Our fossil collection is already the world’s largest. But we’re in search of a complete T. rex

Montana Scott Wing

For most 4- to 8-year-olds and for adventurers of all ages, Jack Horner has a dream job with max cool assignments—like being helicoptered into Montana's badlands to hunt for a Tyrannosaurus rex, the toothsome terror also known as T. rex. Dr. Horner is curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies and senior scholar at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). He discovered the first dinosaur nests with embryos in the Western Hemisphere and the first evidence that some dinosaurs may have cared for their young.

Last summer Dr. Horner began the search for another first. He and a research team were dropped into an area in eastern Montana, where there is a fossil-rich formation deposited at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, about 68 million years ago. There they hope to secure for the Smithsonian an original, exhibit-quality T. rex skeleton. (NMNH currently holds a number of T. rex bones. But the T. rex skeleton on display at the museum is a cast.)

A full T. rex skeleton would be a great addition to a paleobiology department whose origins date back well over 100 years. The Smithsonian's first dinosaur specimens, some of which were also found in Montana, were collected in the late 1800s. NMNH's full Triceratops skeleton, which a few years ago became the world's first anatomically accurate Digital Dinosaur (based on a precise 3-D scan), was originally mounted in 1905. And it was Smithsonian secretary Charles Walcott who, in 1909, first discovered the famous 505-million-year-old Burgess Shale fauna in the Canadian Rockies. These fossils, with unusually fine detail, are on permanent exhibit at NMNH.

Today the Smithsonian continues to be a leading center for paleontological research. And the NMNH Department of Paleobiology certainly represents the "history" in the museum's title. It holds more than 40 million fossils—the world's largest collection and one of the most diverse and most historically and scientifically significant. The plant and animal fossils include early traces of life on earth, more than two billion years old, and fossils, like those of woolly mammoths, “only” 10,000 to 20,000 years old.

Studying and caring for these fossils, as well as working at sites on every continent, on every ocean and in every region in the United States, are the 35 people who call the Department of Paleobiology home. They include 12 curators, internationally recognized experts in their fields who are constantly uncovering and describing evidence of past life. They reconstruct the relationships between extinct organisms and their environments, including taking a closer look at the greatest extinction event in earth's history, when more than 90 percent of marine species disappeared. And they increase our understanding of how conditions on earth have influenced evolution over time, such as how dinosaurs rose to dominance, and later how the ice ages affected the human lineage.

NMNH is in the early stages of developing a plan to ensure that this groundbreaking research and the museum's holdings are displayed in completely renovated paleontology halls. These new halls will allow visitors to learn, often firsthand from Smithsonian scientists, that the diversity of life is both staggering and ancient. The halls will continue to highlight the dinosaurs, but they will do so in a new and engaging way—by placing them (and museum visitors) in the context of their communities and changing environments.

The Smithsonian's T. rex project is generously supported by Smithsonian National Board member Edgar Masinter and his wife, Margery. Dr. Horner has promised that “we will find you a T. rex.” When he does, it will be the cornerstone of the renovated dinosaur halls. And it will remind millions of visitors that the treasures of NMNH include not just the paleobiology department's fossil collection, but the department itself.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.