A T. Rex Treks To Washington For A Shot At Fame

Apr 16, 2014
Originally published on April 16, 2014 4:33 pm

This week, scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History will start unpacking some rare and precious cargo. It's something the Smithsonian has never had before — a nearly complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Most people don't know it, but the T. rex that's standing tall in the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., is a fake — a cast, a copy of the bones. It's an accurate replica, but for decades the Smithsonian has coveted a real skeleton of a T. rex — the charismatic, 30-foot-long beast that's not only deliciously frightening to contemplate but also fascinating to scientists.

How did such an animal grow so large? How fast did it run? Was it a predator or a scavenger?

Now, courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., they've got one.

On a recent day, the Bozeman museum's director, Shelley McKamey, shows off a cast of the T. rex's skull on exhibit. The skull is more than 4 feet long, almost as high, and its gaping maw could bite a cow in half.

"This is MOR 555, which is the scientific name of the specimen," McKamey says.

This skeleton coming to the Smithsonian is no run-of-the-mill gift. Though it was found on federal land, and so belongs to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it is commonly known as the Wankel — after the Montana rancher who found it. It is one of the most complete T. rex skeletons in the world; 80 percent of the animal's original bones are intact.

So why give it up to the Smithsonian?

"The opportunity for this T. rex to be probably the most visited, the most famous T. rex in the world," McKamey says, "you know, it deserves its chance in Washington."

McKamey also points out that Montana is thick with dinosaur bones; 65 million years ago the place was practically crawling with T. rexes. The museum has another mostly complete T. rex — called Tex Rex — in its collection.

Down in the basement at the Bozeman museum, workers pack the last parts of the Wankel T. rex bones into wooden crates on a loading dock to be trucked to Washington. Watching intently is a tall, brown-haired paleontologist who's the beneficiary of all this — Kirk Johnson, the new head of the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. He's seeing the skeleton for the first time.

Johnson gives the dinosaur's arm bones, which are Velcro-ed into a white plaster cradle, his measured scientific opinion: "Wow. Wow. Wow." This was the first complete T. rex arm ever found. For such a giant beast, it's laughably small.

"I mean, the amazing thing is, look at this," Johnson says, as he holds the T. rex arm next it his own. "It's like my arm — my arm is the size of the T. rex arm."

As museum staff seal the box and tape it up, another scientist looks on with a big grin. Matt Carrano is the Smithsonian museum's curator of dinosaurs, and he's been waiting two years for this day.

"It is a little bit like Christmas early, you know," he says. "It's very rare that you get to get your hands on even part of a T. rex, right? So there's almost a complete skeleton over there."

The Wankel T. rex will be the star of the Smithsonian's new, $48 million dinosaur hall, now under construction. The museum draws 7 million visitors a year.

But Carrano says there's also lots of new science to learn from such a complete skeleton.

"You can do things like ask how old it was when it died, ask what kind of life it had before it grew up," he says.

The Bozeman museum, in fact, has used the Wankel to pioneer work on dinosaur histology — the nature of the material inside the bones — something few paleontologists had done before. They found evidence of tissue and blood vessels in T. rex bones, including in the Wankel.

Carrano says his first project with the Wankel is likely to be investigating the purpose of those little arms.

Return to NPR.org for more coverage of how the Smithsonian plans to make this meat-eating giant the nation's most famous dinosaur.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. are unpacking some rare and precious cargo. It is something the Smithsonian has never had before - a nearly complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. In the coming months, NPR's Christopher Joyce will check in occasionally as the tries to make this meat-eating giant the nation's most famous dinosaur. Here's his first story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: For decades, the Smithsonian has coveted a real skeleton of a T. Rex, a charismatic 40-foot-long beast that's not only deliciously frightening to contemplate but fascinating to scientists. How did such an animal grow so large? How fast did it run? Was it a predator or a scavenger? And now, courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, they're getting one.

SHELLEY MCKAMEY: This is MOR-555, which is the scientific name of the specimen.

JOYCE: In Bozeman, museum director Shelley McKamey stands eye to eye with the ferocious looking skull in the glass case in the museum's dinosaur hall. The room is dark with the rust-colored skull bathed in a spotlight beamed from above. It is actually even bigger than I thought. It's really huge, and just the teeth are incredibly frightening.

MCKAMEY: Quite large. We call them banana-size teeth.

JOYCE: The skull is over four feet long, with a gaping maw that could bite a cow in half. It's actually a cast for display. A copy of the real skull that's in the museum's basement, along with the rest of the animal, about to be shipped off as a gift to the Smithsonian.

Now, this is no run-of-the-mill gift. Commonly known as the Wankel T. Rex, after the Montana rancher who found it, it's one of the most complete T. Rex skeletons in the world - 80 percent of the animal's original bones are intact. So why give it up to the Smithsonian?

MCKAMEY: The opportunity for this specimen to be probably the most visited, the most visited famous T. Rex in the world, you know, its deserves its chance in Washington.

JOYCE: McKamey also points out that Montana is thick with dinosaur bones. Sixty-five million years ago, this place was practically crawling with T. Rexes. The museum already has another mostly complete T. Rex in its collection, called Tex Rex.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

JOYCE: Down in the basement at the Bozeman Museum, workers are packing the last parts of the Wankel T. Rex bones into wooden crates on a loading dock. Watching intently is a tall, brown-haired paleontologist who's the beneficiary of all this. Kirk Johnson, the new head of the Smithsonian's natural history museum. He's seeing the skeleton for the first time.

Workers pull off the top of Box Number 15 to give Johnson a look. Inside, the dinosaur's arm bones are velcroed into a white plaster cradle. They look like an entree in a porcelain serving dish.

KIRK JOHNSON: Wow, wow, wow.

(LAUGHTER)

JOYCE: This was the first complete T. rex arm ever found. For such a giant beast, it's laughably small.

JOHNSON: I mean the amazing thing is, look at this. It's like my arm. My arm is the size of the Tyrannosaurus Rex arm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

JOYCE: Museum staff re-seal the box and tape it up.

There's another Smithsonian scientist here, their Curator of Dinosaurs. Matt Carrano has been waiting two years for this day.

MATT CARRANO: It is little bit like Christmas early, you know. It's very rare that you get to get your hands on even part of a T. Rex, right, so there's almost a complete skeleton over there.

JOYCE: The Wankel T. Rex will be the star of the Smithsonian's new, $48 million Dinosaur Hall now under construction. The museum draws seven million visitors a year. But Carrano says there's also lots of new science to learn from such a complete skeleton.

CARRANO: You can do things like ask how old it was when it died, ask what kind of life it had before it grew up.

JOYCE: And what on Earth those little arms were for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING CRATES)

JOYCE: The next day, workers roll the crates out to a Federal Express tractor-trailer. FedEx is giving this the white gloves treatment, the truck will even have escort vehicles on its four-day drive to Washington. After the boxes are loaded, a crowd gathers on the windy front lawn of the museum to say goodbye. There's a hot dog lunch and a guy in a dinosaur suit.

And Kathy Wankel is there. She's the rancher who discovered the first bone in 1988. She didn't quite know what she had until she showed it to a paleontologist at the Bozeman Museum.

KATHY WANKEL: He took one look in that box and his eyes got huge. He said: You better come with me.

JOYCE: She's a little sad to see it go.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

JOYCE: Finally, the truck pulls off. Behind the wheel is the husband and wife team of Tammy and John Brubaker. The truck has got a 10-foot painting of a lunging T. Rex on the back.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MUSICAL HORN)

JOYCE: With a cavalcade of cars behind it, the truck drives down Main Street, past the old Baxter Hotel and Wild Joe's Coffee House, then out to Interstate 90. With two Chase vehicles for security following behind, it could be the only T. Rex that's been chased out of town.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.