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Professor brings T-Rex into the classroom

T-Rex Feature
Students of "Team T-Rex" sit beside footprints they have arranged to depict the dinosaur's stride and speed.

Was Tyrannosaurus Rex the most dangerous predator of all time, or simply a big, fearsome scavenger? Students of Dr. Randy May at the University of North Georgia (UNG) are seeking to answer that question, which is part of an ongoing paleontological debate.

May, an adjunct biology professor in UNG's College of Science & Mathematics, is using the debate as a point of interest for non-biology majors. He created a laboratory exercise titled "Laboratory Exercise about the Coevolution of Tyrannosaurus and its Prey: Could Tyrannosaurus Chase Down and Kill a Triceratops for Lunch?" The exercise has also been accepted for publication in The American Biology Teacher, official publication of the National Association of Biology Teachers.

"I wanted to make the coursework immediately appealing to my non-majors, so I designed this challenge to use their critical thinking skills in solving a professional dilemma for paleontologists," May said. "This debate has been going on for more than 50 years; was T-Rex a predator, scavenger, or both?"

Team Triceratops
"Team Triceratops" with their footprints.

The exercise began with three film clips depicting Tyrannosaurus from the Discovery Channel and the movie "Jurassic Park." May then directed his students to make life-sized footprints of T-Rex and four of its known prey species, including Triceratops. A team of students produced "track-ways" for each dinosaur to attempt to determine the maximum running speed of each animal. The teams compared the results along with other data, such as dinosaur size and herding behavior, to see which species could have been hunted and caught by T-Rex.

Student Haley Fain, a junior majoring in exercise science, said it was interesting to examine how T-Rex may or may not have been a true predator. Many people consider how big the dinosaur's body and mouth were and think it must have preyed on others, but she learned that T-Rex was also slow and unstable, something she had not considered before the lab.

"The biology department is fortunate to have an instructor as innovative as Dr. May," said Dr. Nancy Dalman, head of UNG's biology department. "He has a proven publication record showing that activities such as his T. Rex lab engage students and promote greater understanding of content and, more importantly, challenge students to think critically about material presented in class."

Later parts of the exercise focus on other factors in the predator-prey relationship, such as defensive capabilities of the prey like the horns and neck frill of the Triceratops.

"The running speeds and the armaments are the coevolution part; predators want to eat and prey want to not be eaten, so some prey animals evolve to run faster and some develop defenses," May said. "In the end, the teams will analyze the data and decide if Tyrannosaurus was a lion or a vulture, or both."

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