Twenty Years of Tyrannosaurus Sue

Feedloader (Clickability)

Twenty years ago today, fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson discovered the dinosaur that now bears her name—the immense, 80 percent complete Tyrannosaurus rex called Sue. Arguably the most famous representative of the superstar of the dinosaur world, Sue is one of the most fantastic fossil discoveries ever made, yet the story of the discover underscores persistent problems that still confound paleontologists.

The route Sue's skeleton took from the Cretaceous-age rock of South Dakota to Chicago’s Field Museum was circuitous. Soon after researchers from the privately owned Black Hills Institute removed the bones from the encasing rock, a dispute arose over who owned the land where Sue was found and who had the rights to the skeleton. The Black Hills Institute crew had paid Maurice Williams, the putative landowner, $5,000; Williams later contended that this fee was only for access to his land and that the skeleton was his. Since he was a member of the Sioux Nation, the tribe also became involved in the dispute. “Tyrannosaurus Sue” quickly took on a distressing new meaning as the parties jockeyed for ownership. As it turned out, the land Sue was found on was being held in trust by the Department of the Interior, and in 1992 the FBI and National Guard raided the Black Hills Institute to seize Sue.

Eventually, a trial judge awarded Sue to Williams.

Then Williams decided to auction the skeleton to the highest bidder through Sotheby’s, and the event was set for October 4, 1997. Many paleontologists feared that Sue would wind up with a private collector, never to be seen again—but a partnership between a museum and several corporations secured the fossil for public display. While the bones would ultimately come to rest at Chicago’s Field Museum, the institution needed the help of Disney, McDonald’s and other donors to reach the winning $7.6 million bid for the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

Many of the problems that delayed Sue’s journey to the Field Museum and into the scientific literature remain. Land ownership is still a major concern for scientists and fossil collectors, especially when something agreed upon over a handshake goes sour. Paleontologists must check and double-check the provenance of the bones they are recovering so they can protect themselves and the dinosaurs they find.

Auctions and the fossil black market continue to do brisk business. All too often, exceptional specimens go from the ground into private hands and never receive the scientific study they deserve. The fact that Sue sold for nearly eight million dollars only made things worse, as it confirmed that underground fossil dealers could command hefty sums for museum- or university-worthy specimens. (This issue came to the fore again last year when it became known that paleontologist Jorn Hurum and the University of Oslo paid almost $750,000 for an exquisitely preserved fossil primate named Darwinius.) There are a few cases in which owners of purchased specimens do the right thing—like when the owner of the first known Raptorex skeleton, Henry Kriegstein, donated it to a museum in Inner Mongolia, where it had been illegally excavated—but for every act of generosity there are innumerable instances where money wins out. Indeed, in especially remote places, fossils are often yanked out from under paleontologist’s noses and wind up in a wealthy buyer’s showroom.

Aside from such controversies, Sue has provided paleontologists with a wealth of information about Tyrannosaurus rex. Just do a literature search for Sue’s official institutional identification—FMNH PR 2081—and you will find a stream of papers on subjects ranging from the animal’s arm and neck biomechanics to how the gigantic theropod grew as it aged. Sue has been a boon to researchers, and no doubt will remain so.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.