What did dinosaur meat taste like?

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Oct. 18 2010 7:09 PM

What Did Dinosaur Meat Taste Like?

Not like chicken.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Tyrannosaurus rex may have been a cannibal, according to research released on Friday. A team of paleontologists has discovered T. rex bones with giant teeth marks, suggesting the ancient carnivore either hunted their own species or scavenged their remains. What might these dinosaurs have tasted like?

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More like hawk meat than chicken. Many people have glibly suggested that a hunk of dinosaur flesh might have tasted like an oven stuffer. Birds taste a bit like crocodiles, they reason, and both are related to dinosaurs. (Birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs, and crocodilians are their cousins.) But this simple logic is probably wrong. Countless factors determine the flavor of meat, including the composition of an animal's muscles, its eating habits, and its hormones. Based on the evolutionary tree, we might speculate that T. rex tasted more like poultry than, say, beef or pork. Its flavor would likely have been closer to that of a carnivorous bird—perhaps a hawk—than a chicken. What does a hawk taste like? It's probably not far off from the dark meat of a turkey but would be more pungent because of its all-meat diet.

Crocodiles and chickens both have lots of white meat, which comes from their quick-acting, fast-twitch muscles full of pale glycogen. That fast-twitch anatomy fits these animals' lifestyles: Chickens stand around most of the day, relying on their large breast muscles for the occasional burst of flapping so they can escape into the trees when a predator threatens; crocodiles save their energy for quick lunges at passing meals. But an animal like a T. rex, which seems to have roamed the alluvial plains of western North America in a constant hunt for food, would probably have had more high-endurance, slow-twitch muscle tissue—the kind we think of as dark meat.

Furthermore, farm-raised chickens are mainly granivorous, dining on pellets of corn with small amounts of soy protein. T. rex was a carnivore, dining on herbivorous dinosaurs like triceratops (and, from time to time, his fellow T. rexes). That difference would likely have affected the flavor, in the same way that grass-fed cattle might taste a little different from their corn-fattened cousins. There were some granivorous dinosaurs, a few very closely related to T. rex, which seem to have subsisted on ancient precursors to the cereals of today. These animals might have tasted a bit more like chicken. The less specialized herbivores mostly ate plants like horsetail and ferns.

Drumsticks are likely to have been the most plentiful source of T. rex meat, with other large deposits in the neck and back. With such tiny little arms, Tyrannosaurus rex had a relative paucity of breast meat, though, at six tons per animal, there was plenty of just about everything. If the king of the dinosaurs had any white meat at all, it would have been in the tail, which may have been whipped around as a weapon. It's also possible that the tail was used exclusively for balance.

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Explainer thanks Nick Longrich of Yale University and Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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