Was T. rex just a big freeloader?

Paleontologists have long debated whether Tyrannosaurus rex was a predator or a scavenger. In most previous analyses, scientists have scrutinized the creature’s teeth and jaws. Now, Graeme D. Ruxton and David C. Houston at the University of Glasgow in Scotland weigh in on the issue from another angle: whether a T. rex–size scavenger could have found enough dead meat to survive.

Ecosystems like the savannas of Africa could have provided sufficient carrion to nourish a scavenging T. rex, the researchers report in the April 7 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

On Tanzania’s Serengeti grasslands, enough herbivores die each day to provide about 4.4 kilograms of carrion per square kilometer. According to equations that Ruxton and Houston developed, that’s enough meat to feed a typical 6,000-kg adult T. rex if the creature had a reptilian metabolism, spent

12 hours daily foraging, and could detect carrion as much as 80 meters away. If T. rex could sense carrion at four times that distance, which some modern reptiles can do, the dinosaur could have missed out on three of every four corpses and still made a scavenger’s living, Ruxton says.

Even if T. rex had a high-energy metabolism more typical of mammals, the savanna probably still could have provided enough dead meat to support a scavenging lifestyle. Although the dinosaur would need much more food in that case, it also could travel faster and thus cover more ground to find its required calories.

Ruxton notes that the new research doesn’t prove T. rex was a scavenger; it only suggests that the meat eater didn’t have to be a predator.


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