If you've only got one afternoon in Chicago, which museum should you attend? After mulling over the possibilities and consulting my Magic 8-ball, I decided to hit up the Field Museum. It was a great choice, largely because I got to meet this old gal, who happens to be one of the most controversial set of bones in existence.
The dino named Sue was almost not found. After the crew on the dig found a few Edmontosaurus bones, they were pretty much ready to call it quits. But then their truck got a flat tire. While waiting on the tire to be fixed, Sue Hendrickson thought she would bide her time by checking out some cliffs that they were unable to get to before. After finding some small pieces of bone, she looked up to see where they had fallen from. Sticking out of the cliff were some much larger bones that looked to be well preserved. (Photo from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research)
The remains were eventually excavated and the crew discovered that the T. Rex was 80 percent complete "“ the most complete set of T. Rex bones ever found. In fact, only seven T. Rex fossils that are more than 50 percent complete have ever been found, so this was really an amazing find. The reason the skeleton is so complete, they speculated, is because the dino was covered with water and mud shortly after it died, so other animals weren't able to make off with pieces of it very easily.
Pretty much as soon as word of the discovery got out, people started fighting over who "owned" Sue (the dino, not the paleontologist). The excavation crew had permission from Maurice Williams, the owner of the land, to dig and remove the skeleton and paid him $5,000 for those privileges. But Mr. Williams said the $5,000 didn't include the sale of any findings "“ just permission to remove and clean them.
It gets even more complicated. Williams belonged to the Sioux tribe, and the Sioux insisted that the bones were rightfully theirs. However, the United States Department of the Interior held the land the dinosaur was found on in trust, so they claimed the land actually belonged to them and not Williams. Concerned that something would happen to the valuable fossil, the FBI and the National Guard seized the it from the dig site in 1992 and transferred it to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. It was eventually decided that the fossil did belong to Maurice Williams. He decided to sell it, which was when the Field Museum pooled funds with California State University, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald's, Ronald McDonald House Charities and lots of individual donors to purchase the T. Rex when it when up for auction at Sotheby's. They ended up buying it for $8,362,500.
The Field Museum built a new research laboratory specifically for preservationists to work on Sue. It also allowed the museum's visitors to watch the preservation through glass. Copies were made of each bone and models were made of the 20 percent of the bones that were missing. McDonald's got one complete set to put on a traveling tour and Disney's Animal Kingdom received a set that you can still see in the DinoLand U.S.A. section of the park.
The preservationists also took CT scans of each bone to see what they could learn, but at nearly five feet long, the skull was way too big to fit in a conventional medical scanner. So they borrowed the scanner at Boeing's Rocketdyne lab in California, which was usually used to check out space shuttle pieces.
What they discovered from all of their scans was that Sue was really old for a dinosaur. She had also broken numerous rib bones, but they had all healed so they were injuries that occurred before she died as opposed to injuries that caused her death. The ribs weren't her only injuries, though "“ she had also broken her fibula, experienced some damage to her skull and damaged vertebra of her tail. They think that she died from disease, though, and not from a fight or a fall. All in all, more than 25,000 hours were spent cleaning and restoring Sue.
Once properly examined and cleaned, the Field Museum was ready to show Sue off to the public in her entirety. Problem: without muscles, Sue's 600-pound head was simply too heavy for her body to easily hold up. Plus, her head had some damage to it and wasn't in the greatest shape. So, the solution was to cast a mold of the skull, fixing the smashed parts so the head wouldn't look distorted. It was also much more lightweight and was easier to attach to the body. The original skull is on display for museum patrons to see; it's not attached to anything.
When the whole thing was assembled, Sue ended up being 42 feet long and 13 feet tall at the hips. Despite her huge size, her brain cavity is only big enough to hold about a quart of milk.
So, that's the story of Sue. If you're ever in Chicagoland, I highly recommend checking her out. The whole museum is fantastic "“ I lost my husband in the Native American exhibit for about an hour, and when he wandered out he confessed that he could have spent an entire day there. It's a wonderful, not-boring museum with lots and lots of dino bones for you to ponder. I'll leave you with a few of them.