The arm was found first, by a hiker in a rugged section of a Montana wildlife refuge. The body had been frozen in time — and rock — for ages, stuck in a death pose for posterity.
When paleontologists finished excavating the old bones, they had recovered one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons, a major specimen that is coming to the Smithsonian’s 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 T. 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 king carnivore. It will also add considerable heft to the Natural History Museum’s collection: The Wankel T. 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 museum’s director. The Hope Diamond remains the crown jewel of the collection. But, Johnson said, a natural-history museum is nothing without dinosaurs, 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 T. rex — estimated to have weighed six to seven tons — died in a riverbed near the eventual site of Fort Peck Reservoir. By the time Wankel stumbled upon the first lower-arm bones of a T. rex ever found, the land was controlled by the Corps. Thus, the Corps owns the skeleton, although the fossils have been conserved, studied and displayed at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
That the Corps had a T. rex to lend 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: A 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 go on display.
When Corps leaders learned that the Natural History Museum was interested in borrowing the Wankel T. rex, Trimble said, they were happy to oblige.
The Wankel T. rex is currently crated and stored in a warehouse in Montana. (Secrecy abounds, given the sky-high prices the bones would fetch in the shadowy commercial fossil market.)
At the Museum of the Rockies, the staff has been planning to say farewell to a very old friend.
“Some people are sad about it leaving — it’s kind of like seeing your beloved kid go off to college and into the real world,” said Shelley McKamey, the museum’s executive director, who helped excavate the Wankel T. rex, which is also known as MOR 555. “You’re going to miss him, but you’re also really proud of him. . . . We’re happy to share the best we’ve got with the world.”
The Smithsonian already has a T. rex, sort of. One recent morning, a young boy entered the dinosaur hall and walked straight to the life-size replica.
Its pose suggested that it was walking and just beginning to crouch — “and presumably about to inflict mayhem on somebody,” said Hans-Dieter Sues, the Natural History Museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology.
“Look at the size of it!” the boy said. “Whoa.”
His father nodded, then read the sign near the dinosaur: “They found this in South Dakota.” He did not mention that it was a cast made from “Stan,” a T. rex found on private land in the Hell Creek Formation in the 1980s.
Many of the museum’s more than 7 million annual visitors don’t realize it’s a replica (even though it says so on the sign), or they don’t care, officials said.
So, why the years-long obsession over getting a real specimen?
“Think about what the museum is,” said Johnson, the museum’s director. “It’s a place where real treasures of the natural world are on display. If I said I have a glass replica of the Hope Diamond, you’d be less impressed. . . . It’s really important for us to have a real object for people to see and experience and be amazed by.”