New U.S. Space and Rocket Center exhibit showcases discovery of rare T. rex skeleton

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dinosaurs fascinate us – whether it’s the real ones we read about in science books or the Hollywood-born monsters like Godzilla.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is hosting the exhibit “A T. rex Named Sue” through Sept. 5, featuring a recast of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered. And, the story of how the famous T. rex was discovered is right out of a Hollywood script.

Good luck or good science?

You decide.

In 1990, a group from the Black Hills Institute had been searching all summer for fossils at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, and had discovered some Edmontosaurus bones. They were getting ready to leave when they realized a tire on their truck was flat.

While most of the group headed to town for repairs, Sue Hendrickson stayed behind and hiked to an eroding bluff she’d noticed days earlier. She spied some bone fragments that had rolled down the incline and looked up. It was like heaven for a paleontologist – several vertebrae were sticking out of the bluff face.

Hendrickson soon realized it was the find of a lifetime. Only 30 T. rex skeletons have ever been found, and of those, none more than 60 percent complete. Hendrickson’s find – the T. rex, named Sue for Hendrickson – was 80 percent complete and over 67 million years old.

So, luck or science?

“It was both luck and science,” said noted Huntsville author Homer Hickam, who wrote “Dinosaur Hunter” and has hunted for dinosaur bones in Montana with “Jurassic Park III” director Joe Johnston and famous paleontologist Jack Horner. “The team which found her used geological science to determine the general area where to look.

“But the actual discoverer of the skeleton, a woman named Sue, was not a paleontologist at all. She was an interested amateur who looked on a hill the professionals had skipped.

“Of course, after she showed them the bones she’d found, the professional paleontologists on the team knew they were from a T. rex and digging was required.”

Fact inspires fiction

Hickam can relate to the excitement Hendrickson felt when she found the dinosaur bones. He’s found the bones of T. rex and other dinosaurs during his hunts in Montana the last 11 years.

“I’ve been fortunate to find two Tyrannosaurus rexes of the 38 ever found,” Hickam said. “I’ve also found numerous specimens of Triceratops, Hadrosaurs and other animals of the Cretaceous era in Montana.

“My experiences out there led me to write ‘The Dinosaur Hunter,’ which, though fiction, is solidly based on fact. Part mystery and part adventure story, ‘The Dinosaur Hunter’ tells the story of a retired Los Angeles homicide detective turned rancher who must deal with murder and mayhem after a paleontologist arrives in the ranchlands to look for the holy grail of paleontology, a baby T. rex.

“I’ll be heading back out to Montana this June. We think we may be close to finding a baby T. rex – life imitating art.”

Shortly after the discovery of Sue, the fossil became the center of an intense ownership dispute that resulted in a decision to sell Sue at public auction. To ensure Sue would be preserved for future generations of scientists and visitors, The Field Museum in Chicago purchased Sue for $8.4 million.

The Field Museum spent more than 30,000 hours preparing the more than 250 bones and teeth in Sue’s skeleton and making exact replicas so that people around the world would have the opportunity to view and study Sue.

“Peter Larson, the man who found her, is a friend of mine, and he’ll be interested to get the reaction of Huntsvillians upon seeing her,” Hickam said. “Sue was an old lady when she died, so we suspect she had lots of babies during her rough life. She also had evidence of arthritis and many battle wounds, including broken bones.

“She was obviously a survivor and very brave. The world she lived in was one where only the most tenacious could survive.”

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