Poor, poor Tyrannosaurus rex, typecast all these years as the baddest, thick-skulled villain ever to walk the earth.
Often portrayed as a temperamental, cold-blooded killer and besmirched as a sharp-toothed tyrant who pounced on anything it saw, T-rex is getting a shot at redemption.
While the giant plays a nasty starring role in Steven Spielberg's dinosaur sequel "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," which opened Thursday at theaters across the country, many experts question whether T-rex has been wrongfully maligned.
On the screen, T-rex looks so near to life that Jack Horner, the famed Montana paleontologist who served as an adviser to the film, says he squirmed with delight and fear. The computer-generated animation that gave birth to the long-extinct creatures on the big screen is so convincing, he adds, that it offers moviegoers the most compelling snapshot of "terrible lizards" in 70 million years.
But if it's an accurate lesson in natural history that dinosaur-loving audiences want, Dr. Horner says forget it. The two "Jurassic Park" movies are pure science fiction.
"The only thing absolutely true in all of 'Jurassic Park' was that Tyrannosaurus rex probably would have eaten lawyers," quips Horner. To coincide with the release of "The Lost World" this summer, Horner has created a special exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman that puts the notorious reputation of T-rex on trial.
Horner's controversial premise: The frightening, two-legged brute shown terrorizing people right and left in "The Lost World" may actually possess a genetic affinity with buzzards and turkeys, not with modern reptiles like the Gila monster or aggressive Komodo dragon.
The theory was strengthened this week when an paleontologist in Argentina discovered the bones of a dinosaur with shoulders and forearms that could flap like wings. While the dinosaur is not a missing link, the paleontologist described it as "the most birdlike dinosaur ever recovered."
Horner also is among several experts who say that T-rex, like buzzards, probably dined on the prehistoric equivalent of road kill - it was a scavenger, not a hunter.
The evidence Horner presents is based on T-rex skeletons (only a dozen are known to exist in the world) excavated from several sites in the American West and Canada. To him, T-rex's short arms and clumsy frame suggest that it was not ideally suited to target swift-footed prey.
"Almost everything people thought they knew about T-rex was based on guesses," Horner told reporters, admitting that he, too, is dabbling in conjecture. Indeed, part of the Bozeman exhibit may undermine his own hypothesis. It shows the fossilized hip bone of a triceratops that had been bitten off by a T-rex - a remarkable find that lends support to the hunter theory.
A man in the know
But Horner is used to making ground-breaking theories that eventually turn out to be conventional wisdom. Twenty years ago, he helped pioneer the now widely held notion that duck-billed maiasaurs were active and attentive parents.
His conclusions were drawn from a place in Montana called Egg Mountain. They brought Horner global recognition and convinced author Michael Crichton to model a character in his bestselling book, "Jurassic Park," after him.
At the Museum of the Rockies, where Horner oversees the prestigious paleontological department, he surmises that T-rex similarly may have exhibited a strong parental instinct - flying in the face of assumptions that T-rexes were inattentive around their own young.
Phil Currie, a professional peer of Horner's and curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta, agrees with Horner that T-rex has gotten a bad rap. But he does not diminish the animal's role as fearsome predator.
"We tend to talk about whether T-rex was a scavenger or a predator," Dr. Currie says. "My own belief is it probably was both. It couldn't have survived for 140 million years if it had to wait around for other predators to kill things it needed to eat."
Currie adds that T-rex was one of the most sophisticated ancient predators. It was warm-blooded, had a big brain, excellent vision, an acute sense of hearing and smell, long legs that would have given it the speed of a horse over short distances, and disproportionately large teeth the size of bananas.
"Despite past portrayals by Hollywood, T-rex wasn't a big lumbering beast that just kind of haphazardly fell into things," he said. "What's so exciting for a paleontologist about Spielberg's work is that he obviously instructed his staff to pay attention to details and try to make the animals' appearances as real as possible."
During the filming of "Jurassic Park," Horner was asked what he thought about embellishing the behavior of the dreaded velociraptor. "There was one point where just for effects we wanted to have the velociraptor unfurl a long tongue and snatch something right out of the air," recalls Randal Dutra, the director of animation for "The Lost World." "Jack kindly informed us that something like that would be possible if the animal was a snake or a lizard, but the velociraptor wasn't a reptile and couldn't do it, so we took it out."
Hollywood's helping hand
But even when Hollywood exerts its artistic license at the expense of facts, the shining light of science can benefit, Currie notes. After "Jurassic Park," which became the highest grossing motion picture of all time, funding for dinosaur research flourished, leading to new discoveries.
The public is savvier, too, he says. "In the past there used to be a big disparity between what was appearing in the movies and what scientists knew to be the truth, but now the gap is narrowing. If done right, Hollywood can play a useful role by putting flesh to ideas that previously existed only in our wildest imaginations."