Meditating with a Dinosaur
By Amy McDermott
On a misty July morning in Chicago, Illinois, my sneakers squeak against the polished marble floor of the Field Museum of Natural History. It’s 6:30 am and the main hall is, barring my steps, empty, silent, still. Dew clings to my jacket.
Ahead, flooded in soft light, a Tyrannosaurus rex: specimen FMNH PR 2081, better known as Sue.
At 13 feet tall and 40 feet long, Sue is the largest T. rex unearthed to date. Her rust brown skeleton balances, forward and upright, on the fulcrum of her massive hind legs. Her right foot treads delicately ahead of her left; her head is cocked slightly. She looks like a massive wingless chicken, prowling the barnyard for seed.
A few years ago, I watched a brood of hens scour the dust of a barn in southern Washington for corn kernels and bugs. The birds walked slowly, delicately placing one foot before the other. Then: sudden rustling. They snapped to attention. A grey mouse burst from a patch of undergrowth alongside the barn.
A large red hen caught the mouse first and ran with it, trailed by the screaming flock. A second chicken caught up, grabbed the mouse’s plump body and pulled. The chickens ran and pecked and pulled until the mouse came apart. Entrails smeared their tawny feathers, and the bare skin around their amber eyes.
Sixty-seven million years ago, Sue behaved similarly.
Most paleontologists believe that T. rex was an opportunist, searching the landscape for food. Sue may have primarily scavenged, using her large nasal passages to smell carrion on the wind, but she probably also hunted when she could. Beneath her massive skeleton, I am reminded of those chickens in Washington, and feel very much like a mouse.
What would Sue have looked like on a hunt? Did she even hunt? How many animals, if any, did she kill in her lifetime? What did Sue think about all day? Was her brain wired anything like mine?
This morning, and every morning, before the museum opens and its great hall reverberates with human voices, I stand awed in the shadow of a dinosaur. I peer at Sue and draw a sharp breath at the thought of being hunted. I wonder about that mouse’s last moments in southern Washington, and imagine Sue tearing into my soft belly. To me, she is a giant scaly chicken with 58 fist-sized scimitar teeth (modern birds do descend from small theropod dinosaurs—the same suborder to which T. rex belonged.)
And while I am frightened of her, I can also relate to Sue. Human beings now, like adult T. rex in their day, have few natural predators, and sit squarely at the top of the food chain. And yet, like T. rex, humans are also a fragile species, vulnerable to environmental change.
In Sue, I see an animal (and a species, and a family, and a clade) silenced by the thinnest margin of chance, whose fossilized bones endure reassembled in an opulent institution of human learning. Eyes squeezed shut, I stand reverently below this extinct giant and remember that my life is also finite, and that humanity, for all our ubiquity today, could just as easily slip.
Amy McDermott is a graduate student at Columbia University, where she studies marine conservation biology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org