National Geographic Daily News

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published April 15, 2014

Under cloudy skies and the threat of rain, conservators at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History unloaded the Nation's Tyrannosaurus rex. Sixteen crates holding this 66-million-year old addition to the institution's exhibits rolled into the museum early on Tuesday morning.

The conservators will check to make sure that this 7-ton (6.4-tonne) animal arrived in the same condition in which it left Montana last Friday, April 11.

The bones will be laid out in the "Rex room" for public viewing starting at 10 a.m. today while museum staff carry out an inventory of the bones. Four other skulls from animals in the Tyrannosaur family will also be on display in the same room.

The arrival of Washington, D.C.'s newest celebrity capped off a roughly 2,000-mile (3,219-kilometer) journey that scientists, movers, and museum officials have been planning 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 meter), 7-ton (6.4 tonne), 66-million-year-old fossil, not just any box or truck will do.

The first order of business was to dismantle the exhibit in Montana 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 staff members at the MOR completed their exit inventory, they carefully wrapped 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 screwed tops onto each crate and applied 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.

Watch: How T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

On the Road

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

Each crate goes 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 then drove the T. rex from Bozeman to Washington, D.C., arriving with the nation's tyrant lizard early on the morning of April 15.

During their inventory, Smithsonian staff members will make sure all the pieces arrived and nothing got damaged, says Hans Sues, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. (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 15 of this year. During that time, the public will be able to see the T. rex bones spread out in the Rex 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.

5 comments
Sebastian Bassi
Sebastian Bassi

So this T. Rex will be available in the Smithsonian until October 15?

Xuan Tian
Xuan Tian

I am curious about how they integrate these bones to be an entire body, with glue?

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Sebastian Bassi  Yes, the public will be able to see this T. rex at the museum until October. It won't be assembled...they have the various bones divvied up between its shipping crates, but you'll still be able to see the actual fossils. You'll also be able to see four other intact skulls from the Tyrannosaur family in the back of the room.


After October, the public won't be able to see this particular rex until the dinosaur hall reopens.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Xuan Tian  There's a company that specializes in this sort of thing. Basically they secure the bones in padded cradles with removable brackets. This allows researchers or curators to take down specific bones they want to study or work on without having to take a torch to the supports to disassemble the skeleton.

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