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Paleontologists Speak Up: T. Rex Actually Looked More Like Barney

After years of seeing toothy T. rexes in popular media, a group of American paleontologists has finally stepped forward to set the record straight. In a study recently published in Science, the researchers compared Tyrannosaurus rex fossils with modern lizard anatomy and found they probably had lips.

The study involved tons of painstaking measurements. The researchers spent a particularly long time with a T. rex skeleton named Sue.

Sue is one of the most intact T. rex specimens on earth. She currently lives at the Chicago Field Museum. The researchers were able to take detailed measurements of her skull and compare them with monitor lizards like Komodo dragons, reports National Geographic. What they found was that Sue’s teeth weren’t actually long enough to extend below the average lip line.

Researchers also went so far as to cut a T. rex tooth in half to look at its enamel. The process involved a diamond-edged saw and was apparently quite “stressful,” writes Smithsonian. But what they found made the process well worth it. Measurements revealed that the tooth’s enamel wasn’t as worn down as it would have been if it had been exposed to air.

Sue the T. rex, on loan from the Chicago Field Museum. Image by Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty

The lip theory makes sense for other reasons. When an animal’s teeth are covered with soft tissue, they’re more likely to stay healthy and sharp. That could be an evolutionary advantage for an apex predator. The only downside is that the lips probably made it look more like Barney than a Jurassic Park villain.

So, why do so many T. rex illustrations involve long, glinting fangs? The researchers theorize that most artists have portrayed the T. rex with fully visible teeth because they assumed it was more related to crocodiles than other lizards. It’s also possible that giving it the look of a great white shark made it more interesting and thus more likely to catch viewers’ attention. (Given the Barney alternative, we can’t blame them.) But just because that’s how we’re used to seeing the dino in popular culture doesn’t mean its right.

That may feel disappointing to dinosaur fans who prefer the traditional fearsome image, but don’t worry, the researchers say. Just because an animal’s teeth are kept sheathed doesn’t mean they’re any less terrifying. After all, you still wouldn’t mess with a Komodo dragon, would you?

A Komodo dragon’s lips hide its teeth, keeping them sharp and ready to strike. Image by Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket/Getty
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