Looking for the rest of T. rex

August 9, 2017
Alaina Fuld
A man and two women carry gear while walking through dry desert toward the T. rex dig site

Dr. Greg Wilson, Burke Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology and UW professor, leads UW students to the "Tufts-Love" T. rex dig site. 
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

What else was hiding in those dusty hills?

Last year, the Burke discovered a Tyrannosaurus rex in the badlands of northern Montana, including a skull that weighed 3,000 lbs in its plaster field jacket—only the 15th ever discovered. The exciting discovery occurred when the excavation trip was almost over, so the crew prioritized getting the skull safely to the Burke over fully exploring the site.

This summer, the team led by Burke Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and University of Washington (UW) professor Dr. Greg Wilson headed back to find the rest of the ‘rex

Young woman using a shovel to toss dirt into a wheelbarrow

UW graduate Yuen Ting Tse at the "Tufts-Love" T. rex dig site, July 2017.
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Two sets of gloved hands using chisels to dig in dirt

Volunteers use chisels to carefully dig through layers of dirt during the search for fossils.
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

A young woman kneeling and smiling while using a chisel to dig into dirt

Olympia-based teacher Kiki Contreras volunteering at the dig site.
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Digging for fossils is painstaking work. While powerful equipment like excavators and jackhammers can help, most days at the T. rex site were spent carefully removing small sections of dirt one chisel-stroke at a time, hoping to reveal bone.

Many crew members are volunteers—undergraduate and graduate students at the UW, teachers on summer vacation, amateur paleontologists—who brave the scorching heat and cheerfully take on even mundane work, like trucking wheelbarrow loads of loose dirt from one spot to another, and pass the time talking about their favorite Star Trek episodes. 

"This is going to be one of the most complete T. rex specimens in the world. And it’s gorgeous in terms of its preservation."

—Dr. Greg Wilson

Man standing in front of the T. rex dig site where crews are working

Dr. Greg Wilson, Burke Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology and UW biology professor, at the "Tufts-Love" T. rex dig site in northeast Montana.
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Man kneeling next to part of a T. rex jaw bone while pointing out the bone on in reference to his T. rex skull tattoo on his arm

UW postdoctoral researcher David DeMar uses his tattoo to identify the rear portion of the T. rex lower jaw found this summer at the "Tufts-Love" T. rex dig site.
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Volunteer David K. Smith searchers for more bones at the "Tufts-Love" T. rex dig site in northeast Montana. 
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Their patience paid off when they found several new fossils this year: the rear portion of the jaw bone found last summer, a scapula (shoulder blade), more ribs (including the rounded gastralia or “belly rib” bones).

Aerial view looking down at person surrounded by massive T. rex belly rib bone and other bones

Burke Museum fossil preparator Bruce Crowley excavates T. rex bones, including a rib.
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington 

Person digging out a massive T. rex belly rib bone

Burke Museum fossil preparator Bruce Crowley excavates T. rex bones, including a rib. 
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington 

While it can’t be confirmed until the fossil is prepared, the team is relatively certain they also found a humerus (the long arm bone that connects the shoulder to the elbow). The T. rex humerus is not much larger than the average human’s. Jokes made at the expense of T. rex’s small arms are not in short supply, but it’s fascinating to see such stark evidence that an animal that stood 40 feet at the hip and stretched the length of a city bus had such (relatively) puny arms.

The location of the bones in relation to each other suggests that the “Tufts-Love” T. rex may have died curled up counter-clockwise from head to tail, but it’s not possible to determine exactly how the animal died. Preparation of the jaw bone excavated last summer revealed bite marks that could be from battles with other T. rex, but they show evidence of healing, so don’t appear to be a cause of death.

“This is going to be one of the most complete T. rex specimens in the world. And it’s gorgeous in terms of its preservation—the bone is spectacular,” said Wilson. “I’m super excited to be able to bring this to the Burke, the Pacific Northwest and the University of Washington.”

Wilson leads a large, multidisciplinary team that studies geology and fossils in the Hell Creek Formation to learn more about the period of time immediately before and after the mass-extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs and gave rise to the age of mammals, 66 million years ago. 

The K-Pg boundary line shown directly above the T. rex dig site

The K-Pg Boundary, which marks the mass extinction event that ended the age of dinosaurs, is the dark line of sediment visible just below the overhang at the top of the hill.
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Group photo at the T. rex dig site

Some of the members of the T. rex dig team in July 2017. 
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

The K–Pg boundary—a black layer of sediment visible in the hill just above the T. rex dig site—clearly delineates the end of the age of dinosaurs.

“The more specimens that we have, the more we get to understand about this top predator and this ecosystem that was the last of its kind in the world,” said Wilson.

The T. rex crew thinks they’ve found everything there is to find at the site, but work on these specimens is just beginning. Before they can be studied, rock and dirt must be removed, and the fossils must be preserved. 

Burke Museum paleontologists carefully lower the "Tufts-Love" T. rex skull into the "Rex Rack," a rotating cage that will allow them to access all sides of the skull.
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

The public can watch preparation of the magnificent T. rex skull LIVE at the Burke beginning August 12, 2017. More and more will be revealed each day, so come back often to see the progress!

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All fieldwork was done with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permits to research and collect on federal land.

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