You Too Could Find a Dinosaur How Susan Hendrickson Found The Fossil
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.
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
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
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.