Published: Fri, June 22, 2018
Science | By

Rex could not stick out its tongue

Rex could not stick out its tongue

In movies, meat-eating dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex are often depicted baring their teeth, dripping saliva and waving their tongues.

Stephen Brusatte, a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not part of the study, said that the researchers made a great observation about tongues.

The study concludes most dinosaur tongues were anchored down to the floor of the mouth, similar to those of current-day alligators.

The new investigation, carried out by the University of Texas at Austin in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says that fierce dinosaur such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex couldn't stick out their tongues.

Researchers were curious if all those dinosaur depictions were accurate, so they chose to find out how their tongues actually looked like. "But, they offer key insights into the lifestyles of extinct animals", Zhiheng Li, an associate professor at the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a statement.

These hyoids were compared with similar bones in small bird-like dinosaurs, as well as pterosaurs and a T. Rex.

Supporting this is the fact that unlike the land-bound T. rex, the flying pterosaur fossils had a much greater variety of tongues.

In order to compare the bone and jaw structures of each animal, high-resolution photos and scans of hyoid muscles and bones were taken from over a dozen modern animals, including 13 different species of bird and three alligators.

The results revealed that most dinosaurs had a short and simple hyoid bone connected to a tongue that was not very mobile, like modern alligators.


"They've been reconstructed the wrong way for a long time", said Julia Clarke, a co-author of the study.

Finding out more about dinosaur bones can tell us a lot about their evolution. "And in crocodilians with similarly short hyoid bones, the tongue is totally fixed to the floor of the mouth", said Clarke.

The research was published June 20 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Beyond simply being a fascinating look at how dinosaurs compare to their modern counterparts (gators aside, at least), the researchers suspect it has something to do with flight.

The dexterity of a creature's tongue might also have something to do with its ability to fly or not.

This may be related to sacrificing hands for flight.

"The shifts in the tongues of pterosaurs and birds seem to go with new diets enabled by flight", Clarke said. Plant-eaters like Triceratops and the ankylosaurs, which had to chew their food, also had complex hyoid bones. If you can't use a hand to manipulate prey, the tongue may become much more important to manipulate food. "We take birds for granted, but they have insane tongues", Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at Austin and one of the authors of the study, tells Davis.

Researchers hope that their work can inspire further research on the topic, especially as it's not clear when these changes started to occur in the fossil record.

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