A Brief History of Reconstructions of Tyrannosaurus Rex

Timelines, Visualization


Tyrannosaurus rex is the most famous dinosaur in the world and has been since nearly the moment of its discovery. But while its status as the Tyrant Lizard King has been unchanged and arguably unchallenged (the most credible pretender to the throne being Spinosaurus, a semiaquatic predator from Africa), how the animal has been reconstructed and perceived by the public has changed significantly. Famous to the point of being the “default” dinosaur to many, how T.rex has been perceived by both the public and science, both in appearance and behavior, has gone through many iterations in the century-and-change since its description from an upright monster, to pondering lizard, to the modern understanding of this unique animal.


A screenshot of the Google Sheet used to generate the timeline.
The Google sheet from which the timeline was generated.

The timeline was created with Knightlab’s TimelineJS tool, which uses data pulled in from a Google Sheet template to automatically create and format a timeline and its entries, with space for further customization. I selected a sans serif/serif headline and body text font combination to provide visual contrast within the text, but more conservative examples of those font styles so as not to be too jarring, and light-grey backgrounds for the older photos and a black background for more recent works to bring to mind the fading of older ink. Media works were selected based on famous or defining works from the era, especially Knight’s paintings and Jurassic Park. While it is not specifically about Tyrannosaurus, the Dinosaur Renaissance provides crucial context to later developments in life reconstructions of the animal. Jurassic Park and Walking With Dinosaurs are programs from the same decade, but different purposes, one being entertainment and the other a documentary, but both were hugely influential in how they affected T.rex and dinosaurs in general in the public consciousness. The most recent reconstructions demonstrate how interpretation of fossil evidence continues to refine how the animal is reconstructed today, with more care taken in showing details from clues on the bone.

Jurassic Park is, the most important single work in the perception of Tyrannosaurus–and dinosaurs in general– today. Video credit: Universal Studios; Movieclip


There are two primary forms of reconstruction discussed in this time: skeletal reconstructions and life reconstructions, where an attempt is made to depict the animal as it was in life. They are of course not entirely distinct, as how the fossils are arraigned on display of course influences art that puts flesh on those bones, but this division made the two threads easier to follow.

One thing that is striking is how long it took for the upright, tail-dragging Tyrannosaurus to no longer be the most common depiction of the animal, which demonstrates the inertia of incorrect ideas long after the data no longer supports them. Scientific corrections can take a long time to take hold and displace the incorrect public consciousness without some displacing force like Jurassic Park that utilizes that data in ways that are accessible to the public.


TimelineJS is a solid tool to easily create attractive visualizations, but I was limited slightly by the tool and my lack of knowledge of HTML. I was unable to get HTML markups such as changing the text color to work in the tool, and I don’t understand why. Some markups, like putting a header tag in the spreadsheet, caused issues, probably due to the automatic formatting the tool is doing behind the scenes. My choice of topic was also not the best, as I feel that it was a little tangential to the class. If I were to further iterate or go into more detail, I would probably try to delve more into how each reconstruction was created from the measurements of fossils and other data that are incorporated into how reconstructions of extinct animals are made. I touched on this for the 2018 Mark Witton reconstruction, but it would have been better to do this for all the entries instead of the somewhat surface-level history. I would also like to add more examples and era divisions, but I was running into limits of the scope limits for this project- for example, there was a period in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s where reconstructions often included feathers as an overcorrection from learning that more dinosaurs were feathered than previously thought.