Nearly nine million or so plant and animal species inhabit our planet, about 1.8 million cataloged under the binomial system devised by the 18th-century Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus. Their Latin and Greek names have had plenty of time to lodge in our collective consciousness, but most have never taken hold. Felis catus remains a house cat, Drosophila melanogaster a fruit fly. We humans often can’t even accurately cite our own species—Homo sapiens, with the final “s.”
The one exception, whose scientific handle everyone gets right, is Tyrannosaurus rex, a marauding theropod that’s been dead for over 65 million years. Tyrannosaurus is a mashup of the Greek words for “tyrant” and “lizard”; rex, in Latin, means “king.” Larger and potentially more fearsome life-forms have existed, but the “tyrant lizard king” manages to dazzle us like no other. Why?
I tried to answer this question when reporting and writing my recent book, The Dinosaur Artist, a true story about international fossil smuggling and the scientific consequences of the bone trade. At the center of that account was a specimen from the Gobi Desert of Mongolia: a Tarbosaurus bataar, the Asian cousin of T. rex. They were so similar, they could’ve been twins. Whenever I asked people why they’re so captivated by rex and its kind, they usually replied with some version of “It was a real-life monster.”
Tyrannosaurus rex stood some 40 feet long and at least 12 feet tall, and weighed up to 15,500 pounds. It would have looked almost puny, however, next to a plant-eating behemoth like 105-foot-long Diplodocus. The awe surrounding T. rex owes to the apex predator’s imagined ferocity. Its serrated teeth are continually compared to bananas in size. Its head was as large as a bathtub. Its curved claws would have shredded other animals.
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Fossils are portals to what geologists and paleontologists call “deep time.” To hold a Tyrannosaurus tooth in the palm of your hand, or to encounter a skeleton up close, is to come into contact with tangible evidence of earth’s distant past.
That immediate connection with prehistory is on display in dramatic fashion at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s new 31,000-square-foot fossil hall. Holding pride of place is the reinstalled, 15-foot-tall T. rex skeleton, on long-term loan from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
T. rex lived during the Cretaceous, the geological period that ended when an asteroid strike wiped out the terrestrial dinosaurs. The first partial skeleton was discovered in 1902 by legendary fossil hunter Barnum Brown, a native Kansan. Brown found the remains in the Hell Creek Formation, a rich bone bed that runs through eastern Montana and into South Dakota.
By 1988, only nine mostly complete T. rex skeletons had been located, anywhere. Seven had come from Montana. On Labor Day weekend that year, rancher Kathy Wankel, who enjoyed bone-hunting in the Hell Creek with her family, spotted a fossil embedded in the dirt near Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir. She and her husband, Tom, tried prying it out of the earth, which had baked hard, like concrete, during the dry summer.
The Wankels were able to extract part of a shoulder blade and arm. They took the fossils to the Museum of the Rockies, in Bozeman, where the paleontologist Jack Horner recognized them as correlating to Tyrannosaurus rex. The museum dug out the skeleton, discovering it to be 85 percent intact—a remarkable percentage. Not only that—Wankel had unearthed a specimen that contained the first complete T. rex forelimb known to science. Because the interior of rex bones can be read like tree rings, paleontologists determined that this particular dinosaur was about 18 when it died, ten years short of the species’ estimated life span.
The “Wankel T. rex” at first was displayed in Bozeman. (The federal government owns it because the bones came from lands controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.) In 2013, the Smithsonian arranged for the skeleton to be displayed for the next 50 years in the National Museum of Natural History, as the centerpiece of its soaring new fossil hall.
Forty feet long, the skeleton is shown ripping the head off a hapless Triceratops. Its new name: “The Nation’s T. rex.”
The National Museum of Natural History opens its new Hall of Fossils—Deep Time exhibition on June 8, 2019.