Science

T-rex could not stick out his tongue, new research shows

Most dinosaurs were forced to mind their manners because their tongues were short and immobile.

Tyrannosaurus rex may have had many other ways of being rude, but he could not stick out his tongue, research has shown.

Like alligators, most dinosaurs had short tongues that were firmly rooted to the floor of their mouths.

Scientists made the discovery by comparing hyoid bones that anchor the tongue in dinosaur fossils and modern bird and alligator specimens.

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

Dinosaur fossils from northern China with preserved hyoid bones (Li et al/PA)

Lead researcher Dr Zhiheng Li, who carried out the work at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geoscience in the US, said: “Tongues are often overlooked. But, they offer key insights into the lifestyles of extinct animals.”

The findings are reported in the online journal Public Library of Sciences ONE.

Dr Li’s team studied high-resolution images of hyoid muscles and bones from 15 modern specimens, including three alligators and 13 birds ranging from ducks to ostriches.

Evidence of the delicate tongue bones was also identified in fossils of small bird-like dinosaurs, as well as flying pterosaurs and T-rex.

The results suggest the hyoid bones of most dinosaurs were like those of alligators and crocodiles – short, simple and connected to a rigid tongue.

Co-author Professor Julia Clarke, also from the University of Texas, said dramatic depictions of long-tongued dinosaurs were wrong.

“They’ve been reconstructed the wrong way for a long time,” she said. “In most extinct dinosaurs their tongue bones are very short. And in crocodilians with similarly short hyoid bones, the tongue is totally fixed to the floor of the mouth.”

Short tongues were firmly rooted to the floor of their mouths (Spencer Wright)

An exception was the ornithischian group of plant-eating dinosaurs, which included the three-horned triceratops and armoured ankylosaurs.

They had hyoid bones that were highly complex and more mobile.

Pterosaurs, flying dinosaurs such as Archaeopteryx  and modern birds also had complex and mobile tongues, said the scientists.

This may be related to sacrificing hands for flight.

“If you can’t use a hand to manipulate prey, the tongue may become much more important to manipulate food,” said Dr Li.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access