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How many Tyrannosaurus rexes roamed North America during the Cretaceous period?

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That’s a question Charles Marshall pestered his paleontologist colleagues with for years until he finally teamed up with his students to find an answer.

What the team found, to be published this week in the journal Science, is that about 20,000 adult T. rexes probably lived at any one time, give or take a factor of 10, which is in the ballpark of what most of his colleagues guessed.

What few paleontologists had fully grasped, he said, including himself, is that this means that some 2.5 billion lived and died over the approximately 2 1/2 million years the dinosaur walked the earth.

Until now, no one has been able to compute population numbers for long-extinct animals, and George Gaylord Simpson, one of the most influential paleontologists of the last century, felt that it couldn’t be done.

Marshall, director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, the Philip Sandford Boone Chair in Paleontology and a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology and of earth and planetary science, was also surprised that such a calculation was possible.

“The project just started off as a lark, in a way,” he said. “When I hold a fossil in my hand, I can’t help wondering at the improbability that this very beast was alive millions of years ago, and here I am holding part of its skeleton — it seems so improbable. The question just kept popping into my head, ‘Just how improbable is it? Is it one in a thousand, one in a million, one in a billion?’ And then I began to realize that maybe we can actually estimate how many were alive, and thus, that I could answer that question.”

Marshall is quick to point out that the uncertainties in the estimates are large. While the population of T. rexes was most likely 20,000 adults at any give time, the 95% confidence range — the population range within which there’s a 95% chance that the real number lies — is from 1,300 to 328,000 individuals. Thus, the total number of individuals that existed over the lifetime of the species could have been anywhere from 140 million to 42 billion.

“Our calculations depend on this relationship for living animals between their body mass and their population density, but the uncertainty in the relationship spans about two orders of magnitude,” Marshall said. “Surprisingly, then, the uncertainty in our estimates is dominated by this ecological variability and not from the uncertainty in the paleontological data we used.”

As part of the calculations, Marshall chose to treat T. rex as a predator with energy requirements halfway between those of a lion and a Komodo dragon, the largest lizard on Earth.

The issue of T. rex‘s place in the ecosystem led Marshall and his team to ignore juvenile T. rexes, which are underrepresented in the fossil record and may, in fact, have lived apart from adults and pursued different prey. As T. rex crossed into maturity, its jaws became stronger by an order of magnitude, enabling it to crush bone. This suggests that juveniles and adults ate different prey and were almost like different predator species.

This possibility is supported by a recent study, led by evolutionary biologist Felicia Smith of the University of New Mexico, which hypothesized that the absence of medium-size predators alongside the massive predatory T. rex during the late Cretaceous was because juvenile T. rex filled that ecological niche.

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