Tarbosaurus: The Tyrant of the Late Cretaceous

From its formidable size to its fearsome hunting tactics, the Tarbosaurus reigned supreme. What does this colossal predator reveal about evolutionary history?

By Jake Parks
Dec 20, 2023 4:00 PM
Giant Tarbosaurus bataar dinosaur illustration
(Credit: Warpaint/Shutterstock)


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The Tarbosaurus, a prehistoric giant that once roamed the lands of what is now Asia, is a testament to the diversity and magnificence of the dinosaur era. With its fearsome appearance and dominant presence, this dinosaur has captured the curiosity of scientists and enthusiasts alike.

In this article, we’ll briefly dive into the fascinating features of the Tarbosaurus, including its size, habitat, diet, behavior, and more.

What Is the Tarbosaurus?

(Credit: Michael Rosskothen/Shutterstock)

The Tarbosaurus, meaning "alarming lizard" in Greek, was a colossal theropod dinosaur that thrived during the Late Cretaceous period about 70 million years ago. This period marked a significant phase of diversification in the dinosaur world, with the Tarbosaurus emerging as a formidable apex predator in its home region.

Tarbosaurus Size: How Big Was Tarbosaurus?

Resembling the famous Tyrannosaurus rex in many ways, the Tarbosaurus was an imposing creature, estimated to be about 33 feet (10 meters) long, 10 feet (3 meters) tall, and weighing around 5 metric tons – or about the weight of an African elephant. The most distinctive features of the Tarbosaurus included a massive head with a wide jaw lined with sharp, serrated teeth. It also had notably small forelimbs, a characteristic shared with other members of the tyrannosaur family, such as the T. rex.

What Did Tarbosaurus Look Like?

Tarbosaurus was a formidable predator, with physical characteristics well-suited to its role. Its small arms, typical of larger tyrannosaurs, were an evolutionary adaptation, possibly aiding in maintaining balance for a two-legged animal with such a large head.

Read More: How Do Scientists Reconstruct What Dinosaurs Looked Like?

The Discovery of Tarbosaurus bataar

Real Tarbosaurus skull found in Mongolia Gobi desert (Tanya_Terekhina/Shutterstock)

The discovery of Tarbosaurus, scientifically known as Tarbosaurus bataar, marked a significant milestone in paleontology. Unearthed in 1946 during a Soviet-Mongolian expedition to the Gobi Desert, the fossilized findings included a partial skull of a large theropod and cervical vertebrae. Initially named T. bataar by Evgeny Maleev in 1955, Tarbosaurus fossils have since paved the way for a deeper understanding of tyrannosaurids in Asia.

Uncovering Tarbosaurus Skulls and Skeletons

Later expeditions in the Nemegt Formation of Mogolia have gone on to unearth numerous additional Tarbosaurus specimens from roughly 30 individuals, including complete skulls and skeletons, allowing for more detailed studies of this species. These discoveries continue to be a rich source of information, providing insights into the life and environment of the Late Cretaceous period.

Tarbosaurus Habitat: Where Did Tarbosaurus Live?

The Tarbosaurus primarily inhabited the regions now known as southern Mongolia and China. And the discovery of numerous Tarbosaurus fossils over the years in this region has provided invaluable insights into its existence and behaviors.

The Tarbosaurus lived in a humid floodplain environment, a diverse ecosystem characterized by river channels as well as dense forests. This habitat, rich in flora and fauna, provided the Tarbosaurus with ample hunting opportunities. It's likely that this environment supported a variety of large herbivorous dinosaurs, which would have been the primary prey for this apex predator. 

Tarbosaurus Diet: What Did Tarbosaurus Eat?

The Tarbosaurus's diet was adapted to its environment and physical capabilities. It likely had a keen sense of smell and great hearing, compensating for its less developed eyesight. The Tarbosaurus was a carnivore, preying on large herbivorous dinosaurs and possibly even scavenging when opportunities arose. 

Its robust build and strong bite force allowed it to bite through bone, indicating it was a top predator in its ecosystem. Additionally, the structure of its skull and teeth suggests a diet that included large herbivorous dinosaurs, supporting its status as an apex predator.

Tarbosaurus Behavior: How Did Tarbosaurus Hunt?

Its strong bite force and robust build suggest it was capable of hunting and consuming large prey, including hadrosaurs and ceratopsians. Bite marks found on fossils like those of a Parasaurolophus further support the hunting and scavenging behavior of this species. Its skull, robust and rigid, was possibly adapted to hunt massive sauropods found in its region. This contrasts with the T. rex, which likely specialized in hunting large horned dinosaurs like the ceratopsian Triceratops.

Read More: How Sauropods Evolved to Their Enormous Size

Comparing Tarbosaurus vs. T. rex

The Tarbosaurus and T. rex, while similar, had distinct differences in their physical characteristics and likely hunting behaviors. For instance, the smaller arms and different skull structure of the Tarbosaurus suggest variations in its hunting tactics and prey choices. These different physical adaptations also may have been a response to the different prey available to the Tarbosaurus in Asia compared to the T. rex in North America

Though very similar, the notable differences between the Tarbosaurus and the T. rex provide valuable insights into the distinct evolutionary pathways of these ancient giants, highlighting the diversity and adaptability within the tyrannosaurid family.

Read More: 5 Massive Dinosaur Fossils and Where They Were Found

What Is the Evolutionary Significance of Tarbosaurus?

(Credit: Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock)

The discovery of the Tarbosaurus in Asia provides evidence of a distinct tyrannosaurid fauna that existed during the Late Cretaceous period. And studying its relationship with other tyrannosaurids – like Alioramus, Daspletosaurus, and Teratophoneus – helps scientists understand the diversity and evolutionary history of this group. 

The Tarbosaurus offers a unique perspective on the spread and adaptation of tyrannosaurids across different continents and environments, making it a crucial species for understanding the overall evolution of dinosaurs.

The Tarbosaurus is not just another dinosaur; it is a key piece in the puzzle of our planet's prehistoric life. Its discovery and further study help shed much-needed light on the rich and complex world of the Late Cretaceous, helping remind us of the ever-changing nature of life on Earth.

Read More: A Complete Dinosaur Timeline to Extinction: How Long Did They Roam Earth?

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