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 2019.
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Giant dinosaurs draw giant crowds at museums. Exhibitors like to make sure they are anatomically correct, but what usually is not real are the bones. They're synthetic casts. This week, the Smithsonian Institution is finishing a rare mounting of a Tyrannosaurus rex with real bones. NPR's Christopher Joyce has been following the dinosaur on its journey to the museum and reports on its first days on its feet.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The National Museum of Natural History in Washington has coveted a real T-rex for decades. It's never had one. Last year, it got one from Montana's Museum of the Rockies. Technicians repaired and digitally scanned the bones and then sent them to Canada to be mounted. And now the T-rex is at last standing up in the Canadian workshop. That's where Smithsonian dino curator Matthew Carrano got his first look at the assembled 38-foot beast.
MATTHEW CARRANO: It's pretty spectacular. First of all, it's an actual real Tyrannosaurus rex fully mounted and standing in front of me.
JOYCE: Second because of what the carnivore is doing. At its feet is a fossilized Triceratops. That's the plant-eating horned dinosaur known for a bony fringe around the back of its neck that looks like some kind of frilly Elizabethan collar.
CARRANO: And the T-rex is biting that, and it's in the process of levering off the skull from the rest of the body of the Triceratops. So it has one foot on the ribcage and one foot on the ground offering a little bit of leverage for that.
JOYCE: The Smithsonian knows its audience.
CARRANO: It's got high drama. I think it's got the kinds of things that, you know, every kid dreams about when they think about T-rex.
JOYCE: That said, Carrano points out that the pose is also a nod to the scientific debate over whether T-rex was primarily a scavenger of dead animals or a full-time predator. It's not clear from this bloody tableaux whether the Triceratops is already dead or is being killed. Carrano's own opinion on the T-rex's preference...
CARRANO: Carnivores don't turn down meals.
JOYCE: Whether they're 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 Research Casting International, says his team spent months working with Smithsonian scientists to do that. One obstacle was, most of these are real bones, not synthetic casts, so technicians could not drill into them and screw them together. Instead, they built a tall metal frame festooned with form-fitting metal cradles to hold the bones.
PETER MAY: It looks sort of like antlers. We had blacksmiths on staff, and they're hand-forged to fit the bone perfectly.
JOYCE: The cradles hold more than 150 major bones of the skeleton in their proper place suspended on the frame. May says his company has mounted several T-rexs before. Each has its own story and character, and this one is no exception. A Montana ranching family found it in 1988. Scientists recovered 85 percent of its original bones. It was one of the most complete T-rexs ever found at the time, and May says one part of the skeleton was a real revelation.
MAY: It was the first T-rex discovered with a forelimb. And before that, it was all speculation on how big the forelimb was.
JOYCE: Turned out those forelimbs - the animal's arms - were only about three feet long. Scientists are still puzzled by what the dinosaur did with them. The public will have to wait a bit to see this. The T-rex will be mounted at the museum's renovated dinosaur hall in 2019. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.