I recently saw a documentary about Tyrannosaurus rex, which detailed the growth stages of the dinosaur. Apparently, it underwent a huge growth spurt at around 14 years of age, growing into the massive predator so well known in the popular imagination. From what else I've read, this much seems uncontroversial.

However, it made another claim which is that pre-teen Tyrannosaurs had a radically different morphology from adults. The skull was smaller, the legs much longer and the two-fingered forearms far larger in proportion to the rest of the body.

Given that there is some limited evidence for the animal living and hunting in social groups, the program speculated animals of different ages may have filled different hunting roles. The faster, more agile teens driving prey toward the massive, slower adults which then tackled the actual killing. Lions in Africa hunt in packs in this way, but whether Tyrannosaurs did remains speculative.

Anyway, on seeing the body plan of the young Tyrannosaur, I immediately wondered at how any palaeontologist could identify it as the same species as the adult. And lo, the documentary went on to say that, for some years, it was presumed to be a different species.

So the question is: given the radically different body shapes of these two forms and the limited evidence one can glean from the fossil record, how were scientists able to conclusively identify that young and adult tyrannosaurs were, in fact, members of the same species?

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    $\begingroup$ Just to be pedantic about the scientific method, scientists seldom "conclude" anything. They propose a hypothesis, and then collect data to see if their hypothesis can be falsified. Paleontological species hypotheses are frequently overturned as more or better fossils are discovered. $\endgroup$
    – Karl Kjer
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 14:08

1 Answer 1


Radically different body shapes and sizes represent overall phenotype. Overall phenotype was used briefly in the 1960s and 1970s for species identification under a statistical distance method called "phenetics". However, phenetics has been rejected as a valid method of species identification. Similarly, although ecologists widely use the Biological Species Concept (Mayr) based on reproduction, taxonomists generally prefer some form of the Phylogenetic Species Concept. In addition, paleontologists find species concepts that require assumptions about reproduction in fossils to be difficult. The phylogenetic species concept uses the presence of fixed morphological characters to identify individuals as members of a species. Fixed characters need not be major, obvious differences. They need only be present in all members of a hypothesized species, and absent outside the species. That they are fixed in all members of a species implies a lack of gene flow, but the definition does not require that. So in the example you gave, juvenile T-rex must have some unique characteristic morphological feature that define them as members of the species (a synapomorphy). In addition, when there are a series of intermediate juvenile fossils, it becomes possible to link them together.


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