In the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, one human character tells another that a Tyrannosaurus rex can’t see them if they don’t move, even though the beast is right in front of them. Now, a scientist reports that T. rex had some of the best vision in animal history. This sensory prowess strengthens arguments for T. rex‘s role as predator instead of scavenger.
Scientists had some evidence from measurements of T. rex skulls that the animal could see well. Recently, Kent A. Stevens of the University of Oregon in Eugene went further.
He used facial models of seven types of dinosaurs to reconstruct their binocular range, the area viewed simultaneously by both eyes. The wider an animal’s binocular range, the better its depth perception and capacity to distinguish objects—even those that are motionless or camouflaged.
T. rex had a binocular range of 55°, which is wider than that of modern hawks, Stevens reports in the summer Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Moreover, over the millennia, T. rex evolved features that improved its vision: Its snout grew lower and narrower, cheek grooves cleared its sight lines, and its eyeballs enlarged.
“It was a selective advantage for this animal to see three-dimensionally ahead of it,” Stevens says.
Stevens also considered visual acuity and limiting far point—the greatest distance at which objects remain distinct. For these vision tests, he took the known optics of reptiles and birds, ranging from the poor-sighted crocodile to the exceptional eagle, and adjusted them to see how they would perform inside an eye as large as that of T. rex. “With the size of its eyeballs, it couldn’t help but have excellent vision,” Stevens says.
He found that T. rex might have had visual acuity as much as 13 times that of people. By comparison, an eagle’s acuity is 3.6 times that of a person.
T. rex might also have had a limiting far point of 6 kilometers, compared with the human far point of 1.6 km. These are best-case estimates, Stevens says, but even toward the cautious end of the scale, T. rex still displays better vision than what’s needed for scavenging.
The vision argument takes the scavenger-versus-predator debate in a new direction. The debate had focused on whether T. rex‘s legs and teeth made it better suited for either lifestyle (SN: 3/2/02, p. 131: No Olympian: Analysis hints T. rex ran slowly, if at all).
Stevens notes that visual ranges in hunting birds and snapping turtles typically are 20° wider than those in grain-eating birds and herbivorous turtles.
In modern animals, predators have better binocular vision than scavengers do, agrees Thomas R. Holtz Jr. of the University of Maryland at College Park. Binocular vision “almost certainly was a predatory adaptation,” he says.
But a scavenging T. rex could have inherited its vision from predatory ancestors, says Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont. “It isn’t a characteristic that was likely to hinder the scavenging abilities of T. rex and therefore wasn’t selected out of the population,” Horner says.
Stevens says the unconvincing scene in Jurassic Park inspired him to examine T. rex’s vision because, with its “very sophisticated visual apparatus,” the dinosaur couldn’t possibly miss people so close by. Sight aside, says Stevens, “if you’re sweating in fear 1 inch from the nostrils of the T. rex, it would figure out you were there anyway.”