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July 2, 2013

Smithsonian gets long-sought Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton

WASHINGTON — The arm was found first, by a day hiker in a rugged, remote section of a Montana wildlife refuge. The body had been frozen in time - and rock - for ages, stuck in a death pose for posterity in Hell Creek sediments.

              

When paleontologists finished excavating the old bones, they had recovered one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever, a major specimen that is coming to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on a long-term loan.

              

The museum announced Thursday that it will borrow the T. rex for 50 years from the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns it, and the state of Montana, which has had it since the Late Cretaceous period.

              

The big beast - named the Wankel Rex, after Kathy Wankel, the rancher who made the prehistoric find - will be trucked to the Mall for National Fossil Day on Oct. 16, then put on temporary display until the museum's dinosaur exhibit closes for a $48 million renovation next spring. Eventually, the 35-foot-long skeleton will be mounted in a lifelike pose in the new dinosaur hall when it opens in 2019.

              

The trip will end the Smithsonian's long, frustrating search for the major-domo of the dinosaur world. It will also add considerable heft to the Natural History Museum's collection: Upon its arrival, the Wankel Rex will surpass just about every one of the roughly 127 million specimens and artifacts held by the world's second most-visited museum.

              

"It will be one of our most important and iconic objects," said Kirk Johnson, the Natural History Museum director. The Hope Diamond, displayed on the second floor, remains the crown jewel of the collection. But a natural history museum is nothing without dinosaurs, Johnson said - and no dinosaur captivates people quite like Tyrannosaurus rex.

              

"If you stand next to a real T. rex, it is just an awesome experience," he said. "Their teeth are the size of bananas. Their skulls are huge. They're one of the great predators of history. They're impressive in size, scale, everything. Just imagine an animal that big, that awesome, alive."

              

The Wankel Rex - which was estimated to have weighed six to seven tons - died in a riverbed near the eventual site of Fort Peck Reservoir.

              

By the time Kathy Wankel stumbled upon the first lower arm bones ever found from a T. rex, the land was controlled by the Corps. Thus, the Corps owns the skeleton, though the fossils have been conserved, studied and, for a period, displayed at Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

              

That the Corps had a T. rex to loan was news to many of its senior leaders.

              

"They didn't know we had a dinosaur," said Sonny Trimble, who oversees curation and management of archaeological collections for the Corps. People transfer, he said. Many retired. So, "the chief engineer doesn't wake up in the morning saying, How's our dinosaur doing?"

              

In fact, the Corps has two: Another T. rex - known as Peck's Rex - was found near Fort Peck in 1997. It, too, is at the Museum of the Rockies, where it will soon be displayed.

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