Smithsonian acquires 66-million-year-old T. rex skeleton

Jonathan Marker | Science Recorder | June 27, 2013

Smithsonian acquires 66-million-year-old T. rex skeleton

“Wankel’s Rex” will be donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

According to Joseph Stromberg in his Smithsonian Magazine article, “After 103 Years the Natural History Museum Finally Gets Its Own Tyrannosaurus rex,” on October 16 of this year, the world’s most visited natural history museum will accept the delivery of the “Wankel Rex.”  This particular specimen of T. rex – officially known as MOR555 – was discovered in 1988 on a tract of land in Montana that at the time belonged to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The find is attributed to Kathy Wankel, an amateur fossil hunter from Montana, who found the first arm bones ever found belonging to a T. rex.  Wankel and her family were on a boating trip on the Fort Peck reservoir, and when they stopped on a small island to explore the area, she found a few bones.  When she took the bones to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, then-curator Jack Horner asked Wankel to find the site again, which led to the excavation of the most intact T. rex specimen in existence at that time.  The 85 percent intact “Wankel’s Rex” is 66 million years old, boasts a length of 38 feet, and weighs in at a staggering 7 tons.

Though “Wankel’s Rex” became Federal property by virtue of its location on land controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, the specimen was stored at the Museum of the Rockies. Now, thanks to a joint agreement between the Museum of the Rockies, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Montana State University, “Wankel’s Rex” will be donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Though “Wankel’s Rex” has had its esteemed position of being the most intact specimen of T. rex usurped by other finds, it still ranks among the top contenders. According to Kirk Johnson, Sant director of the museum and a paleontologist, “It’s a really nice specimen in the sense that it’s got a lot of the body, head to tail.”

The T. rex has what is known as a “disarticulated skull,” which means that the skull bones split apart before the animal fossilized, but each of the bones are still present.  Technological advances in digital imagery will allow Smithsonian scientists to produce a precise and comprehensive skeleton.  According to Johnson, “Once we unpack it, we’ll begin by digitally scanning every bone and producing a virtual T. rex…Then, if you’re missing bones and want to recreate the whole animal, you can essentially take the opposite bone and flip the image.”

The comprehensive skeleton will on display in the Natural History Museum’s Dinosaur Hall in 2019.

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