Seattle’s Burke Museum took delivery of what’s recognized as one of the finest Tyrannosaur rex skulls in the world today, but there are still more bones out in Montana to add to the treasure.
“We’ll go back again,” Greg Wilson, a University of Washington biologist who led the excavation team at Montana’s Hell Creek Formation, told GeekWire at the arrival ceremony. “There’s more in the hill.”
It’ll take more than a year to do the preparatory work on the skull and more than 50 other T. rex bone specimens that have been recovered over the past couple of months, including vertebrae, ribs, hips and lower jaw bones.
The haul so far appears to account for about 20 percent of the complete skeleton. That puts the Burke Museum’s set of fossils among the world’s top 25 T. rex finds, Wilson said. He told reporters that the museum’s T. rex skull will be the only one to go on public display in Washington state.
“This is a huge discovery for the Burke Museum, science in general, and the state of Washington,” he said as he stood alongside the flatbed truck that brought the plaster-wrapped skull to Seattle overnight.
Minutes after Wilson spoke, a forklift operator carefully raised the 3,000-pound-plus hulk off the flatbed, moved it onto a pallet, and deposited it in the museum’s loading dock.
The skull, still encased in rock and plaster, will go on display in the museum’s lobby on Saturday and stay there until Oct. 2. Then the Burke’s paleontology team will go to work.
The museum expects to put the partially prepared skull on exhibit again next year for its annual Dino Weekend in mid-March, and then show off the specimen in its full glory by the time the museum’s new building opens in 2019.
Wilson and his colleagues already have figured out some of the T. rex’s history. It was probably about 15 years old, close to full adulthood, when it died about 66.3 million years ago. That time frame would be 300,000 years before the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs (except for birds, which are considered the modern-day descendants of dinosaurs).
Based on the size of its skull, the T. rex was about 40 feet long and 15 to 20 feet tall in life. Its hips would have come up nearly to the height of a city bus, Wilson said.
The discovery drew praise from Nathan Myhrvold, the CEO of Intellectual Ventures, who has conducted and supported paleontological research in the Hell Creek Formation. “This is really great news. … The T. rex has always been my favorite dinosaur, and I’m really pleased that this one is going to make its home at the Burke Museum,” he said in a statement.
Veteran dino-hunter Jack Horner said the T. rex trove “is definitely one of the most significant specimens yet found, and because of its size, is sure to yield important information about the growth and possible eating habits of these magnificent animals.”
The initial find was made in May 2015, while Burke volunteers Jason Love and Luke Tufts were taking an exploratory hike through a little-traveled area of the Hell Creek Formation.
“We came around a corner and saw some really big pieces of bone,” Love recalled. Their interest grew when they noticed that some of the bones had the honeycomb appearance associated with big predatory dinosaurs like T. rex.
Confirmation of the find, and the excavation itself, had to wait until the professionals came onto the scene. Tufts and Love have been fossil-hunters since their college days, but they’re not trained paleontologists. Tufts is an accountant, while Love is a pathologist specializing in blood diseases.
“We don’t do any digging, we don’t do any disturbing of the fossils, because we’re not the experts,” Love explained.
The Burke Museum got into the act because it holds a permit from the Bureau of Land Management to conduct excavations on federal land in the Hell Creek Formation.
Wilson said examining the bones in the field was a long process, involving 30 to 45 people. Finally, during this summer’s field season, Wilson and his team removed more than 20 tons of dirt around the skull and the surrounding rock. At one point, a local rancher lent his hay bale loader to help lift the chunk of rock out of the ground.
During excavation, paleontologists exposed the right side of the fossilized skull from base to snout, including teeth. Researchers assume that the rest of the skull will come to light once additional rock is chipped away.
To honor the discoverers, Wilson said the specimen would be known as the “Tufts-Love Rex.” That kind of recognition tickled Tufts and Love, who have been dinosaur fans since childhood.
“This is a big thrill for a couple of aging guys in their 40s,” Love said.