August 12,1990 started out like any normal day for the globe-trotting adventurer Susan Hendrickson. Like she had been doing for the past several weeks, Hendrickson was digging for dinosaur fossils with commercial fossil hunter Peter Larson in the Badlands of South Dakota. That day the team was exploring the deserted outcrops near the small town of Faith, and after a long afternoon of sun and dehydration the group decided to call it a night...except for Hendrickson. That day Larson's group had explored six outrcrops, all of which yielded nothing. But, one cliff face had remained unexplored, and Hendrickson felt what she described as a mystical urge pulling her towards that outcrop. So she started to walk, and after walking for several minutes she came upon one side of the cliff, and immediately noticed small small bones which had fallen loose of the rock and tumbled to the ground below. She followed these bones up with her eyes and the sight amazed her. There, lying in front of her, was the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
And, what a skeleton it was! Even before she could dig it out of the cliff she could tell that it was amazingly complete-and needed to be looked at by the expert Larson. Knowing that she had no business handling what could turn out to be a priceless find, she hollered for Pete and the crew, who came running to her side and were amazed by her discovery. They immediately began excavating, and a week later they had extracted all of the bone bearing rock and loaded it up for transport back to their lab at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota. There, at the lab, Larson began to prepare the bones which he christened Sue, after their discoverer.
This story sounds amazing and full of pride and glory, but, the luck of Susan Hendrickson and the Black Hills Institute sooned changed for the worse. In the summer of 1992, on the exact day that Larson was to send the skull to be CT scanned to reveal its internal structures, the FBI rushed into the Institute much like they did into the home of Elian Gonzalez. Carrying guns and court orders, they instructed Larson to hand over all papers regarding the discovery of Sue and forcefully removed all of the bones, including those being carefully prepared in the Institute laboratory.
The raid was carried out because there was an immense ownership dispute over the rightful proprietor of the fossil. Back in 1990 Larson had paid Sioux rancher Maurice Williams $5,000 for the rights to the bones, a deal that was recorded on video tape. But, news of this deal soon reached the Sioux tribal leaders, who also demanded compensation. Furthering the problem was the United States National Government, who reasoned that they were leasing the land to Williams, and therefore deserved their share of the money. Therefore, the case of Sue went into the US District Courts, where, after years of disputes, Sue was awarded solely to Williams in 1996. Larson was also charged with over 190 federal felony counts, and was convicted on two technicalities: that he failed to declare $20,000 worth of traveler's checks at customs when he returned from a fossil hunting trip overseas.
Williams, knowning nothing about the importance of Sue and its scientific significance, decided to place it up for auction. In October of 1997 the fossil and complete and total rights of ownership were put up to the highest bidder in New York. The bidding started at $500,000, and ten minutes later, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago had offered over $7 million dollars. No other institutions or individuals matched their bid, so after seven years of bitter disputes and court battles, Sue had found a permanent home-in Chicago. The total costs came up to $8.36 million, a record amount of money paid for a fossil!
In November of 1997 Sue was uncrated at the Field, and preparation began in the summer of 1998. Later that year the Field Museum hired Dr. Chris Brochu, recently out of the University of Texas-Austin, to lead the Sue research team. His first major move was to send Sue's skull for CT scanning at a Boeing laboratory in California, a move that Larson made over five years before but to no avail. The results of this scanning were reported in a May 1999 National Geographic article, and were later the topic of a Field Museum exhibit entitled "Sue, the Inside Story."
The results of these CT scans were amazing. They let researchers study the inside of Tyrannosaur skulls like never before. Possibly the most important result was that Brochu and the rest of the Field team were able to look into the braincase of Sue and see the complete size and shape of a Tyrannosaur bone. Brochu was amazed to see giant olfactory bulbs-two of them-the size of grapefruits. This led him to comment "T. rex smelled its way through life!"
After the opening of the Inside Story exhibit, Sue's bones were molded and two lifesize casts were made, each of which will be going on tour throughout the United States. After these casts were made the original bones of Sue were sent away and were mounted. Then, on May 17th, 2000, at exactly 6:47 A.M. Central Standard Time, Sue was officially unveiled to the world, ending a decade of fighting, research, and more money than most of us will ever see in our lives.
Many celebrities were on hand for the unveiling, including Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and representatives from McDonalds and Disney, plus Hendrickson and Larson. Hundreds of Chicago school area children were also present, and the media blitz was ungodly. Reporters from as far away as Japan were in Chicago, as well as representatives of ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX News.
While the mount of Sue is mostly for show, the science behind the discovery of Sue is giving amazing new insights into the world of Tyrannosaurus rex. Brochu highlighted many of these new insights in a May 20th lecture. During this lecture he answered questions regarding Sue's age, gender, hunting abilities, pathologies, life, and death.
Several pathologies have been found on Sue's body, including a series of five holes in her lower jaw. These holes were originally thought to be bite marks, but Brochu now describes them as places of infection. But, a large mass of spongy bone on the tail vertebrae of Sue is giving more important insights than the jaw. This pathology was likely formed during an infection, and the resulting spongy bone grew around the tail muscles, leaving a natural impression of these soft parts not rarely seen in any fossilized animals. In fact, Brochu says, this is the only case of tail muscle molds even seen in a dinosaur.
One of the most frequently asked questions of Sue has been regarding her gender. Larson originally described her as a female, but Brochu is less skeptical. In many fossil and living species, the females are more 'robust.' But, Brochu explains, robust does not necessarily mean larger. In other words, he says, "Sue was an it!" And, this debate will likely never be answered.
Also during his talk Brochu told audiences that Sue was very old when she died, that the sense of smell was very important to all Tyrannosaurs, and that a broken leg did not cause the death of the animal. But, more importantly to paleo fans, he announced the tentative plans into a large symposium to be held at the Field at this time next year, and featuring many paleontologists from around the globe.
The research into Sue will continue, and the first definite monograph of the species Tyrannosaurus rex is expected within the next year. The fact that President Clinton visited the Sue skeleton at a late night private viewing gives testament to the fact that the event should be a major draw for the Field Museum and the city of Chicago. Having had the chance to see it for myself, I must recommend Sue to all dinosaur and paleontology fans around the globe. But, don't worry if you can't come down to Chicago soon, because for the first time in the saga of Sue, she won't be going anywhere!
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