National Geographic Daily News

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published April 14, 2014

After more than a decade of trying, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History will finally be getting its very own Tyrannosaurus rex, or "tyrant lizard king," on April 15.

The Tuesday morning arrival of this iconic dinosaur will cap a 2,000-mile (3,219-kilometer) journey that scientists, movers, and museum officials have been preparing for months. (See "My T. Rex Is Bigger Than Yours.")

Rancher Kathy Wankel discovered the T. rex while out hiking with her family near Montana's Fort Peck reservoir (map) in 1988, on land that belonged to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps kept the Wankel rex at the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Bozeman, Montana, for nearly 20 years, and have now loaned it to the Smithsonian for the next 50 years.

"We have the most T. rex specimens of any collection in the world," says Patrick Leiggi, administrative director of paleontology at the MOR. Since the Smithsonian didn't have its own T. rex, the MOR offered to help out.

Taking Stock

In some ways, moving a T. rex is as simple as wrapping it up, putting it in a box, and sticking the box on a truck. But when the cargo is a 38-foot-long (12 meters), 7-ton (6.4-tonne), 66-million-year-old fossil, not just any box or truck will do.

The first order of business is to dismantle the current exhibit and document each bone with photographs and written descriptions. This is called the "exit inventory," says Michael Trimble, a civilian archaeologist who directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' office in St. Louis, Missouri. Trimble's office is in charge of curating the Corps' natural history and archaeology collections.

Once the exit inventory is complete, staff members at the MOR will carefully wrap each bone in a custom cradle made out of plaster and burlap or cheesecloth, Leiggi explains. "Then they're packed in a lot of foam in the crates so that they cannot move."

Workers then screw tops onto each crate and apply a special seal. "It's like crime scene tape," Trimble says. "You can't get into the crate without breaking this [seal]."

Only officials at the Smithsonian are allowed to open the crates; if any of the seals are disturbed en route, museum staff will know something is amiss.

On the Road

The crates will then be loaded onto an 18-wheel tractor-trailer truck operated by the shipping company FedEx. (And yes, the Wankel rex will get its own tracking number.)

Each crate needs to go in a specific spot inside the temperature-controlled truck, says Virginia Albanese, president and CEO for FedEx Custom Critical, which handles high-end cargo, because it's important not to have too much weight over any one axle.

A husband and wife team will then drive the T. rex from Bozeman to Washington, D.C., arriving with the nation's tyrant lizard early on the morning of April 15.

Smithsonian staff members will then offload the crates and take inventory. They'll make sure all the pieces arrived and nothing got damaged, says Hans Sues, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. (It's not unusual to ship fossils between museums, and both institutions are experienced at it.)

Specialists will then do a conservation assessment, looking to see if there are any issues that need to be noted for future handling.

"A lot of [fossils] contain mineral compounds that over time, interact with the atmosphere," Sues says. Moisture or dry heat can affect those compounds and damage the fossil.

Assembling a Tyrant

The curation and inventory will last until October of this year. During that time, the public will be able to see the T. rex bones spread out in a special room. But once everything has been inventoried, the skeleton will be on the move again. The Smithsonian will send the T. rex to a company in Canada that specializes in creating custom cradles and supports for dinosaurs going on exhibit.

In earlier times, institutions would just drill through a fossil to attach it to a support structure when assembling a creature for display, says Sues. But museum staff now opt to avoid such damage. Aside from drilling away pieces of a potentially valuable specimen, Sues says, you run the risk of shattering the bones.

The MOR displayed the Wankel rex in its "death pose," nestled amongst the sediment in the same position it was found in.

Once the T. rex comes back from Canada, its bones will remain in storage until renovations are complete on the Smithsonian's new dinosaur hall, slated for a Fall 2019 opening.

Sues is excited about the Smithsonian's latest addition, which the museum has dubbed "the Nation's T. rex." The skeleton has an exceptionally well-preserved skull that researchers hope to examine to learn more details about the creature, including how it ate. "When you want to get information about an animal, the skull is the most important bit, really," Sues says. (See "Did the Real T. rex Resemble the One in Jurassic Park?")

All of the world's 20 complete and partially complete T. rex skeletons have been found in North America, says Leiggi. Most were discovered in the United States, yet none made it to the Smithsonian. The T. rex from the MOR will fill a hole in the museum's collection that it has been trying plug for quite some time.

"[It's] an iconic American dinosaur," Smithsonian's Sues says. And so it's appropriate that a T. rex will soon grace the halls of an institution some call "America's attic."

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

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