What’s come to be called “the nation’s T. rex” now stands — though not in the United States. It’s in Canada.
The nearly complete and much heralded Tyrannosaurus skeleton — the first ever owned by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History — was discovered in 1988 by a Montana rancher, Kathy Wankel, and will eventually find a new home in a grand display in the Washington, D.C., museum.
But first, the old dinosaur bones are getting some dramatic — and anatomically correct — primping help from a staff of curators, blacksmiths and technicians in the workshop of Research Casting International in Trenton, Ontario.
“It’s pretty spectacular,” says paleobiologist Matt Carrano, the Smithsonian’s dinosaur curator, when he first catches sight of the fully assembled, 38-foot-long beast. “First of all, for the obvious reason,” Carrano says. “It’s an actual, real Tyrannosaurus rex, standing in front of me.”
But what’s even more dramatic, is that the T. rex isn’t just standing there — it’s been posed in the act of ripping up a flattened triceratops. That’s the plant-eating, horned dinosaur with a bony fringe around the back of its neck that must have looked something like a frilly Elizabethan collar when the creature was alive.
“The T. rex is biting that,” says Carrano, narrating the scene, “and then it is in the process of severing off the skull from the rest of the body of the triceratops — so it has one foot on the rib cage, and one foot on the ground, offering a little bit of leverage for that.”
Carrano and the Smithsonian know their audience.
“It’s got high drama,” he says of the depiction. “I think it’s got the kinds of things that, you know, every kid dreams about when they think about T. rex.”
The pose also carefully skirts the scientific debate over whether T. rex was primarily a scavenger of dead animals or a full-time hunter. It’s not clear from this bloody tableau whether the triceratops is already dead or is being killed.
Carrano’s own opinion on T. rex’s preference?
“Carnivores don’t turn down meals,” he says — whether the meal is alive and kicking or already dead.
Getting these fossilized bones into an anatomically correct position while creating an exciting pose was tricky. Peter May, the head of RCI, the leading builder of dinosaur exhibits in North America, says his team spent months working with Smithsonian scientists.
One obstacle: These are real bones, not the usual synthetic casts. So technicians didn’t want to damage the ancient skeleton by drilling into the bones and screwing them together.
Instead, they built a tall metal frame festooned with form-fitting metal cradles to hold the bones.
“We had blacksmiths on staff, Carrano says, “[so the cradles] are hand-forged to fit the bone perfectly.” The cradles hold some 150 major bones of the skeleton in their proper places — precisely suspended on the frame.
RCI has mounted several T. rexes for other museums, May says. Each skeleton has its special story and character, and this one is no exception. It’s often referred to as the Wankel T. rex, for the family ranch where the bones were found.
Scientists were able to recover 80 to 85 percent of the animal’s original bones; at the time it was one of the most complete T. rexes ever found. And one part of the skeleton in particular was a revelation, May says.
“It was the first T. rex discovered with a forelimb,” he explains, “and before that it was all speculation on how big the forelimb was.”
Those forelimbs — the animal’s arms — were only about 3 feet long. Scientists are still wondering what, if anything, a T. rex did with them.
The Wankel T. rex, now also nicknamed “the nation’s T. rex,” given its upcoming home at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., is scheduled to be on display inside the museum’s renovated dinosaur hall in 2018.