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You Too Could Find a Dinosaur
How Susan Hendrickson Found The Fossil T-Rex Sue

By: John Shepler

Something was bothering Susan Hendrickson that misty morning of August 12, 1990. She sensed that something, perhaps someone, important was waiting for her on the barren cliff face three miles from camp. So, she passed on a trip to town and headed off on a prospecting walk with her dog, Gypsy.

Me and T RexSusan is a fossil collector. Her job is to find and recover the bones of ancient animals or impressions of shells and ferns cast in fine detail within the rocks of north-central South Dakota. Her colleagues at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research then prepare and sell the fossil specimens to museums, professional researchers and collectors around the world. There's always an element of thrill in each find, no matter how small. But there's also the possibility of finding something big, perhaps as big and rare as a Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur.

Susan's hunch was right. There were bones, huge bones sticking out of that unexplored cliff face. They'd been weathering out for almost a hundred years, and some were literally dropping out of the rock and onto the ground. Most impressive was string of vertebrae going right into the hill. Susan grabbed a couple fragments of vertebrae and carried them to the site where her boss and president of the institute, Peter Larson, was excavating a partial Triceratops skull. When Peter looked at them, he knew immediately what they had found. The bones of carnivorous dinosaurs are unique in their sponge-like construction, and these were certainly the dorsal vertebrae of T. Rex.

Tyrannosaurus Rex is famous as the giant flesh ripping "thunder lizard" of Jurassic Park. There must have been millions of them prowling the dense forests of the Late Cretaceous Period, some 70 million years ago. Yet only 25 skeletons of Tyrannosaurus Rex have ever been found and only one of those by a professional research scientist. All the rest have been spotted by keen observers, enthusiasts and collectors who were in the right place at the right time to catch them as they re-emerged from the rocks and into the eroding sun and wind.

That's important, because fossils start to disintegrate almost immediately after they lose the protection of the rocks that have encased them for tens of millions of years. "Science depends on amateurs," I hear Peter Larson say, as he spoke at the opening of the new Robert Solem Wing of Burpee Museum of Natural History here in Rockford, IL. There are simply not enough professionals to cover the territory.

Susan Hendrickson found the best Tyrannosaurus Rex specimen yet. Peter Larson quickly named it Sue, after its discoverer. Only later, when the pelvic bones had been recovered and examined did they find that Sue was indeed a female dinosaur. That was just the beginning of what they learned. Sue clearly had broken a leg, but that is not how she died. The leg had healed during a long period of convalescence, where her survival had almost certainly depended upon the long term care provided by her mate. It is likely that T. Rex, for all its infamy, was both monogamous and nurturing.

These are the little pieces of the puzzle that come from studying bones, footprints, impressions of leaves. Even the contents of dino droppings that reveal what was on the menu in prehistoric times. As I watch the slides and listen to the enthusiasm of discovery in Peter Larson's voice, I can't help but think there is more opportunity for scientific discovery by people like ourselves than we can possibly imagine.

The need is there, too. Professional paleontologists can't possibly be everywhere and find everything. Amateur fossil hunters, with their boundless enthusiasm and thirst for weekend and summer adventures, will continue to find rare bones just around the next big rock. Amateur astronomers will continue to find new comets among the stars, as they peer through telescopes of their own making. Amateur radio operators have often been the first to pioneer new communications technologies such as long distance short wave radio, satellites, bouncing radio signals off the moon and meteor trails.

One of my most cherished books from childhood is The Scientific American Book of Projects for The Amateur Scientist by C. L. Stong. I found it at the Museum of Science and Industry when I was 10 years old, and I pored over the chapters on digging archeological ruins, forecasting the weather, detecting earthquakes, seeing atomic particle tracks and building computers that play games. Some of these lead to Science Fair Projects in high school and enthusiasm for a career in engineering. Part of science is learning, but a lot it is just plain fun.

Perhaps you'll get the fossil hunting bug when you see Sue towering within the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago or just watching the preparation of the bones now underway. Perhaps you'll even have a dinosaur named after you, like Sue Hendrickson did. Perhaps you'll just enjoy collecting fossils and rocks on family outings or enjoying the beauty of the stars on a summer night. Maybe you'll embark on a learning expedition that will lead you to teach science or do research in a prestigious institution. There's so much science to go around...there's really more than enough for everyone.

 

Books of Interest:

Hunting Dinosaurs by Louie Psihoyos,John Knoebber. For dinophiles of all ages, Hunting Dinosaurs does for paleontology what Indiana Jones did for archaeology--makes scientific adventures exciting and entertaining. The stunning, full-color photos contained here present dinosaurs as never seen before.

Digging Dinosaurs: The Search That Unraveled the Mystery of Baby Dinosaurs by John R. Horner,James Gorman. "...captures the romance, realism, and scientific implications of Horner's field work and astonishing discoveries..." - Nature

 

Also visit these related sites:

Sue at the Field Museum of Natural History - Learn about the preparation of Sue's skeleton and even view the work in progress on the live "Sue Web Cam." You can also discover more about the life and times of T. Rex and other dinosaurs.

Burpee Museum of Natural History - Located in Rockford, IL, Burpee features Jane the T-Rex, who was discovered in the Montana Badlands by museum volunteers.

NOVA - Curse of T. Rex - From the program aired on PBS, this site contains features on digging for dinosaurs, who else was alive with the dinosaurs and a full transcript of the program.

 

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Copyright 1998 - 2020 by John E. Shepler. Secure APS. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com

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