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Come Alive

Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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By Joel Achenbach Photographs by Robert Clark

Step aside, bone diggers and fossil hunters, a new generation of scientists is using computer modeling and a better understanding of living animals to bring dinosaurs back to life—virtually.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The bull gator lay in the sand under the oak trees. A few days earlier he had been hauled out of a murky lake in central Florida. Researchers instantly named him Mr. Big. He was sofa-size, with fat jowls framing his head like a couple of throw pillows. He would have measured thirteen and a half feet (4.1 meters) if a rival hadn't chomped the last foot off his tail.

Four people sat on his back. Excited alligators do more than thrash—they can spin like wound-up rubber bands. Yet Mr. Big, with his mouth taped shut and a towel over his eyes, was completely docile, as inert as luggage. He behaved like a gator basking in the sun rather than one in the middle of a science experiment.

Gregory Erickson, the scientist, stood a few paces away, grimly holding a plastic pole tipped with a little square plate called a force transducer. He intended to put this in the animal's mouth, to measure the force of its bite. Erickson also intended to retain all his body parts, which explained his serious countenance.

A man on the gator's back removed the towel and the tape. The animal opened its eyes and hissed. It was a factory noise, a steam pipe venting. The mouth opened as slowly as a drawbridge. The maw on Mr. Big was spacious enough to house a poodle. Erickson presented the force transducer to the largest tooth at the back of the right upper jaw—and the jaws snapped shut.

                                                    * * * * * *

The creature's jaws had come together with nearly 3,000 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of force.

The odd thing about this little experiment was that it was fundamentally about dinosaurs. Erickson, a paleobiologist at Florida State University, is an expert in the feeding behavior of tyrannosaurs, including the bite marks left on bones. That research spurred him to find out more about bites in general, which is why he's out here moonlighting with crocodilians.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Get an insider's look at how the photographer put bite into the NGM cover shot of a model T. rex skull.

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
"My, how you've grown!" If a dinosaur family reunion could be held today, this would be the catchphrase, since some dinosaurs grew at incredible rates—faster than almost any animal that has ever lived.

To estimate the growth rates of dinosaurs, paleobiologist Gregory Erickson of Florida State University and his colleagues measured the thickness of bones from fossil reptiles, then counted the growth lines in the bones. Making comparisons with living animals, they concluded that dinosaurs grew at rates considerably greater than living reptiles. They estimated that the giant plant-eating Apatosaurus (formerly known as Brontosaurus) gained more than 30 pounds  (10 kilograms) a day during its most rapid period of growth. The scale-breaking Argentinosaurus, weighing in at some 110 tons (100 metric tons), is thought to have gained more than 100 pounds (50 kilograms) a day! That still doesn't beat the blue whale, however: Taking on 145 pounds (66 kilograms) a day, it is still the fastest
growing—and largest—animal known.

—Kathy B. Maher

Did You Know?

Related Links
Dinosaur Database
How much did your favorite dinosaur weigh? Check the charts and get detailed information on hundreds of dinosaurs at this website. Link to a dinosaur dictionary and (with an audio player) hear how dinosaur names are pronounced.

Project Exploration
What's it like to be a field paleontologist? With Paul Sereno and his wife, educator Gabrielle Lyon, explore the challenges of working in such remote places as Niger, Morocco, and Inner Mongolia.

Science Spotlight: Lawrence Witmer
Contrary to popular belief, T. rex probably didn't have lips and Triceratops most likely didn't have cheeks! Visit the home page of a scientist who is literally changing the face of dinosaurs—and see what's going on his lab.



Bakker, Robert. The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction. William Morrow and Company, 1986.

Cadbury, Deborah. Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science. Henry Holt and Company, 2000.

Currie, Philip J., and Kevin Padian. Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs. Academic Press, 1997.

Farlow, James O., and M. K. Brett-Surman, eds. The Complete Dinosaur. Indiana University Press, 1997.

Paul, Gregory S., ed. The Scientific American Book of Dinosaurs. St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Scotchmoor, Judith G., and others. Dinosaurs: The Science Behind the Stories. American Geological Institute, 2002.


NGS Resources

Sereno, Paul C. Digging for Dinosaurs. National Geographic Books, 2003.

Barrett, Paul M. National Geographic Dinosaurs. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Ackerman, Jennifer. "Dinosaurs Take Wing," National Geographic (July 1998), 74-99.

Shreeve, James. "Uncovering Patagonia's Lost World," National Geographic (December 1997), 120-37.

Sereno, Paul C. "Africa's Dinosaur Castaways," National Geographic (June 1996), 106-19.

Webster, Donovan. "Dinosaur's of the Gobi: Unearthing a Fossil Trove," National Geographic (July 1996), 70-89.

Gore, Rick. "Dinosaurs," National Geographic (January 1993) 2-53.

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