Rare opportunity to watch work on a T. rex skull Preparation begins on the “Tufts-Love Rex”, excavation from the field complete Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
Seattle— Starting August 12, the public can watch fossil preparation of the Burke Museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex skull “live.” Over the next several months, Burke paleontologists will carefully remove the rock surrounding the skull, slowly exposing this incredible, 66-million-year-old specimen. Discovered last summer in the Hell Creek Formation in northeast Montana, the skull is 4 feet long, weighs 3,000 pounds in its field jacket, is the first in Washington and one of only 15 reasonably complete T. rex skulls ever discovered.
This is one of only a handful of times the public has ever had the opportunity to see preparation of a T. rex, and it is even rarer to be able to see the process on a T. rex skull. “The bones we’re seeing so far are among the best I’ve seen,” said Michael Holland, Burke Museum fossil preparator, who has worked on T. rex specimens at leading museums across the country.
A team of paleontologists and trained volunteers will begin this intricate work in a lab that is part of the Burke’s Testing, Testing 1-2-3 special exhibit. The Testing exhibit features three working labs and an imaging room that showcases the real work happening behind the scenes at the Burke every day, and is a prototype of the new “See Through” experiences the public can enjoy daily in the new Burke Museum, opening 2019.
Prior to working on the skull, the team spent the last year preparing a lower jaw bone and ribs from the “Tufts-Love Rex.” The finished bones are also on display in Testing, Testing 1-2-3.
“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 Dr. Greg Wilson, Burke Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology and professor of biology at the University of Washington. “I’m super excited to be able to bring this to the Burke, the Pacific Northwest and the University of Washington.”
What does it take to prepare a T. rex skull?
Removing rock from around such a rare and large fossil requires skill and patience. The Burke’s team of fossil preparators and trained volunteers will spend the next several monthsuncovering the T. rex skull in the Testing, Testing 1-2-3 exhibit. Once all of the rock surrounding the bone has been removed and the fossils have been stabilized, the museum plans to display the skull in the New Burke Museum.
Custom-designed equipment was created to hold the massive skull, which would break ordinary lab tables. Holland, who is leading the Burke’s Hell Creek preparator team, collaborated with Crucible, a worker’s cooperative based in Montana, to create a specially engineered cage dubbed the “T. Rex Rotisserie Rack (TR3).” The equipment’s appearance lives up to its name, but instead of roasting a chicken, this rack is designed to hold up to 6,000 pounds of fossil. The TR3 consists of two heavy-duty steel wheels connected by structural steel rods filled with high-strength concrete, to reduce flexion from the massive weight of the skull. The device sits on a wheeled frame made of 2-inch tube steel, which allows the Burke’s paleontology team to safely rotate the fossil as the work progresses. Each rod can be individually removed so the team can easily access any part of the skull.
Each time the skull is rotated in the rack, the team will apply rigid urethane foam between the rack’s bars and the fossil in order to create a custom cradle, distributing the weight across the bars and relieving pressure points that could potentially damage the skull. The areas of the fossil that are bearing weight will continue to be covered in a plaster jacket that looks similar to a cast used to set a broken bone.
After applying a consolidant to harden them, the bones can then be handled for research or exhibit mounting. The portions of the skull that the prep team can see emerging so far suggest the individual bones that make up the skull are still articulated (connected). Their initial work will focus mainly on the removal of as much rock matrix as possible from the exterior surfaces of the skull, leaving the bones in place.
“Some of the most amazing fossils I’ve ever worked with are from the Hell Creek Formation, and this T. rex definitely lives up to those standards. The sandstone is so soft that it can be scraped away with a fingernail, although we prefer dental picks or other small tools,” Holland said. “Even though the rock is soft, the bones are exquisitely preserved—to such an extent that if they were white instead of brown in color, they would look like they came from an animal that just died a year or two ago.”
Update from the field: Excavation complete on the “Tufts-Love Rex”
It has taken two summers to excavate the “Tufts-Love Rex” from the field. In summer 2016, Burke paleontologists discovered theskull along with ribs, vertebrae, and parts of the jaw and pelvis. Suspecting more of the dinosaur remained in the field, the team returned to the site this summer and found a number of new bones, including a belly rib, another piece of the lower jaw discovered last summer, and parts of the shoulder blade. Wilson suspects they also may have found another rare part of the T. rex—the notoriously small humerus arm bone. Rock will need to be removed from around the fossil to confirm this discovery.
In total, about 30% (90 bones) of the dinosaur has been found—making the “Tufts-Love Rex” one of the top ten most complete T. rex skeletons ever discovered.
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About the “Tufts-Love” T. Rex:
Two Burke Museum paleontology volunteers, Jason Love and Luke Tufts, initially discovered pieces of fossilized bone protruding from a rocky hillside on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Hell Creek Formation in northeast Montana—an area that is world-famous for its fossil dinosaur sites. Upon further excavation after acquiring permits from the BLM, the team discovered the T. rex skull along with ribs, vertebrae, and parts of the jaw and pelvis. The T. rex is nicknamed the “Tufts-Love Rex” in honor of the volunteers who discovered it.
Based on the size of its skull, Burke paleontologists estimate this dinosaur is about 85% the size of the largest T. rex found to-date. At the hips, the T. rex would have been nearly as tall as a city bus, and as long as a bus from tail to head.
The Tufts-Love Rex is 66.3 million years old. T. rex lived at the end of the Cretaceous Period (145–66 million years ago) and became extinct during the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction (66 million years ago). Burke paleontologists could determine that the Tufts-Love Rex lived at the very end of the Cretaceous because it was found at the bottom of a hill; a rock layer at the top of that hill marks the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction. Based on the size of the skull—a good indicator of T. rex age—the team estimates the dinosaur was about 15 years old when it died (adult T. rex lived up to 25-30 years).
A team of more than 45 people led by Burke Museum Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and University of Washington biology professor Dr. Greg Wilson helped excavate the T. rex over the summers of 2016 and 2017. In addition to the T. rex, the team is collecting fossils in the area for the Hell Creek Project, a multi-disciplinary project examining vertebrates, invertebrates, plants and geology of the area to learn more about the final two million years of the dinosaur era, the mass-extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs, and the first 1.5 million years post-extinction that gave rise to the age of mammals. The project, currently led by Wilson, was founded by Jack Horner and Nathan Myhrvold. Burke paleontologists, volunteers, undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Washington and other universities, and K–12 educators participating in the Burke’s DIG Field School contribute to the project.
About the Hell Creek Formation The Hell Creek Formation is a geologic formation that extends across portions of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota and is world-famous for its fossil dinosaur sites. It is the most-studied place on earth to understand how dinosaurs went extinct and how mammals took over. Hell Creek is where the first T. rex was discovered and has yielded many discoveries of Cretaceous Period dinosaurs, including Triceratops and Edmontosaurus.
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Burke Museum fossil preparators Michael Holland (front-left) and Bruce Crowley position the "Tufts-Love" T. rex skull in the "T. Rex Rotisserie Rack,” a rotating cage that will allow them to access all sides of the skull while removing the rock surrounding the bones.
Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington
Dr. Greg Wilson, Burke Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology and UW biology professor, at the "Tufts-Love" T. rex dig site in northeast Montana. Wilson is the lead researcher for the team that discovered the T. rex. July 2017.
Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington
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