It all started with a flat tire and a curious paleontologist named Sue Hendrickson.
In the summer of 1990, Hendrickson was working on a commercial fossil hunting expedition outside of Faith, South Dakota. One day the team woke up to find their truck had a flat tire. So while the rest of the team went to town to fix the flat, Sue used the time to look for dinosaur fossils in some cliffs a few miles away.
“As she arrived at the cliffs and was hiking, she noticed that there were bone fragments. She looked at the cliffs above and spotted huge bones, so she climbed the cliff. Then in looking at the sheer magnitude of the bones, she thought she might have found a T. Rex skeleton,” said Lindsay Washburn, Traveling Exhibitions Coordinator for the Field Museum in the Chicago.
It took the six-member team 17 days to remove the Tyrannosaurus Rex’ skeleton from the rocky matrix. Washburn said it took Field Museum preparators two years or 30,000 hours to then remove each of the T. Rex’s 250 bones from the matrix.
The T. Rex was named Sue after Sue Hendrickson.
“Not only is Sue important because it’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex which has long dominated popular perceptions of the age of dinosaurs but this is the largest, most complete and best preserved T. Rex ever discovered,” said Washburn.
In fact, the first T. Rex specimen was found just after the turn of the century and since then, several specimens have been discovered but none were more than 60% complete where Sue is 90% complete.
So just how difficult is it to find a T. Rex in the first place?
Dr. George Engelmann, Professor of Geology at UNO, said it is rare to find any kind of dinosaur. He said most animals that moved on land lived in a place that was constantly being eroded rather than accumulating sediment. For remains to be preserved, Dr. Englemann said they generally have to be buried.
“So you have much better records of fossils in reed environments than you do on land environments. That tends to make terrestrial organisms rare,” he said.
According to Dr. Englemann, even where sediment accumulates, you still have to have just the right conditions for fossils to be preserved long-term, “Unfortunately, most of the places where organisms die, they don’t get buried and even the places where the remains get buried, in most cases they disintegrate even in the soil.”
As soon as Sue was unearthed, an intense legal dispute began. Washburn said this was largely due to where the fossil was found. Usually, when an individual is looking to dig up bones, they have to have the landowner’s permission.
In this case, it wasn’t exactly clear who owned the land. She said that was because the bones were discovered on part of a Sioux Indian Reservation. But that land was actually owned by a private rancher and it was being held in trust by the US government, further complicating the issue.
“He stated that he never allowed them to remove anything that was found. A long legal battle ensued and eventually the court ruled that the dinosaur belonged to the rancher on whose land it was discovered,” Washburn explained.
Ultimately, the rancher decided to sell Sue at public auction. And on October 4, 1997, the dinosaur skeleton was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York City. It took eight minutes for the Field Museum to place the wining bid of $8.4 million.
Sue was first put on display in 2000 at the museum.
Washburn said Sue is really is one of the most celebrated members of her species and her discovery has allowed for a variety of scientific discovery on T. Rex growth, behavior and biology, so she’s extremely important in that regard.
Dr. Engleman agreed, “Sue has gotten a lot of notoriety because of the high value that it sold for at auction, but the real value of fossils is the information that they can give us about the past history of life on earth.”
In order to share that knowledge with as many people as possible, the preparators at the Field Museum made molds from Sue’s bones when they were removing them from the rocky matrix. The molds were filled with plastic and fiberglass and two exact, fully articulated copies were made from them. That’s 250 bones and 58 teeth.
“The Field Museum then mounted these bones and that is what travels around to North America and internationally. So an exact copy of Sue, measuring 42 feet long and 12 feet high at the hips is what will be on display at the Durham Museum,” said Washburn.
She said the exhibition travels in three trucks and takes five days to install with a day and half spent assembling Sue. The skeleton exists in seven different pieces that the Field Museum Production Supervisor puts together through a series of keyholes. It’s a process Washburn deemed incredible.
“I have been to a few installs and you almost want to get a bag of popcorn because it’s so entertaining and interesting to see how these things fit together,” she said.
The exhibition also includes nine interactive pods that allow visitors to see what it would have been like for Sue to live 67 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period, as well as what scientists have learned by studying her bones.
Washburn said the pods explore different hypotheses on how T. Rex used its arms, how it hunted for prey and how it used its tail as a balancing tool. She said visitors would also see how Field Museum scientists studied the bones of Sue. At the time, they used what was considered a revolutionary technique: CT Technology.
Previously, when a scientist wanted to peek into a T. Rex skull, they would cut it open, which would forever alter the skeleton.
In Sue’s case, Washburn said a huge CT scanner was used to examine the dinosaur’s skull. She said the scanner was one used to look for flaws in missiles.
“That’s to give you an idea of how big a T. Rex skull is. And from that they were able to figure out that Sue had incredibly large olfactory bulbs, almost as large as her brain. From this information, scientists believe T. Rex had an incredible sense of smell making it a successful hunter and predator,” Washburn explained.
She loves the exhibition because it gives a lot of great information about this species that has long captivated the imagination of the general public. Washburn said her favorite part of the exhibit is the proximity people have to the T. Rex skeleton.
“You’re really doing something that few animals have done and lived to tell the tale, which is look a T. Rex in the eye. You have the opportunity to get a face-to-face look at one of the largest meat eaters to have ever inhabited the Earth. That’s certainly one of my favorite aspects of the show,” she said.
A T. Rex Named Sue runs May 25th through September 8th at Durham Museum, 801 South 10th Street, Call 402.444-5071 or visit durhammuseum.org.