Our fascination with Tyrannosaurus Rex

Tyrannosaurus Rex, king of the dinosaurs

At the American Museum of Natural History in New York City stands a goliath: The most accurate reconstruction of Tyrannosaurus Rex ever made.

And according to Mark Norell, head paleontologist at the museum, the exhibit is notable for some new ideas, such as the feathers. Newsflash: the king of the dinosaurs probably did look like it was wearing a bad toupee.

"And the eyes – one of the things that people don't understand is just how good these eyes were," Norell said. "Not only did these guys see in color, they see in more colors than we do."

tyrannosaurus-rex-amnh-exhibit-promo.jpg
A Tyrannosaurus Rex exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  CBS News

Looking at a juvenile T. rex model, Norell said, "So, it's hard to believe that this thing would grow up to be 40 feet long and weigh tons and tons and tons."

"It looks sort of like a road runner bird," said correspondent Martha Teichner.

"Well, they are very closely related to birds."

Cute, until they hit their growth spurt. "They grew really, really quickly between about the ages of six years old and 18 years old," Norell said. "Around six pounds a day during that time period."

And consider their teeth. "Just the overall bite force is around 8,000 pounds, which is tremendous, but the force on the tip of any single tooth is nearly half a million pounds," he said.

Yikes! Are you scared yet?

What do paleontologists call a pack of T. rexes? A terror of tyrannosaurs. The deadliest land predator ever to live is having a moment. Not only did the American Museum of Natural History launch its huge new exhibition this spring; the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., has reopened its fossil hall around what it's billed as "the nation's T. rex." It's also the subject of commemorative stamps issued in August.

In fact, T. rex is America's dinosaur.  Every one of the 60 or so specimens found so far has come from the Western United States or from Canada. Most of them have nicknames: There's Sue in Chicago; Scotty in Saskatchewan; Bucky in Indianapolis, among others.

"Barnum Brown is probably the world's greatest dinosaur hunter," said Norell. "He was quite a character as well. He used to dress sometimes in a tie and a beaver skin coat in the field. He was a notorious womanizer.  He worked as an intelligence officer under the guise of being a paleontologist."

Named after P.T. Barnum, in 1902 Brown found the first fossil skeleton recognized as a T. rex, in Montana. In 1908 he found another, even better one. 

Tyrannosaurus Rex caused a sensation. Since the American Museum of Natural History put one of Brown's discoveries on display in 1915, dynomania has only increased.

Nearly 300 million Americans bought tickets to the five "Jurassic Park" movies. For fans who can't wait 'til the next one comes out in 2021, there's the Jurassic World Live Tour, coming to a city near you with life-size dino puppets and animatronics that operate like incredibly complicated giant radio-controlled cars.

Meet a "Jurassic World Live" dinosaur

The show, like the films, plays on every kid's fantasy of meeting a dinosaur face-to-face (or at least digging one up).

What could be cooler than that? So, Teichner headed off to the Badlands of Montana – T. rex country – with a team from the University of Kansas led by paleontologist David Burnham.

Sixty-five to seventy million years ago, this was subtropical forestland, bordering a giant inland ocean. Burnham said, "What we're standing on is the last place dinosaurs can be found on this planet. They went extinct because a space rock crashed into the Earth."

Teichner asked, "How do you even know where to look?"

"What one has to do is learn how to read the rocks," Burnham replied. "You have that tan color sitting right on top of that gray mudstone there, and that interface for some reason tends to have more dinosaurs than any other interface."

One of Burnham's students found a T. rex here in 2017, a juvenile maybe 11 years old. The team named it Laurel. It is now in Burnham's lab at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, 15-20% complete.

That find, he said, was "incredibly huge. I mean, you don't find a juvenile T. rex every day."

KU student Jordan Van Sickler found Laurel's upper jaw in the summer of 2018.

It's incredibly hard work, scraping away, hour after hour, in what's called "the bone zone."  It's tedious with a capital T … until somebody finds something.  Less than an hour after "Sunday Morning" arrived on our first day, KU student Loren Gurche started turning up teeth. Then, volunteer Wes Benson found a tooth. "That particular tooth is literally the best find of my life," he said. "It hasn't seen the sunlight for, you know, 65, 66 million years until just now."

tyrannosaurus-rex-tooth-promo.jpg
A dinosaur tooth, which had been hidden in the rock strata of Montana for millions of years. CBS News

Each discovery is recorded in David Burnham's field book.

Volunteer Sara Naval, who got her "Jurassic Park" T-shirt in high school, has been dreaming dinosaur dreams ever since. "It's like looking for gold or treasure, but this was a breathing, humongous predator that was alive," she said.

Which is why, on her second day at the site, it was so exciting when Teichner found a T. rex tooth herself.Turns out the tooth belonged to another T. rex even younger than Laurel. 

Tally after four days of digging: 13 T. rex teeth and a bone. Not bad.

So, what else in in that hill, that's been keeping T. rex's secrets for 66 million years? 

Hugh Murphy's humorous T-Rex

GALLERY: Why it's tough to be a dinosaur

       
For more info:

      
Story produced by Robbyn McFadden.