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At the Perot Museum, a Feathered T. rex Comes of Age

Ronald S. Tykoski has spent 18 years with the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. We had to ask the curator about his latest T. rex exhibition, his Jurassic Park pet peeves, and his iconic mustache.
| |Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Ronald Tykoski
Tykoski explains that the image of the T. rex as we know it today is evolving—and today, there is discussion around whether or not the creature has lips. Elizabeth Lavin

Ronald S. Tykoski is the vice president of science and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, where he has worked since 2005 (when it was called the Dallas Museum of Natural History). The museum’s latest exhibition, on loan from the American Museum of Natural History, is titled “T. rex: The Ultimate Predator.” It runs through September 22.

The American Museum of Natural History first staged a T. rex exhibit in 1915. Its pose was determined by the physical space of the museum, and it changed over the years. So what did they send you, and how does it reflect our current understanding? When that mount was revealed, it reflected a mindset of these animals as big lizards. It had this tripod kangaroo-like pose, but it was also a constraint of the engineering of mounting this big, heavy skeleton, so they needed to brace it. But in the decades that followed, we started revising our picture of what these animals were like. The exhibit that is now here at the Perot shows Tyrannosaurus rex in a modern light, with the horizontal spine, head out in front, the tail out behind, beautifully balanced on huge back legs.

Does your T. rex have lips or feathers? This exhibit shows a life series of these animals, from hatchling, this fuzzy little turkey-like thing with big eyes; to 4 years old, well over a thousand pounds and depicted completely covered in insulation feathers; and then, by the time you get fully grown, 15 to 20 years in age, a big mama T. rex still retaining a bit of a mohawk of feathers. As far as lips go, there is a paper that just came out saying, hey, you know, if you take a look at the structure of the teeth and the damage you see on their teeth, it’s not matching what you’d expect for teeth that were exposed to dry air. These folks hypothesize that T. rex had nice, fleshy lips that would have hidden the teeth from view when its mouth was closed. If the American Museum of Natural History wants to revise these things and completely redo all of their stuff, they’re more than welcome. It’s their exhibit.

As someone who understands geologic time and our planet’s mass extinctions, do you ever think about pandemics and climate change and just kind of go, “Why are we trying so hard? It is just part of the history of our planet that species come and go. A little pandemic here, a little warming or cooling there—these things happen all the time. We are in a period where there is declining biodiversity, and it’s probably human caused. We simply eat up a lot of resources. We’ve driven a lot of species to extinction in the last few thousands of years, and we’ll probably continue to do so. But will that be on the level of, say, the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction caused 66 million years ago by an asteroid impact? I think the jury is still out on that one.

Should the Grapevine CVB adopt a new marketing campaign based on Flexomornis howei? That was a little bird that Kris Howe found there, and we named it back in 2010 in his honor. At the time, they were the oldest body fossils of a bird in North America. Yeah, you could put a little logo on there, a toothy little bird with some fingers and claws, if they wanted.

In the decades that followed, we revised our picture of what these animals were like.

What’s the one detail from the Jurassic Park movies that drives you crazy? My personal pet peeve is the Dilophosaurus, the little venom spitter from the first movie that eats the guy in the Jeep. I actually helped collect one of those when I was in grad school and then did a bunch of the prep work on the fossil. First of all, it’s a lot bigger. It won’t fit in a Jeep. Second, it has no neck frill. The first time I saw it in a theater, it was a palm to the forehead slap. Like, no, what is this? 

Have you ever spent the night at the Perot? I have not. It’s one of those things, like, I see these things every day. I have no desire to sleep amongst them.

Did the mustache get you the job or did the job get you the mustache? I’ve had it since I was 14. That’s the last time a razor blade touched my upper lip. It hasn’t always been this thick, but it definitely got thicker once I got to Dallas and I got lazier about trimming the bottom edges of it. My wife is very adamant about it. I am not allowed to alter or remove it ever.     

This story originally appeared in the January issue of D Magazine with the headline “Dig This Guy. Write to [email protected].


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Tim is the editor of D Magazine, where he has worked since 2001. He won a National Magazine Award in…