

“She prefers the herbivores,” she said. “My son thinks the raptors are more exciting.”

That boy might be on to something. World: Meet Tristan.

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