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Tyrannosaurus Sue The Extraordinary Saga of Largest, Most Fought Over T. Rex Ever Found
By Steve Fiffer
W.H. Freeman & Company Copyright © 2001 Steve Fiffer
All right reserved.
IT MUST BE A T. REX
"Five hundred thousand dollars," said Redden. He let the figure roll off his tongue slowly. The surreal nature of the moment hadn't escaped him. The bidding had begun, and he and a dinosaur named Sue had entered the kind of Salvador Dali landscape you might expect to find on the Sotheby's auction block.
If the tire hadn't gone flat, if the fog hadn't lifted, if the dinosaur hadn't been calling, Sue Hendrickson might never have found her. A Tyrannosaurus rex calling across 7 miles of rugged rock and barren prairie, across 67 million years of time? Hendrickson, of all people, can't explain it.
"I'm a very analytical person. I don't believe in fate," she says as she checks her mud-spattered gray backpack to make sure that she has everything she needs to go hunting for dinosaurs on a warm, cloudless, late-summer day in South Dakota. Her eyes as blue as the Great Plains sky, her face as resolute and weathered as the badlands she will soon be traversing, Hendrickson wears the same outfit she wore when she found Sue almost a decade earlier in this same fossil-rich formation--blue jeans, blue workshirt, and brown hiking boots. A silver-colored pick hangs from a leather belt around her waist like a six-shooter. Her hunting companion, a striking golden retriever named Skywalker, sits at attention by her side.
A field paleontologist since the mid-1980s, Hendrickson is nothing if not down to earth. It is past ages, not the New Age, that move her. She searches for fossils, not herself. And yet....
"For two weeks this dinosaur was doing something to me, calling me. I didn't actually hear voices. But something kept pulling me there. Something wanted it to be me that went there and found her." (Paleontologist Robert Bakker is not surprised when he hears this. "There's no such thing as an atheist in a dinosaur quarry," he laughs.)
It was August of 1990. Hendrickson, Larson, and other members of a team from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a commercial fossil-hunting enterprise based in Hill City, South Dakota, were concluding a month's stay at the Ruth Mason Dinosaur Quarry near the small town of Faith in the northwest corner of the state. This was the fourth summer that Hendrickson had worked with the team. She had joined them after a spring spent searching for amber in the Dominican Republic.
Paleontology is only one of Hendrickson's passions. She is, perhaps, the world's leading procurer of amber and has been an underwater diver on expeditions that have found the lost city of Alexandria, Egypt, submerged by an earthquake and tidal wave in the fifth century; sixteenth-century Spanish galleons that sank off Cuba and the Philippines; and Napoleonic ships sent to the floor of the Nile by Admiral Nelson's fleet in 1798. "Sue is like Indiana Jones, an intrepid globetrotter," says Dr. David Grimaldi, Chairman of the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Entomology.
Hendrickson was born with what she calls "itchy feet and the instinct to roam" in 1949 in--where else?--Indiana. A voracious reader, she devoured Dostoyevski by the time she was 11. Her mother, Mary, a retired school teacher, remembers her as a determined, intellectually curious girl, "who was too bright and too far ahead to fit in ... a square peg in a round hole"
Hendrickson agrees that she had a hard time belonging after she reached high school in the middle-class town of Munster. At 16, she would tell her parents that she was going to a friend's house. Instead she'd make the half-hour drive across the state line to Chicago, where she'd listen to folk music in the city's Old Town section or sit out on Navy Pier and wish she were far away. "Typical teenage depression," she laughs. "I was bored. I hated my high school and I hated my hometown."
After several nasty clashes, mother and daughter agreed that a change of scenery was needed. Hendrickson moved in with her aunt and uncle in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, for her senior year of high school. When they grounded her for staying out all night, she ran away with her boyfriend. "He liked to dive and I loved the water, so our plan was to work on a shrimp boat in Lafitte, Louisiana," Hendrickson says. On their first night there, however, a drunken local followed her out of a bar and tried to rape her.
Although she escaped the attack unharmed, Hendrickson had no desire to stay in the bayou country. She and her boyfriend took off, and for the next few years they crisscrossed the country, living and working odd jobs in cities from Boston to San Francisco, where, down to her last 36 cents, Hendrickson pawned her gold watch for $20. They finally decided to anchor themselves in the marina at San Rafael, California.
Hendrickson, who had called her parents immediately after she ran away and had visited them in Munster, asked her father to loan her the down payment on a 30-foot sailboat. He did. Soon she and her boyfriend were earning a living painting and varnishing the boats of their wealthy neighbors in the marina.
Two years later, the couple split up. Long fascinated by tropical fish, Hendrickson headed to Florida after learning that divers were often needed to catch museum and home aquarium specimens. She dove for a year in Key West, then moved to Seattle, where her parents had relocated.
Now 21, she contemplated college for the first time since running away. She passed the GED high school equivalency test and talked with the chairman of the Marine Biology Department at the University of Washington. "I asked him what I would get for seven years of study (needed to earn an undergraduate degree and PhD)," she recalls. "He said I could probably dissect fish or take pollution counts. I decided I could just go back and do what all the other PhDs were doing: catch tropical fish." After working as a sail maker for a year, she returned to Florida.
In 1973, while visiting diver friends in Key West, Hendrickson was asked to help salvage a sunken freighter. "It was very hard work," she says. "But I liked the challenge." Over the next few years, she helped raise sunken planes and boats. She earned additional money diving for lobsters and selling them to local restaurants. Her best haul: 492 lobsters in one day.
Hendrickson remembers that long before being pulled to the dinosaur, she had a knack for finding things. "I don't know if it's a sixth sense or luck, but there's something going on. When I'm attuned to something I'm looking for, I find it. Sometimes when I'd be looking for lobsters or seashells, I'd just stop my boat and say, 'This feels good.' I couldn't see a thing. I'd drop anchor in 30 feet, dive down, and there was the shell. It would blow me away. There was no sensory perception. I couldn't smell it or see it."
Hendrickson fell in love with the Dominican Republic while diving with a team of marine archaeologists there in 1974. She returned whenever she could. Always looking for new adventures, on one visit she went in search of the amber mines she had heard about from the locals. In the mountains, miners showed her their treasures--golden-hued lumps formed from prehistoric resins that imprisoned perfectly preserved scorpions, beetles, termites, and other insects. "It was amazing," says Hendrickson. "It was like seeing a whole other world, a window to the past."
On subsequent visits she tried digging in the mountain caves, but, she says, "It wasn't efficient. You could dig for years and never find an insect in amber." Instead, she began paying the miners for specimens. She didn't have to pay much at first--$10 to $35 per piece--because there was only minimal demand for such fossils.
At the time, most of the world's amber came from the Baltic Sea area (as it still does). Thus Hendrickson, who had become proficient in Spanish during her travels, was able to get in on the ground floor when she decided to supply specimens from Central America to museums and private collectors. In the mid-1980s, she began buying amber from miners in Chiapas, Mexico, as well.
Museums around the world study and display amber found by Hendrickson. "She has the nose for procuring pieces of big impact," says Dr. Robert K. Robbins, Curator of Entomology at the Smithsonian Institution. He cites one of the Smithsonian Insect Zoo's prize possessions, an extinct Antilles butterfly suspended in amber. Only six butterflies in amber have ever been found (three by Hendrickson), and, says Robbins, "This one is probably the best. You can even see the tiny hairs that served as its taste buds."
Hendrickson sells some amber pieces to private collectors, but she always offers her scientifically important finds to museums--at cost. Such generosity leads Bakker to observe, "Sue is the late twentieth-century equivalent of Alfred Russel Wallace." Like Wallace, the nineteenth-century British naturalist and explorer who independently reached the same theory of evolution as Darwin, Hendrickson seems motivated not by the desire for fame or fortune, but by a selfless "desire to share the earth's natural wonders," says Bakker.
Hendrickson describes herself in simpler terms. "I'm just a person who loves finding things and learning everything about them," she says, adding that she has little interest in possessing them. "It's the thrill of discovery. It's like the high from some drug. It lasts a few minutes. And it's addictive." She smiles. "Those moments are few and far between, but that's what keeps you going."
Hendrickson began looking for large fossils after meeting Swiss paleontologist Kirby Siber at a gem and mineral show in 1984. He invited her to help dig for prehistoric whales in Peru. There, in 1985, she met Larson.
The two soon became involved both professionally and romantically. On one of their first expeditions, they almost froze to death searching for meteorites in the Peruvian mountains. "We didn't have the right gear to stay up at that elevation overnight," Hendrickson says, "but we looked at each other and realized that this was too good an opportunity to pass up."
In 1987, Hendrickson began helping Larson hunt for dinosaurs and other ancient fossils at the Mason Quarry. She was, says Larson, a quick study. "Susan loves to learn," he says. "She gets attached to a subject and reads everything and asks questions. I'm the kind of person who will tell you ten times more than you want to know about something. Well, she wants to know that."
Larson had plenty to tell. He had been collecting fossils since 1956, when at the age of 4, he had spied a small brownish object in a ditch near the small farm on which he lived near Mission, South Dakota, some 200 miles southeast of Mount Rushmore. His parents took him to Mission, where friends June and Albert Zeitner, who ran a small geologic museum, identified the find as the tooth of an oreodont, a camel-like mammal that lived 25 million years ago.
"From that day on, I knew I wanted to hunt fossils," he says. "Here was something millions of years old, extinct, but it was still here. That was unbelievable. I loved living animals. I wanted to know the stories of the animals that weren't here anymore." Within a few years, he and his younger brother Neal and their older brother Mark had collected enough fossils and rocks to open up a "museum" in a 12-foot-by-15-foot outbuilding on their property, which lay within the borders of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. While other kids played cowboys and Indians, "we played curator," Larson says. They charged the adults in their family five cents admission.
By eighth grade, Larson had won the state science fair with an exhibit on fossils. "I was kind of a nerd," he confesses.
In 1970, he enrolled at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, one of the few schools he could afford to attend. There he majored in geology only because there was no major in paleontology. The pragmatic powers at the school pushed Larson and his fellow majors towards careers in the oil industry. Larson wasn't interested. "I wanted to hunt for fossils," he says.
Henry Fairfield Osborn, the distinguished scientist who founded the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in 1897 and then headed the institution when it rose to prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century, provided a job description of the fossil hunter, circa 1909:
The fossil hunter must first of all be a scientific enthusiast. He must be willing to endure all kinds of hardships, to suffer cold in the early spring and the late autumn and early winter months, to suffer intense heat and the glare of the sun in summer months, and he must be prepared to drink alkali water, and in some regions to fight off the attack of the mosquito and other pests. He must be something of an engineer in order to handle large masses of stone and transport them over roadless wastes of desert to the nearest shipping point; he must have a delicate and skillful touch to preserve the least fragments of bone when fractured; he must be content with very plain living, because the profession is seldom if ever, remunerative, and he is almost invariably underpaid; he must find his chief reward and stimulus in the sense of discovery and in the dispatching of specimens to museums which he has never seen for the benefit of a public which has little knowledge or appreciation of the self-sacrifices which the fossil hunter has made.
This was the ideal Larson aspired to when, after graduating from college in 1974, he and fellow student Jim Honert went into business--finding small fossils, rocks, and minerals and selling them to colleges. Their company, Black Hills Minerals, and its successor, the Black Hills Institute, weren't born of a desire to get rich. However, they were for-profit ventures. "I'm a capitalist," says Peter Larson. "I'm proud to be a capitalist. I think the capitalist system works. It creates money so that wonderful things can happen."
Larson and Honert quickly realized that colleges weren't the only institutions that wanted their finds. Says Larson, "It became increasingly obvious that museums really needed the service, because they had no way to get them. They didn't have the funds to send full-time people out searching for fossils or preparing fossils for exhibition."
The shift from hand specimens to museum pieces eventually sent Larson searching for the biggest fossil of all. In 1977, the Natural History Museum of Vienna, to which Larson had helped sell an ancient turtle, said it would like a dinosaur. By this time he was operating as Black Hills Minerals and had been joined by his brother Neal and Bob Farrar, both graduates of the School of Mines. "We said, 'No problem,'" Larson laughs, adding, "We didn't have a dinosaur. We didn't even know where to dig dinosaurs."
Two years later they journeyed to Faith, 150 miles northeast of Hill City, at the invitation of an octogenarian named Ruth Mason. Her land lies in a stretch of badlands called the Hell Creek Formation. As a young girl Ms. Mason had found what she thought were dinosaur bones on her property and had been trying to interest paleontologists in digging there since the early 1900s. The Larsons were the first to take her up on her offer.
In his book The Complete T. Rex, paleontologist Jack Horner, curator of the Museum of the Rockies, based in Bozeman, Montana, provides the following "recipe" for making a fossil: "An animal dies. Soon after death its flesh rots away. Over time sediment covers the bones. That sediment compacts into rock. Minerals enter into the bone within the rock and preserve it." Recent experiments suggest that bacteria associated with the decaying carcass cause the minerals to precipitate out of groundwater, thereby fossilizing the bone.
Sand and silt are necessary recipe ingredients. Just add water--a slow-moving stream or river clogged with dirt or debris will do--and voila! Of course, there is quite a bit of time between preparation and presentation; only after erosion occurs and the rock is swept away will the fossilized bones be visible.
The age of dinosaurs began during the Mesozoic Era about 225 million years ago and lasted for 160 million years, through the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. The Hell Creek Formation and equivalent formations, which extend from South Dakota into Wyoming, Montana, and the Canadian province of Alberta, were the perfect kitchens for fossil creation during the final one or two million years of the Cretaceous period, which lasted from about 144 million BC to 65 million BC. What is now north central North America was warm and swampy then, with shallow seas and winding rivers--not cool and barren as it is today.
During the Cretaceous period the landscape was rich in flora similar to the vegetation one finds in the southern United States today--ferns, flowering plants, palm trees, and redwoods. Some of the creatures that moved about this landscape or flew above it or swam in the seas and rivers live on today. Birds filled the skies. Sharks and turtles swam the seas and rivers. Insects such as spiders and mammals similar to the opossum were abundant (although during the entire 150 million years dinosaurs ruled the earth, no mammal got much larger than a house cat).
Other Cretaceous creatures, which have not survived the last 65 million years, were also plentiful. Many of these were reptiles. The flying pterosaurs dominated the air. Fish-like ichthyosaurs inhabited the seas, as did giant marine lizards, the mosasaurs. And, of course, dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Many kinds of dinosaurs had already become extinct as the Cretaceous period drew to a close, but large herds of duck-bills and Triceratops still moved about. They spent their summers in the north, then migrated south to warmer climes for the winter. Dominating the landscape was another dinosaur--a ferocious carnivore that stood upwards of a dozen feet at the hip and upwards of 35 feet long from head to tail--Tyrannosaurus rex.
On Mason's land, the Larsons soon found remains of the duck-billed dinosaur, Edmontosaurus annectens. And not just one dinosaur. Inexplicably, thousands of duck-bills had died there and were deposited as a bone bed in the graveyard quarry.
The institute team spent the better part of the next two years excavating bones and then trying to piece them together to reconstruct a complete dinosaur. Finally, in the spring of 1981, Peter Larson took the assembled bones to Switzerland. There, he hoped to sell the specimen with the help of Kirby Siber, who had invested money in the project.
The two men had first met in the mid-1970s at a gem and mineral show in Tucson, Arizona. Larson, just starting out in the business, had brought several specimens to sell. He had mixed emotions about parting with his favorite, a pearl-white ammonite, an extinct relative of the chambered nautilus. "I marked it outrageously high, $700, because I really didn't want to sell it," he remembers. A French collector offered $450. "No thanks," said Larson. Finally, another buyer offered the full $700. This time Larson said, "Thanks." The institute could use the money.
Soon Larson learned that the purchaser, who turned out to be Siber, had immediately resold the ammonite ... for $1400. Any ill will toward Siber was mitigated by the fact that the Swiss paleontologist bought several pieces from Larson at the show, giving the institute a bit of financial breathing room.
Although the duck-bill Larson took to Switzerland had been excavated over a three-year period, the institute had yet to receive any money for the thousands of man-hours already spent on the project at the Mason Quarry and in the preparation lab; Larson had never signed a contract with the Viennese museum. To stay afloat during this period, the institute had borrowed about $60,000, some at an interest rate exceeding 20 percent.
While in Switzerland, Larson learned that the museum did not have the funds to purchase the duck-bill. With no apparent means for meeting his loan obligation, he feared that he might have to go out of business. Fortunately, another commercial collector, Allen Graffham, put him in touch with the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Ireland. The museum paid $150,000 for the dinosaur, but Larson didn't see any of that money until 1988. After paying Graffham his sales commission and Siber for his investment, the institute ended up making less than $1 per hour on the transaction, Larson estimates.
Teams from the institute worked the quarry for duck-bills throughout the 1980s, eventually reconstructing nine more specimens, the last three bringing more than $300,000 each from museums in Japan, Europe, and the United States. During this period, Larson spent time collecting in South America as well as in South Dakota. In 1985 the institute and the Peruvian government entered into a partnership that yielded several scientifically important specimens, including a new family of sharks and a previously unknown marine sloth. Larson, Siber, and Hendrickson also donated their time and money to build a museum off the Pan American Highway south of the Peruvian city of Nasca. The museum features a 12-million-year-old baleen whale that is displayed where it was discovered--in the sands of a desert that was once ocean.
By 1990, the institute had become one of the largest suppliers of museum specimens in the world, doing business with, among others, the Smithsonian Institution, American Museum of Natural History, Field Museum, Carnegie Institute, Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, Denver Museum of Natural History, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Yale's Peabody Museum, and museums in Germany, Japan, and Great Britain. The institute was also one of the largest employers in Hill City (population 650), with a full-time staff of eleven working out of the former American Legion Hall on Main Street. The bright white two-story Art Deco structure built by the WPA during the Depression housed the institute's offices, library, fossil preparation lab, storage area, and gift shop, and it featured a modest showroom that attracted a small percentage of the 2 million tourists who came to the Black Hills each year to visit nearby Mount Rushmore. This showroom had no T. rex. Rather, it exhibited considerably smaller finds such as a 7 1/2-inch tooth from a 60-foot long prehistoric shark and numerous colorful ammonites.
Over the years, the institute has sold some finds for considerable amounts of money. Still, none of the principals has become wealthy. Excavation and reconstruction of specimens is extremely costly, and, as the case of the Ulster duck-bill illustrates, sales transactions sometimes take years. As self-described "Republican paleontologists," the Larson brothers rejected the idea of applying for government grants because of their distaste for bureaucracy.
Peter Larson, who lives in an old trailer a few yards from the institute's back door, cites another reason for his bare-bones existence. "We set aside the best specimens for the museum we'd always dreamed of building."
The Larson brothers did not charge admission to the institute's showroom, and they didn't plan on charging admission to the museum of their dreams, if and when it ever became a reality. "Education is the most important thing, and we don't believe people should have to pay for education," says Neal Larson. He and Peter and other institute staffers give 30 to 60 school talks a year, taking their fossil displays around the Black Hills area. They also speak to amateur groups, rock clubs, and colleges and take people out collecting free of charge.
The Larsons, Hendrickson, and an institute crew that included Peter's 10-year old son Matthew and Neal's 15-year-old son Jason, spent much of the summer of 1990 in the area around the Mason Quarry. Shortly after the fossil hunters arrived, they found a dead horse belonging to Maurice Williams, a one-quarter Native American whose large cattle ranch on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation lay just to the east of Ms. Mason's property. When Williams came by to claim the animal, he asked Peter Larson about the dig. "He was fascinated," says Larson. "He said, 'I've got land with badlands on it. Why don't you come over and look for dinosaurs?' I said, 'Great. We don't pay a lot, but if we find something of significance, we'll pay you.'" Williams also suggested that Larson call his brother Sharkey, who owned similar land in the area. Sharkey Williams, now deceased, also invited the institute to dig on his property.
While the institute team initially found little on Maurice Williams's land, they did find a few partial Triceratops skulls on his brother's property. On the morning of August 12, they were preparing to excavate a skull when they noticed a flat tire on their collecting truck, a rusting, green 1975 Suburban. They changed the tire and saw that the spare was also dangerously low on air. His tire pump broken, Larson decided to drive into Faith to get the two tires fixed. He invited Hendrickson to join him on the 45-minute drive.
She declined. The dig was to end in a couple of days, and she wanted to explore the sandstone cliff that had been calling her ever since she had spied it from several miles away two weeks earlier. "I'd kept thinking, I gotta get over there," Hendrickson recalls, "but you're so tired, just physically exhausted at the end of the day." Maurice Williams had asked that they keep their vehicles off his property, so Hendrickson knew that she would have to walk to the cliff over rugged terrain. Now she finally had the time to do it.
"It was foggy," she says. "It never gets foggy in South Dakota in the summer, but it was foggy that day." Although the rare mist prevented her from seeing her destination, Hendrickson set out with her dog on the 7-mile hike to the cliff. "I told myself, 'Don't walk in a circle,' but that's just what I did." After two hours she found herself back where she had started.
"I started to cry," she confesses. Her failure to find the cliff was not the only cause for tears. During their time at the quarry, she and Larson had mutually agreed to break up.
Determined to find out what had been calling her, Hendrickson waited until the fog lifted and began the trek a second time. Two hours later she stood at the foot of the 60-foot-high, buff-colored formation.
"It's not easy to find fossils," Larson says. "You're trying to figure out what's bone and what's not. You're seeing fragments and trying to imagine what they are, selecting which fragments are important. You have to have a good eye that can spot textural differences and color differences. Susan does."
Bakker adds: "There are some people who can find fossils and some who can't. Sue has the talent for getting a sense of place in a paleontological context. You must be born with it. She was. And she has honed it."
Hendrickson began her search by walking along the bottom of the cliff, eyes on the ground. "Usually you walk along the bottom to see if anything has dribbled down," she explains. "If you don't see anything, you walk along the middle of the formation, if it's not too steep. And then you might walk a third time across the top, just to hit the different levels."
Halfway through her first pass at the bottom, she saw a "bunch of dribbled-down bones." Where had they come from? Hendrickson looked up. "Just above eye level, about 8 feet high, there it was: three large dinosaur vertebrae and a femur weathering out of the cliff. It was so exciting because they were very large and because of the shape. The carnivores like T. rex had concave vertebrae from the disk; it dips in. The herbivores--the Triceratops or duck-bills is what you almost always find--have very straight vertebrae. So I knew it was a carnivore. I knew it was really big. And therefore I felt it must be T. rex, but it can't be T. rex because you don't find T. rex." At the time only 11 other T. rex had ever been found.
T. rex actually lived closer in time to the first humans (about 60 million years apart) than it did to the first dinosaurs (about 160 million years apart). It first appeared toward the end of the Cretaceous period, probably about 67 million years ago. Its evolutionary history remains somewhat cloudy, but several respected scientists believe that it may have been closely related to a Mongolian meat eater, Tarbosaurus bataar (also called Tyrannosaurus bataar). It is possible that descendants of this dinosaur emigrated from what is now Asia to what is now North America; the continents were connected at that time.
The famous fossil collector Barnum Brown found the first three T. rex in the Wyoming and Montana badlands in the early 1900s while on expeditions for the New York-based American Museum of Natural History. Like the Larsons, Brown became interested in fossils at an early age, collecting specimens uncovered by the plow on his family's farm in Carbon Hill, Kansas. And like Hendrickson, he seemed to possess a sixth sense for finding bones, or at least a unique fifth one. "Brown is the most amazing collector I have ever known. He must be able to smell fossils," said Henry Fairfield Osborn.
It wasn't Brown's sense of smell but his vision that resulted in his first Montana find in 1902. Months earlier, William Hornaday, the director of the New York Zoological Society, had shown Brown a paperweight made from a fossil he had found while hunting in eastern Montana. Brown identified the fossil as dinosaur--part of a Triceratops horn. After looking at photographs of the area where Hornaday had been hunting, Brown sensed that the land, part of the Hell Creek Formation, might be ripe with dinosaurs.
He was right. In July 1902, Brown found dinosaur bones in a sandstone bluff on the same ranch where Hornaday had found his fossil. The skeleton, which contained about 10 percent of the creature's bones, was not fully excavated and shipped to New York until 1905. By that time Osborn had identified it as a new species of dinosaur, which he christened Tyrannosaurus rex ("tyrant lizard king").
In 1907, Brown discovered a second T. rex skeleton in eastern Montana. This specimen was even better than the first--with 45 percent of the bones, including an excellent skull--"a ten strike," in Brown's words. In between these finds, Osborn determined that bones Brown had found in 1900 in the Lance Creek Beds of Wyoming were also those of a T. rex.
The T. rex was the biggest carnivore discovered to date. It had massive legs, a short, thick neck, and a narrow chest. Its tail was relatively short, and its hips were relatively narrow. Its arms were surprisingly small, about the length of human arms--just 3 feet long. It had two fingers. Its huge skull was heavily reinforced, distinguishing it from other big carnivores. It had sharp, deadly teeth the size and shape of bananas. When those teeth fell out, new ones replaced them. The dinosaur itself may never have stopped growing.
As the biggest, baddest dinosaur, T. rex quickly captured the fancy of early twentieth-century America. The press dubbed it "The Prize Fighter of Antiquity" and hyperbolized that "the swift two-footed tyrant munched giant amphibians and elephant au naturel." In 1915, record crowds flocked to the American Museum when it mounted the first public exhibition of a T. rex, unveiling a fully restored, freestanding skeleton of Brown's second Montana find. As Philip Currie, curator of dinosaurs at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, wrote in the preface to Sotheby's catalog for Sue, Tyrannosaurus rex became the "standard against which other dinosaurs are measured ... the most famous dinosaur."
Most paleontologists consider a T. rex, which has approximately 300 bones, scientifically significant if it is at least 10 percent complete. Some, like Larson, determine this percentage based on the number of bones found. Others peg their figure to the percentage of the dinosaur's total surface area found, no matter how many bones are recovered. Proponents of each method agree that 59 years passed between Brown's last find and the discovery of the fourth T. rex in 1966 by Harley Garbani, a professional plumber and longtime amateur paleontologist collecting in eastern Montana for the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Over the next 24 years, seven more T. rex would be found in Montana, South Dakota, and Alberta. The best of these specimens, the eleventh T. rex, was found in 1988 in the eastern Montana badlands by Kathy Wankel, a local rancher. Horner and a crew from the Museum of the Rockies excavated the skeleton in June 1990, just two months before Hendrickson made her discovery. Forty feet long and, according to Horner, almost 90 percent complete, this find dethroned--for the moment, anyway--Brown's American Museum T. rex as the finest ever.
When Hendrickson found what she thought might be the twelfth T. rex, she tried to contain her excitement. "I didn't jump up and down and scream" she says. "But I was thinking, Wow! What was so cool was that the vertebrae were mostly going into the hill, so it looked like the potential for more. Usually you find the last little bit of bone and there's nothing more [because it has eroded]. I knew this was part of one specimen, and that if the visible bones were all there was, it would have been important. But I knew there was more."
Hendrickson didn't disturb the bones in the cliff. She did, however, pick up a few pieces from the ground, each about 1 1/2 to 2 inches across. "They were all hollow," she says. "I've picked up thousands of other pieces of bones before, and they were all solid." Theropods, the class of carnivorous dinosaurs that included T. rex, were hollow-boned, like birds. The excitement building, Hendrickson flew back to camp, where she knew Larson would have resumed excavating after the trip to town.
She found Larson on his knees digging up the Triceratops skull on Sharkey Williams's land. "Pete, I have to show you something," she said breathlessly.
"I had never seen T. rex vertebrae, but I knew that's exactly what I was looking at," says Larson. He is an unassuming man, trim with sandy hair and a thick mustache. Dressed in khaki slacks and a plaid shirt, he wears wire-rimmed glasses. He looks like an athletic academic as he sits in his small, book-filled office in the institute's basement remembering the discovery. Just down the hall, a technician is using a device called an airbrade to clean some dinosaur bones. The airbrade sprays powder with compressed air to blow off dust and rock from the bone. The basement sounds like a dentist's office.
How did Larson know Hendrickson had brought him T. rex vertebrae? "The size of the fragments, the curvature of the bone. The open spaces." He picks up a cervical vertebra from a T. rex found after Sue. "It's been waterworn before it was fossilized, and you can see where the surface of the bone has been weathered away," he explains. "You can see these open spaces inside, kind of a honeycomb texture. That's exactly the same texture you find in bird bones and theropods--where birds come from. This is all connected to the respiratory system through the openings right here. There are air sacs, just like birds. I just knew what the fragments were."
Identifying fossils was not always so easy. In his delightful book Dinosaur Hunters, David A. E. Spalding, the former head curator of natural history at the Provincial Museum of Alberta, tells the story of one Robert Plot. Plot was a seventeenth-century British naturalist and the first curator of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Like many scientists of the day, he was still influenced by the mysticism of the Middle Ages. He speculated that fossils might have been created by petrifying juices to adorn the inside of the earth, just as flowers had been made to adorn the surface.
In his 1677 opus The History of Oxfordshire, Plot provided an illustration of what appears to be a dinosaur bone. If so, it is the first published record of such a fossil. Of course, Plot didn't identify it as such; the word "dinosaur"--from the Greek deinos, meaning "terrible," and sauros, meaning "lizard"--was coined 165 years later in 1842 by the British paleontologist and anatomist Sir Richard Owen. Instead, Plot said that the bone, dug from a quarry and given to him by a fellow Englishman, was similar to the lowermost part of the thigh of a man "or some greater animal than either an Ox or Horse and if so it must have been the Bone of some Elephant, brought hither during the Government of the Romans in Britain."
After seeing a living elephant for the first time, Plot changed his mind. The bone must have belonged to some giant man or woman, he said. While the actual fossil has been lost, Spalding argues that the illustration is clearly that of a dinosaur bone, probably of the carnivorous Megalosaurus.
Fast forward almost 90 years to 1763 and the publication of Richard Brookes's The Natural History of Waters, Earths, Stones, Fossils, and Minerals. Brookes copied Plot's drawing and described it as Scrotum humanum. Writes Spalding: "It is not known whether this was a serious attempt at identification or a bizarre joke."
Brookes's description was taken seriously by J. B. Robinet, a French philosopher. In 1768, Robinet called the fossil a "stony scrotum." Such objects represented nature's attempts to form human organs in a quest to create the perfect human type, he hypothesized.
Eager to test his hypothesis that Hendrickson had found a T. rex, Larson hustled his colleague into the institute's truck. They sped to Maurice Williams's fence line, then ran the additional 2 miles to the cliff. "Here," Hendrickson said, pointing to the bones, "this is my going-away gift to you."
The normally mild-mannered Larson admits that he got excited. "Sue took me over to the spot, and there were literally thousands of little fragments of bone lying on the ground and some bigger pieces and you could see there were parts of vertebrae and we looked up about 7 feet up on the face of this cliff and there was this cross section of bones about 8 feet long coming out and I crawled up there and we could see three articulated vertebrae. And I knew at that instant that it was all there. Call it intuition or whatever. I just knew. I knew this was gonna be the best thing we'd ever found and probably ever would find."
After locating the cliff on a topographic map, Larson called his assistant, Marion Zenker, at the institute and asked her to verify that Maurice Williams owned the section of land on which the cliff was located. Williams had given permission to look on his property, but determining who owns what within the boundaries of a reservation is often problematic. Some land is owned outright by individuals. Some land is owned by the tribe. Some land is leased from the tribe by individuals. And some land owned by individuals is held in trust by the federal government. In some instances, one ranch "owned" by a Native American may include parcels of land that fall into all these categories.
Larson wanted to make sure he was dealing with the true owner of the site where the bones sat. Zenker called the land registrar for Ziebach County, where the ranch was located. The registrar told her that Maurice Williams owned the land and had a couple of oil leases on file.
Larson called Williams that night. "I told him we had found something that looked really good," Larson says. Williams gave him permission to excavate, but still forbade him to drive onto the property. "I told Maurice, 'It's big. We're going to have to drive on at least once to take it off, and he said, 'Okay,'" Larson remembers.
That night dinosaurs visited Larson as he slept. Such visits weren't uncommon, especially when the paleontologist was on a dig. "I always dream about what I'm going to find," he says.
Larson wanted his brother Neal, who had gone home for the weekend, to see the site before the digging began.
"I was thinking I'd be coming back and we'd be closing up the quarry for the summer," Neal says. "Then I got a phone call from Peter on Saturday night"
"When you come back, I want you to bring lumber and plaster of Paris, and, oh, bring the trailer, too," Peter Larson said as nonchalantly as possible.
"What did you find, Pete, a skeleton?"
Neal was hooked now. "What kind of skeleton? Is it a Triceratops?"
"You'll see when you get here."
"Is it a duck-bill?"
"You'll see." Older brothers didn't torment younger brothers in the days dinosaurs roamed the earth--but only because there weren't any humans around then.
Neal Larson was eager to learn what kind of skeleton had been found, but he wasn't eager enough to leave for the quarry the next day. "It was Sunday, and I hadn't been to church for a few weeks," he explains.
Neal, a little rounder and a little less studious looking than Peter, arrived in Faith on Monday, August 14, with the trailer and all the other supplies on Peter's shopping list. By that time, Peter had christened the dinosaur Sue, after Hendrickson, who still has mixed emotions about the appellation. "I'm deeply honored," she says. "It's just that I've never liked my name--Sue, Susan, whatever. I just don't care for it." She adds, "Of course, at the point Pete named it after me, it was just three articulated vertebrae. We didn't know how great she'd be."
Before Neal's arrival, Larson had also videotaped and shot still photos of the find and had taken the other members of the team to the cliff, including Terry Wentz, the institute's chief fossil preparator, and the two boys, Matthew and Jason Larson. During their weeks at the quarry, Matthew had found more than a dozen teeth apparently shed by T. rex. Hendrickson hadn't found any, a fact that Matthew never let her forget. Responding to his good-natured teasing, Hendrickson had laughed: "Matt, I just want to find the whole thing." Now they would see just how whole the skeleton was.
Peter Larson walked Neal to the cliff, and said, "Gee, can you tell me what it is?" He was still playing the big brother.
"Well, it's big."
"Is it T. rex?" asked Neal, who had never seen such bones before.
Just like the dinosaur itself, the site of a find is of great scientific importance. It may contain fossilized plants or bones from other ancient creatures that provide a context for the dinosaur's life. Good paleontologists and fossil hunters don't just excavate a find, they harvest the rock around it as well.
Example: In 1996 John Flynn, head of the Field Museum's geology department, returned from a dinosaur dig in Madagascar with, among other things, a 50-pound bag of dirt collected at the site. Over the next three years, museum volunteers sifted the dirt through screens and then used microscopes to look for fossils. In 1999, the museum announced that the dirt had yielded a 165-million-year-old fragment of the jaw of a mouse-sized mammal. The fragment, only half the length of a grain of rice and containing three teeth invisible to the unaided eye, proved for the first time that mammals were alive and sharing the world's southern continents with dinosaurs far earlier than previously believed.
Larson's crew began by picking up all the scraps from the ground and putting them in plastic bags, which they carefully labeled. They then bagged much of the surrounding dirt for future screening. Next, they stabilized the bones sticking out from the cliff with a hardener and covered them with burlap and plaster of Paris--a technique first described by the English geologist Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche in 1836 and perfected in the late nineteenth century by those hunting bones in the American West.
This was easy compared to the next task: removing 29 feet of overburden. For five days the Larson brothers, Hendrickson, and Wentz worked with pick and shovel to clear the sandstone and hard soil above the skeleton. "These were the hottest days of the summer," says Hendrickson. "The temperature was 115 plus. You're trying to find shade, but there is none. And we don't stop at noon."
They dubbed the site "Tyrable Mountain."
Once down to the level of the skeleton, the team would use knives, brushes, and smaller tools to remove the bones. But before this removal could begin, most of the bones required special treatment. Those in danger of cracking were glued on the spot with commercial Superglue. Those in danger of crumbling were squirted with a liquid solution that hardened them.
Documentation of a dig is critical. Scientists studying a specimen in the lab want to know where each and every part was found in the field. Larson's team used a mapping technique learned from Bakker, marking the location of each bone by tracing it full scale on butcher paper. They also took still photos and videotape.
Maurice Williams visited three or four times during the excavation. A tall, sturdy man, he is seen on the videotape in sunglasses, wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap. On one occasion, the crew took a break and helped him dehorn some cattle. On another occasion, the institute camcorder captured the following conversation between the rancher and Peter Larson:
Williams: You are going to mount her in Hill City.
Williams: Good. (Pause) And under that you'll write,
"Stolen from Maurice Williams."
Williams, Larson, and the others at the site all laughed at this last line.
The Larsons quickly determined that Sue was large for a T. rex. Her 54-inch femur suggested that she would have stood 13 feet tall at the hip and 41 feet long, a foot taller and 2 to 3 feet longer than Barnum Brown's famous T. rex at the American Museum of Natural History. "At that size, running at 25 to 40 miles an hour, this was one big, terrible dinosaur," says Neal Larson.
Brown's lengthy excavation of the first Montana T. rex in the pre-truck era presented numerous logistical problems. Encased in plaster, the dinosaur's pelvis alone weighed 4000 pounds, far too much for a conventional horse-drawn wagon. What to do? Brown built a wooden sledge and then hitched it to a team of four horses for the 125-mile journey to the closest railroad station.
Excavating Sue was not nearly so problematic or time-consuming. Because she was so complete and her bones were confined to such a small area (about 25 feet by 30 feet), the crew was able to dig her out in only 17 days. Still, they suffered several anxious moments--actually, several anxious days.
Larson had immediately sensed that Sue "was all there." But was she? A week after removing the overburden, her skull--the most important part of her body from both scientific and display standpoints--still hadn't surfaced. Then, on August 27, Larson hit something with his pick. "It's the S word," he excitedly told his crew. ("I didn't say 'skull' because I didn't want to jinx it," he later explained.) Larson's fellow diggers were skeptical.
The paleontologist took pick to rock and again hit something hard. "I tell you it's the S word.'" But his crew remained skeptical until he found the curve of the cheek some hours later.
The good news was that they'd found Sue's skull. The bad news was that the nose was buried under Sue's hips, all 1500 pounds of them. "It seemed that it had stuck its head between its legs and kissed itself goodbye," Neal Larson later said with a laugh.
Putting an end to this 67-million-year good-bye kiss on site would have meant saying good-bye to the skull. It was sure to be severely damaged by any attempt to extricate it from the pelvis. The crew decided to remove these bones as a unit in a plaster-jacketed block. Then, back at the institute, the Larsons and Wentz could figure out the safest way to separate them.
Peter Larson says that he told Williams he would pay him for the fossil "early on" after the discovery. Finding the skull triggered "negotiations." Says Larson: "After we could see what was there, I told Maurice, 'This is a really good specimen. I'll give you $5000 for it, and he said, 'Fine.' I wrote on the check what it was for."
The check was marked "For theropod skeleton Sue/8-14-90-MW." Williams deposited the check the day after he received it.
Excavated bones were wrapped in foil and then jacketed in plaster. By August 31, the crew, which had grown to six, had removed everything except for the big block containing the skull and pelvis, sacrum, several dorsal vertebrae, ribs, the right leg, some foot bones, and, they hoped, the right forelimb. With continuous undercutting and plastering, they had this block ready to be removed by 5:00 PM on September 1. Because a large rainstorm was heading their way, they decided not to wait overnight to pull the 9-foot-by-7-foot 9000-pound block from the ground and onto the trailer. Three hours later the trailer and three trucks carrying another 5 tons headed back to Hill City. There, the institute would begin the task of readying Sue for study and display.
After spending the night in Hill City, Peter Larson and Sue Hendrickson climbed into their respective trucks and drove in tandem to Bozeman where they showed the pictures of their find to the Museum of the Rockies' Horner and discussed the fossil's future--a future that at the time looked quite rosy.
The couple's future was much bleaker. Although they still cared deeply for one another and had just collaborated on what appeared to be one of the greatest dinosaur finds in history, they remained committed to ending their romance. Twenty-four hours after reaching Bozeman, Hendrickson bid Larson good-bye and left to visit her family in Seattle. She and Larson were sure they'd see each other again, but never in their wildest dreams did they imagine the bizarre chain of events that would soon bring them face to face and cause them both such pain.
Although she felt a deep kinship with her namesake, Hendrickson sought no remuneration for her efforts. The thrill of discovering the best T. rex ever was enough. And besides, Larson had said that he wanted to build a new museum in Hill City and make Sue its star attraction. No one had ever gotten rich finding a fossil, Hendrickson told herself, and no one was going to get rich because of this dinosaur.
Excerpted from Tyrannosaurus Sue by Steve Fiffer Copyright © 2001 by Steve Fiffer. Excerpted by permission.
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