Tyrannosaurus or tarbosaurus?

10 April, 2011

<I>Tarbosaurus bataar</I> on display in Dinosaur Walk.
Tarbosaurus bataar on display in Dinosaur Walk.
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Question: I saw the big meat-eating dinosaur skeleton at the start of Dinosaur Walk and instantly thought it was Tyrannosaurus, but when I read the label it said that it was something called Tarbosaurus – what is the difference?

Answer: Tyrannosaurus and Tarbosaurus were actually very closely related (taxonomically they are from the same subfamily) and lived around the same time, 65 million years ago. Tyrannosaurus was named in 1905 and specimens assigned to this genus are found in what is now North America. Tarbosaurus was described 50 years later in 1955 and was originally described as a new species of Tyrannosaurus, was found in sediments in Mongolia. Even at the end of the Cretaceous, these two regions were separated by ocean, and were quite far apart.  So, the two dinosaurs were closely related but appeared to live in different parts of the world. Recent studies suggest that Tarbosaurus skulls were narrower than Tyrannosaurus skulls, but nonetheless there’s not a lot separating the two genera.

In essence Tyrannosaurus and Tarbosaurus are quite similar – very large, two-legged, large-skulled meat-eating dinosaurs with proportionately tiny limbs. While Tarbosaurus doesn’t necessarily have the same movie star appeal as its north American relative, it is still a very interesting genus. The skeleton on display in Dinosaur Walk is not a fully grown individual – we like to refer to it as a ‘teenager’. Keep this in mind when you next visit Dinosaur Walk – the adults were considerably larger.

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