Long before Chris Pratt was a velociraptor-whisperer in Jurassic World, Julianne Moore got licked by a Tyrannosaurus rex in The Lost World. It’s gnarly in the best way — and also extremely wrong, according to a study published Wednesday in PLOS One.
According to researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, depictions of tongue-wagging dinosaurs need a fact-check because dinosaurs couldn’t actually stick out their tongues. Instead of lizard-like tongues that could stretch, dinosaurs had tongues more similar to those of alligators: Fleshy slabs rooted to the bottom of their mouths.
That means that dinosaur tongues looked less like this:
And more like this:
Clark and her team came to this realization by comparing the hyoid bones and muscles of extinct dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and alligators to those of modern birds and alligator specimens. The hyoid bone is a horseshoe-shaped bone between the chin and the thyroid cartilage that supports and serves as an anchor for the tongue in most animals. Because extinct dinosaurs are related to crocodiles, pterosaurs and modern birds, the team theorized, comparing the anatomy of each would reveal similarities and differences in tongue anatomy.
“Tongues are often overlooked,” lead author Zhiheng Li, Ph.D. explained in the statement. “But they offer key insights into the lifestyles of extinct animals.”
The researchers compared high-resolution images of the hyoid muscles and bones from 15 modern specimens — including ostriches and ducks — and compared them to those of preserved fossil specimens found in northeastern China. This comparative analysis revealed that the hyoid bones of most dinosaurs were short, simple, and connected to a relatively immobile tongue, similar to the physiology of alligators and crocodiles.
This study serves as yet another recent revision to pop culture’s image of the dreaded dinosaurs. In 2016, scientists revealed that the T. rex didn’t roar, either.
Interestingly, this analysis also revealed insights on bird evolution. In the examination of bird hyoids, the researchers noticed a vast range of bird tongue shapes — a diversity that they hypothesize might be linked to flight. Shifts in tongue function likely happened as birds evolved and became more complex and mobile.
“Birds, in general, elaborate their tongue structure in remarkable ways,” says Clarke. “They are shocking.”