Why T. rex IS NOT the most ferocious animal that ever existed

And why when you read “Animal X discovered, it was the most ferocious ever” you’d better close everything…

The natural sciences and in particular paleontology are not particularly popular among the general press. Thus, the few times they are covered, it is done in an approximate manner, trying to amaze the reader with bombastic or catastrophic headlines also because the journalist in question does not have the skills to fully understand what it is writing about.

How many times have we read that the new dinosaur just discovered is the most ferocious, the most lethal, the most dangerous and, icing on the cake, it was more so than the T-rex, yes written exactly like that, the error at least in this case is wanted (speaker’s notes). This is wrong in several ways. First of all, no research team makes any mention of these characteristics when they publish the scientific article on the new discovery in question. So if the expert who studied the fossil doesn’t comment on the matter, it makes no sense that a journalist who knows little or nothing about it can do so, the source is simply not reliable.

T. rex portrayed in his favorite activity, roaring ferociously at the cameras!*

Secondly, is it actually possible not only to attribute these characteristics to a fossil, but also to be able to measure their intensity in order to make a classification? The remains of extinct organisms that we have available to reconstruct what flora and fauna were like in the past are by definition not complete, they are precisely “remains”. Of course, you can get much more information from an articulated skeleton than from an isolated fragment, but these are still fossils, not living animals. When we admire a paleoartistic in vivo reconstruction, whether it is a drawing or a documentary, we are always dealing with a set of hypotheses supported by a series of more or less robust evidences; any feature that cannot be measured directly on the fossil is at best a plausible estimate. Even something as apparently concrete as dimensions can be distorted by deformations of the ground that have occurred over millions of years.

The skull of Tyrannosaurus FMNH PR 2081 (Sue), notice how deformed it is!

In short, the big difference between a modern animal and an extinct one is that the first is a concrete entity, the other a scientific hypothesis that explains in the best possible way the fossils that we attribute to it. If we measure the speed of a cheetah or the bite force of a crocodile we are collecting concrete data; if we read that Tyrannosaurus rex was the terrestrial animal with the most powerful bite that ever existed, instead we are dealing with a plausible estimate based on concrete measurable data, fossils, and a series of mathematical formulas obtained from today’s animals.

Image taken from the scientific article “Estimating maximum bite performance in Tyrannosaurus rex using multi-body dynamics” from 2012

Now, as long as we try to quantify characteristics defined by the laws of mathematics and physics we are still within the realm of possibility, as long as there are suitable data to start from. But how can we even think about quantifying more abstract characteristics like ferocity? Adjectives that may make sense to attribute to an animal, but which are not defined from a scientific point of view and consequently cannot be measured objectively in a living animal and even more so in an extinct one.

Let’s therefore put science aside to move on to the linguistic aspect, with which a journalist or enthusiast is certainly more familiar.

T. rex portrayed in his second favorite activity: hunting with his mouth wide open for the camera!*

The article is translated from Italian, so the next paragraphs refer to the Italian version of the words taken into consideration (speaker’s notes)

Let’s take the definition of ferocity, in this case I report that of the Treccani, an Italian dictionary, “Animals (or beasts) f., the major carnivores, which live in the wild (such as lions, tigers, etc.), and attack and devour even the ‘man”. Now, given that this is a non-scientific definition, there will certainly be variations going from one dictionary to another, but the basic concept will be the same. Any large carnivorous and wild animal that could attack and devour man will be ferocious. Can we try to understand what is more or less ferocious starting from this definition? For example, would a lion be more or less ferocious than a great white shark? They are both large obligate carnivores, so they do not actively feed on plants, neither is domesticated and both of them if they decided to attack a man could kill and devour him. Ergo neither can be, according to this definition, more ferocious than the other. It would be like having a wooden table and a wooden chair in front of you and having to decide which of the two is more wooden. It goes without saying that if this is not feasible between two modern animals, imagine if we take extinct ones into consideration.

Tyrannosaurus crushing the skull of a Triceratops by Brian Engh. Unfortunately the image is made much less gruesome by the predator’s feathers.*

But since here at Paleo-Nerd we are used to dealing with the past, why not take it one step further? The Italian “feroce” (ferocious) derives from the Latin “fĕrox”, what meaning did this adjective have for the ancients? If referring to animals “indomitable, ferocious, fiery, wild”. In this case the focus is on the fact that the beast in question cannot be tamed, it does not bend to man. It is no coincidence that the word “fièra” (beast), which derives from the Latin “fĕrus”, means “wild animal that is both ferocious and large”.

The three beasts that appear in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”.

But I already know what some are thinking. We talk about “major carnivores”, “large size”. Ergo, the largest of the ferocious animals is also the most ferocious! Um, no, that’s not how it works. If you have this characteristic, together with the others previously listed, you fall within the concept of a ferocious animal, but if you have more you are not more ferocious! You are simply the largest ferocious animal. Just as a mountain is a “relief on the earth’s surface that exceeds 600 metres”, if I have two mountains, one 700 meters high and the other 1000 metres, it is not that one is more of a mountain than the other, simply one of the two mountains is more high.

The summit of Mount Everest in all its mountainousness!

Finally, if we really wanted to say that the largest ferocious animal is also the most ferocious we can in all probability discard all predatory dinosaurs. Today’s blue whale is a carnivorous animal capable of ending millions of lives in just a few seconds (the krill it feeds on can include up to tens of thousands of small crustaceans per cubic meter of water, aren’t they animals?) , is certainly much larger than any theropod and could easily kill a man even in a completely involuntary manner with a simple tap of its fin.

The largest living predator, the blue whale

The purpose of this article was not to diminish the feral charm of the predator, but rather to make people understand how much is wrong an attitude so rooted in articles on dinosaurs for the general public, both from a scientific and linguistic point of view. Obviously nobody thinks that predators politely ask their prey if they can be eaten but it is intrinsic in nature itself and in the needs of animals that there will be those who have to kill to survive and those who will have to defend themselves. On the other hand, not even extinct animals like today’s ones spent their entire existence fighting each other.

Tyrannosaurus wanders calmly emerging from the mists of history by Mark Witton

Tyrannosaurus, precisely because it is the “non plus ultra” par excellence, is always thrown into the mix when it comes to talking about prehistory, often becoming a unit of measurement for the new animal of the moment which becomes a competitor for this or that record. And if the new species does not have particular characteristics you can always play the card of its more or less distant relationship with the tyrant lizard. The charm of dinosaurs is that they were incredible animals that really walked on our planet and I think that rather than stopping at stereotypes it is in the interest of every enthusiast to get excited and welcome every new discovery for what it is, because it adds a new little piece to the enormous mosaic of our knowledge of life on Earth.

*All asterisked captions were intentionally ironic

Leave a Comment