SEATTLE — The public can watch fossil preparation of the University of Washington Burke Museum‘s Tyrannosaurus rex skull “live.” Over the next several months, Burke paleontologists are carefully removing the rock surrounding the skull, slowly exposing the 66-million-year-old specimen. Discovered in summer 2016 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 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 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 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.
The dinosaur is named “Tufts-Love Rex” in honor of Jason Love and Luke Tufts, the two volunteers who discovered it.
Before working on the skull, the team spent the last year preparing a lower jaw bone and ribs from the “Tufts-Love Rex.”
“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 Greg Wilson, UW professor of biology and Burke Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology. “I’m super excited to be able to bring this to the Burke, the Pacific Northwest and the University of Washington.”
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 months uncovering the T. rex skull. 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). The team’s 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.”
It has taken two summers to excavate the “Tufts-Love Rex” from the field. In summer 2016, UW and Burke paleontologists discovered the skull 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 percent (90 bones) of the dinosaur has been found — making the “Tufts-Love Rex” one of the top 10 most complete T. rex skeletons ever discovered.
The Burke Museum
University of Washington Campus
17th Ave NE and NE 45th St.
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Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.