This Is What Dinosaur Meat Tasted Like

We asked experts for insight into what tearing into a rack of Tyrannosaur ribs would be like, from a flavor and texture perspective, and it doesn't sound half bad.

Hilary Pollack

Hilary Pollack

Photo via Flickr user Kevin Dooley

Although we never got to meet them—except in our dreams, or our Michael Crichton novels and their film adaptations—dinosaurs have endlessly captivated the the human race. How big were they? What did they look like? Would it be possible to use science to bring one to life now?

When the MUNCHIES staff came across the news this week that a group of Yale and Harvard University scientists had found a way to manipulate chickens so that rather than beaks, they grew the snouts of Velociraptors, we started using our imaginations to delve deep into the implications of the dinosaur-bird ancestral connection. If birds and dinosaurs really do share so much genetic material, can a Brontosaurus be expected to taste like a chicken? Or would we have more of a red-meat experience, were we to barbecue an Archaeopteryx?

Ever-curious, we rang up Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, the lead author on the dino-chicken study, for insight into what tearing into a rack of Tyrannosaur ribs would be like, from a flavor and texture perspective. Maybe we'll never know for sure, but if Bhullar and colleagues can make a dino-chicken, they can probably make a pretty educated guess.

MUNCHIES: Hi! We're really curious about what dinosaur meat tastes like. Is this a clear case of "tastes like chicken"? Bhart-Anjan Bhullar: I can give you some pointers, I think. What range of birds have you had to eat?

Chicken, duck, turkey, ostrich, quail … probably a couple of other kinds, too. The number one thing to say here—and this is driving home a point that has been made ad nauseum—is that when you're eating birds, you are eating dinosaur. Birds are the remaining living dinosaurs, but they're very modified from dinosaurs and their antecedents. Of those, ostrich would be the most important, because if you'd had ostrich, you've had a part of the most primitive living bird. And as I recall—I've had ostrich and emu—it doesn't taste so different, but it's a little heavier-tasting, tougher, a little more earthy, but it's fundamentally pretty similar.

When you're eating birds, you are eating dinosaur.

That's the thing about all four-limbed vertebrates that are not mammals. They have a fundamentally similar kind of flesh, where the muscle tissue is—compared to mammals—sort of disproportionately composed of white meat. That's muscle that has fast-twitch fibers, which are designed for explosive bursts of activity, but not a lot of endurance activity. When you see lizards bolting from rock to rock or running after smaller lizards or something, or when you see a bird burst into flight from a bush, or a frog do one of its amazing jumps, all of these are these are these fast-twitch, glycolytic muscle fibers, and that's white meat.

And so even though something like a triceratops would be a kind of gigantic beefy animal, you couldn't expect it to taste like beef, because the red meat that mammals have is unique to mammals. It's all tied into the special physiology that we have. Much more mammal meat is slow-twitch fibers, which are designed for endurance or sustained activity. So when you're thinking about what a dinosaur tastes like, you're going to have to [focus] all of your thoughts over to the side of birds, or maybe over to alligator or lizard. I find alligator kind of gross—it's got a taste to it. It's often really greasy. It's oily as hell, and that probably has to do with the way their fat is distributed.

Now, primitive dinosaurs—like the earlier dinosaurs that you find in the Triassic, even the whole lineage that includes triceratops and ornithischians—they're very far, the farthest away from birds, actually, so you might expect that those would taste a little more like alligator. I bet they'd be a little greasier and stuff. And then, as you go down the line of meat-eating dinosaurs towards birds, you'd get things that would gradually taste less and less like your gross, greasy alligator and more like a turkey or at least an ostrich, I would think.

Tyrannosaurus would be a shift, because it's right in the middle between the primitive and the bird-like stuff—it had feathers and everything, so you'd have to pluck it and stuff before you could eat its drumstick.

They would have been the worst shedders. There was probably horrible dinosaur dandruff covering the planet in the Cretaceous period.

It for sure had feathers? When did that become the consensus, given that my childhood visions of a T. rex definitely didn't have feathers? It really became the known sort of scientific consensus in the early 2000s, when we started finding animals were of a Tyrannosaur grade of evolution. And even animals that were less closely related to birds, all of them were covered in these sort of long, filamentous, hair-like feathers. Really uncomplicated kinds. Then we started finding Tyrannosaurus ones and they had these big, complicated feathers. The big Tyrannosaurs—it was preserved in a lake bed in China from the Cretaceous. It was like the whole thing, lying there flattened out, and the feathers were there, and these were the biggest feathers ever recorded for any animal. This was a big, 30- or 35-foot Tyrannosaur. The feathers were a meter long. They found the preserved impressions and carbonized biological remains of the feathers sticking out of the body.

They would have been the worst shedders. There was probably horrible dinosaur dandruff covering the planet in the Cretaceous period.

So you need to pluck Tyrannosaurus, but I think they'd taste a little like alligators, a little like birds.

But ones that came after would taste just like chicken? The stuff that really has bird-tasting meat is when you get animals that were capable of some advanced gliding or flight. That's about where Velociraptors and Ovoraptors and things like that come off. The early primitive parts of the Velociraptor lineage were all little tiny animals that look like Archaeopteryx, and they could really do something in the air. Some people object to calling it flying, but they all had wings with full flight feathers. Velociraptor too, on its arms. Researchers have found the places where all the feathers insert all along their arms—they had a full wing.

Flying raptors were a thing? Velociraptors themselves might have been too big to fly, but their little relatives were doing some sort of aerial locomotion. Velociraptor was like an ostrich. Velociraptors and Deinonychus. The Jurassic Park "raptors" were actually Deinonychus, by the way.

Would there be any difference in flavor of the herbivores vs. the flavor of the carnivores? Yeah, I don't know as much about that because I've never eaten a mammalian carnivore, and I've never eaten a reptilian herbivore. The best experiment to do with that would be to get iguana meat [because they're herbivores], and compare it to, say, monitor lizard meat, which is a carnivore. What I've heard is that there's something to the flavor of carnivore meat—say, bear meat—there's kind of an acrid flavor to it. But I've never experienced it myself. The ancestral bird had a diet that was very omnivorous, so another way would be to eat a bird of prey, like an eagle or something. But I've heard that birds of prey taste really bad. Maybe that's why alligators taste so bad.

I don't think that much about alligators' diets, but it seems they mostly eat fish and water creatures? Yeah. Animals that only eat fish are actually the grossest smelling and tasting things of all. If you've ever smelled a seal or a whale or something, it's really bad.

What dinosaur would you most like to eat? If I had to kill and eat it, and wouldn't really get the pleasure of seeing it wandering around … It would have to be one of the big guys, one of the sauropods. It would have to be a Brachiosaurus. The awe of seeing a drumstick that size, of seeing a ribcage the size of a building. I've done a pig roast and stuff, and there's this primal satisfaction to gathering around with the rest of the tribe and picking off the meat from the ribs. So imagine how much that would be multiplied by standing on top of this ribcage the size of a building.

And it wouldn't smell like a whale. I'd hate to be the chef who would have to deal with that.

Thanks for talking with us.