The Tyrannosaurus Rex Is Having An Identity Crisis

11:36 minutes

skeleton of t. rex in museum, lit from the bottom
Sue the T. Rex at Chicago’s Field Museum. Credit: National Park Service

There are few creatures, present or extinct, that hold the iconic status of the Tyrannosaurus rex. In museums and dinosaur media, this powerful, lumbering reptile often plays a starring role. But new research argues that the T. rex should really be classified into three separate species: Tyrannosaurus rex, Tyrannosaurus imperator, and Tyrannosaurus regina. 

This paper has been met with a wide range of reactions: some paleontologists have said this discovery could shake our understanding of dinosaur classifications, and could cause a headache for museums. Other experts say the paper is a load of bologna. 

In other science news, a new strain of coronavirus was discovered in Canadian deer. This finding could shed more light on how the virus mutates and jumps between animals and people. 

Joining Ira to talk about these topics and other news of the week is Sabrina Imbler, science reporting fellow for The New York Times

Please be aware that an offensive term is repeated in the above audio once, for the purpose of explicitly identifying that term as a harmful slur, and to clearly make reference to two species of insect whose common names until recently included the term, a change that is the subject of this discussion. The term may upset some listeners.

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Segment Guests

Sabrina Imbler

Sabrina Imbler is the author of How Far the Light Reaches, and a science journalist at Defector in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about child abuse charges for aiding transgender children in Texas, and how worried should we be about cyberwarfare from Russia?

But first, paleontologists are choosing sides around our much loved Tyrannosaurus Rex. Now, it all starts with a study published in the paper Evolutionary Biology, arguing that the creature we currently call T-Rex, should actually be split into three distinct species.

And as you might expect, this has led to controversy among those who study these extinct beasts. Joining me today to talk about this story and other critter heavy science news of this week, is my guest Sabrina Imbler Science Reporting Fellow for the New York Times, based in New York. Welcome back, Sabrina.

SABRINA IMBLER: Thank you so much for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So tell us about this T-Rex study.

SABRINA IMBLER: Yeah, it’s been a splashy week for dinosaurs. So three researchers have a new paper, basically, arguing that T-Rex should be split into three species, which they’ve named Tyrannosaurus Rex, Tyrannosaurus Imperator, which means the emperor, and Tyrannosaurus Regina, which means the queen.

And as Asher Elbein reports for the New York Times, they say that the bulky Tyrannosaurus Imperator was the first to show up, and then the species split after one or two million years, into Tyrannosaurus Rex and the more slender Tyrannosaurus Regina.

IRA FLATOW: So they must be offering evidence, right, for these different species?

SABRINA IMBLER: I would say, “evidence” is divisive. But their argument is, basically, that they gathered measurements from 38 T-Rex fossils, and they, basically, compared the proportions of the anatomy of the femur, and also looked to see if the fossils had two sets of front teeth in their lower jaws. And they say that they found that many of those fossils could be grouped into three types. This early robust form with two sets of these front teeth, and then two forms later on with only one set of these front teeth. And they argue that this reveals wider variation between T-Rex fossils than variation among fossils of other dinosaurs believed to be a single species, such as allosaurus.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the pushback? There’s got to be opposition to this, right?

SABRINA IMBLER: Definitely, there is a lot of opposition. I think one paleontologist called the evidence, vanishingly weak, which is a bit of a dig.

IRA FLATOW: Ooh, yeah.

SABRINA IMBLER: But they say a major problem with the new study, is that it doesn’t show three clearly distinct and separated types of femurs, but rather a blurry, overlapping, spectrum of variation. And they also say that these three proposed species don’t match all existing anatomical data on T-Rex.

I think their main concern, is just that the evidence needs to be much stronger to change the way that we think about this incredibly iconic dinosaur. I think one researcher said, if you shoot for the king, don’t miss.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] And this must be driving museums with exhibits crazy.

SABRINA IMBLER: If it held up, they would have a lot of relabeling to do.


SABRINA IMBLER: And the public would also be confused if something as iconic and well-researched as T-Rex is actually three species. What else could be questioned? What else could be overturned?

IRA FLATOW: Sabrina, how likely is it that these three different species will actually catch on.

SABRINA IMBLER: So with just this paper, it seems pretty unlikely. Other paleontologists say that three species could be plausible, but they’re going to need much more robust analysis and an examination of even more specimens. So Tyrannosaurs Regina and Tyrannosaurus Imperator are still very much a thing of the future.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s move on to a little bit of COVID news about human to animal transmissions, and it looks like a new venison version of COVID is here. What is that all about?

SABRINA IMBLER: So Emily Anthes has a story for the New York Times about how COVID appears to be mutating in white-tailed deer. And last fall, scientists learned that the coronavirus was spreading wildly through white-tailed deer, which are free ranging throughout most of North America.

And they feared the deer could be a reservoir for the virus, meaning the virus would be able to sustain itself in the population without more reintroductions by people. The more hosts, the more opportunities the virus has to evolve into a new version and potentially spill back to us.

And now, that seems to have happened with scientists in southwestern Ontario describing a highly-mutated version of the coronavirus that seems to have originated in these deer and even infected a human.

IRA FLATOW: So I’ve got these deer in my backyard. How worried should I be?

SABRINA IMBLER: Luckily, not that worried, but I would say, don’t feed the deer. Don’t lick the deer. [LAUGHS] Scientists say there’s no evidence that this deer version of the coronavirus, is spreading through people or poses an elevated risk to us. And early data, suggests that our existing vaccines will also protect us against this venison version of the virus.

IRA FLATOW: Your next story is a combination of words I don’t think I’ve ever said before, abalone gonads. What’s the story here?

SABRINA IMBLER: So Wudan Yan has this story for the New York Times about white abalone, which are endangered. So scientists want to help them bounce back, which often involves helping them reproduce in the lab. But unlike animals like the cat, that gives clear cues about when they’re ready to reproduce, abalone don’t send those cues.

The best way to look, scientists think, is to examine the size of their gonad or reproductive organ. Abalone can have flaccid or swollen gonads, and scientists suspect that the bigger the bulge the more likely the abalone might be to spawn.

But it’s tricky. Just by looking at an abalone, you can’t always tell the difference between an abalone that’s in the mood, and an abalone that just had a really big meal. But if you give an abalone an ultrasound, you can take a really good look at the bulge.

IRA FLATOW: And just to remind us, an abalone is like a fancy snail, right?

SABRINA IMBLER: Exactly, it’s a fancy snail that lives in the sea. And on the outside, their shells look like brownish ovals, but on the inside, they’re very iridescent and beautiful.

IRA FLATOW: And so why is it so important to restore their populations?

SABRINA IMBLER: So in parts of the West Coast, abalone are crucial members of the ecosystem. They’re an important food source for carnivores like sea otters, and sea otters eat the urchins that are destroying kelp forests. And abalone are also a traditional food of coastal tribes.

But white abalone, the ones that are being ultrasounded, have never fully recovered after their population was depleted in the 1970s.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s what they do. They ultrasound the abalone to see what their state is?

SABRINA IMBLER: Yeah, they just passed the probe along the soft body of the snail. And then they can see how the gonad looks. And they’re ranking it on a scale of 1 to 5, based on the bigness of the bulge.

IRA FLATOW: OK, from abalone to insects, I’ve noticed that there is a new name in town for an old menace now being called the spongy moth. Tell us about this name change.

SABRINA IMBLER: So the moth formerly known as the gypsy moth, was finally given a new common name, as its former name is a slur against the Romani people. And it’s now called the spongy moth, and it’s the first species to be renamed by the Better Common Names Project, which is basically planning on surveying insects with names that are harmful or offensive and rename them.

The old name was actually first removed in July, but a group of entomologists, researchers, and people who identify as Roma, have been meeting for months to deliberate possible new names before settling on the spongy moth.

IRA FLATOW: I can remember when there were huge attacks of spongy moths in trees. We used to see them in trees hanging down. They were really a big menace.

SABRINA IMBLER: An enormous menace, did you grow up in, I guess, the Northeastern United States?

– Yes, yes and we would see them on trees. It was just amazing. And there would be lookouts for them, and people were being warned about them back when they used to have giant infestations of them.

SABRINA IMBLER: Yeah, as a caterpillar, the spongy moth can strip a tree or shrub of almost all of its leaves. And the animal actually spends most of its life in the egg stage, which is how it gets the name spongy moth because their egg masses look like sponges. Did you ever see those growing up?

IRA FLATOW: Aha, yeah, yeah, I never thought of them as– yeah, now that I think about it, sure. But I’m glad that they’re not as bad a menace. I don’t see them around as much, but they’re still there.

SABRINA IMBLER: They’re definitely still a menace but yeah, more controlled.

IRA FLATOW: And there must be other bugs on the list to have their names changed too, right?

SABRINA IMBLER: Yes, there are no species that are currently selected to be next, but potential candidates could be species named after geographical places. And that might sound mundane, but if you associate an invasive species with a particular region, that could be really harmful. For example, if you think about the Japanese beetle, which is an invasive species and often talked about with the language of removal or eradication. That can feel really xenophobic and offensive.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, the same thing would be happening with the spongy moth.


IRA FLATOW: We’ve seen a lot of these beetles around eating rose bushes, too. That’s another story. Let’s end with one more buggy story that you wrote about in the New York Times about how insect waste could be a sustainable companion to farming. Tell us about that.

SABRINA IMBLER: So insects produce a lot of waste just by living, just like us, they poop. But unlike us, they also molt and shed a series of exoskeletons over the course of their lives. And a group of scientists is basically arguing that all this insect waste can really enrich crop soil and promote plant growth and health.

And they say that all this waste should be incorporated into a sustainable food system where we collect the insect poop and old exoskeletons from farmed insects, mix that into crop soil, and then feed those insects organic waste from the crops.

IRA FLATOW: What specific insects are we talking about here?

SABRINA IMBLER: We’re talking about mealworms, black soldier fly larvae, and crickets. They’re all very tiny, and so their poop, they’re really tiny pellets. But if you’re farming insects on an industrial scale, all that poop really adds up to a lot of pounds and a really significant resource.

IRA FLATOW: Can we expect this to catch on here?

SABRINA IMBLER: The scientists hope. I guess I also, I’ll hitch my wagon to farming insects. It’s a growing industry in the US and Europe because insects are much cheaper and more sustainable to farm than livestock such as cows or pigs. They need less land and water for production, and they produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And they also offer a lot of protein if you don’t mind the crunch.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you know, what we already farm for fertilizer are worms, worm castings. And they’re considered to be one of the richest source of fertilizers, they’re called black gold.

SABRINA IMBLER: Oh, wow, do you use that in your plants?

IRA FLATOW: Yes, yes, you can actually buy them online, or in a store, and a nursery. And a big bag of worm castings, and they say, just mix it in with your own soil, and you’re good to go, or make your soil a good home for the worms to live in. That’s why these worms are so– earthworms and other worms that you see are so important to have in your soil.

SABRINA IMBLER: That’s incredible.

IRA FLATOW: My little lesson for today. Thank you very much, Sabrina, for taking time to be with us today.

SABRINA IMBLER: Thank you for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Sabrina Imbler, Science Reporting Fellow for the New York Times, based in New York City.

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