A Tyrannosaurus Rex Named Sue

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A Tyrannosaurus Rex Named Sue


Vertebrate paleontology has always inspired scientific and political debates. Humans have been fascinated with discoveries of ancient, and sometimes bizarre, animals that reflect Earth's history. No recent event has produced as much controversy as the discovery of a Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur in South Dakota, initially called "Sue."


The saga began in 1990 when a field collector for a private company, the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, discovered the most complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. The research institute allegedly paid the Cheyenne Sioux landowner, Maurice Williams, $5,000 for the fossil and began their excavations. The amazing specimen was placed in protective plaster jackets and transported to the company's facilities for removal from its 67 million-year-old earthly encasement. Some of the bones were partially prepared for making replicas and display at the institute's headquarters.

News of the rare fossil's discovery spread like wildfire and soon scientists, museums, and people from all over the world were made aware of the stunning specimen. Controversy immediately followed. The academic world protested the sale of the fossil to the institute, claiming the primary goal of the company was the sale, not research, of vertebrate fossils. It was feared that the invaluable specimen would be sold to buyers whose main interest was not science and disappear from study forever. The worry also included fears of improper preparation. Vertebrate fossils often contain a great deal of information of interest to much of the scientific world, especially those interested in paleontology. Dinosaurs are especially fascinating to people of all ages, and this T. rex was certainly the most complete specimen of its kind. It was thought that if the fossil were improperly removed and preserved, a wealth of potential scientific information it contained might be lost. The resulting battle that ensued over the specimen lasted for many years.

On May 14, 1992, the federal government executed a search and seizure warrant issued by the acting U.S. Attorney, Kevin Schieffer. Nine FBI agents, four National Park rangers, two agents from the Department of the Interior office of the Inspector General, one Bureau of Indian Affairs agent, one South Dakota Highway Patrolman, one Pennington County Deputy Sheriff, and many paleontologists arrived at the institute to confiscate the fossil from its owner, Peter Larsen. The National Guard arrived to help in the removal of the giant dinosaur. The fossil was taken to the Rapid City Museum of Natural History for safekeeping until the legal battle for custody of the rare specimen could be determined.

Years of legal battles followed. The Tyrannosaurus, which had been named "Sue" by Mr. Larsen and the institute, became an international celebrity. Schoolchildren all over the country knew about this legendary animal fossil. Many opinions about what should be done with the now famous dinosaur bones were published in magazines and newspapers. Legal judgments were overturned and then reestablished by several levels of the United States court system. There was even a request to have the case heard by the Supreme Court, though it was denied.


The central controversy of the legal battle is one that, in general, has not yet been decided. Who really owns national treasures like this amazing T. rex? Is it of such value that it should belong to the people of the country. Many foreign countries, like China, have protective laws regarding the discovery of important paleontological and archaeological finds. In the United States there are laws governing antiquities such as archaeological discoveries. But the laws regarding animal fossils are weak and ambiguous. The South Dakota T. rex became the focus of this ongoing debate. Since the fossil was found on private land, did it belong to the rancher to sell? Did the Black Hills Institute have the right to buy it and do whatever they wanted with the fossil? Do the people of America have the right to claim such remarkable finds as national treasures? Many additional legal questions were proposed in addition to these.

The argument proposed by the federal government was that the land owned by Mr. Williams was actually held in trust for the Cheyenne people by the United States government. This was the basis for seizing the fossil from the Black Hills Institute. Eventually that decision was overturned.

It was decided that the fossil did, indeed, belong to Mr. Williams. He chose to put the T. rex up for auction at Sotheby's New York. This unprecedented sale occurred on October 2, 1997. The bidding started at $500,000 and, in a few minutes, closed at $8.36 million, the largest sum ever paid for a fossil in history. The new owner of the spectacular fossil is the Chicago Field Museum, with a consortium of investors including McDonald's, Walt Disney World, the California State University system, and private individuals. It will have its public unveiling in the year 2000 at both the museum and Disney World, where replicas made from the bones of the giant animal will be placed on display.

A great deal of information about the fossil has been published. However, the name "Sue," provided at the Black Hills Institute, can no longer be used because Peter Larsen copyrighted it. A museum sponsored contest for schoolchildren will find a replacement name.

The characteristics and history of the famous dinosaur specimen have undergone much study. The huge 2000-pound (908 kg), 5-foot-long (1.5 m) skull was scanned at a Boeing lab in California in 1998. After 500 hours of x-raying the very thin sections of the skull and digitally reconstructing the skull, some interesting details have come to light. The Tyrannosaurus could both see and hear quite well. However, its greatest sense appears to be its ability to smell. Huge olfactory bulbs and canals for nerves support the hypothesis that a T. rex could sniff out food very easily.

Other yet to be confirmed data on the 67 million-year-old dinosaur indicates that it had a femur, or thigh bone, 54 (137 cm) inches long. It appears that the animal incurred some injuries before its death such as a broken tail and leg bone. It may have been bitten in the head by another T. rex since it seems to have a broken facial bone. Its brain was about the size of a grapefruit. Big for a dinosaur, but not very big in relation to its large body.

There is information that can never be known for certain, such as the gender of the animal or whether it was warm- or cold-blooded. Was it a predator or scavenger? And how or why did it actually die? What did its skin look like? How did it reproduce? Although the preserved skeleton provides much information about the specimen and the species, it is still just a skeleton. Without tissues and other samples these are questions that cannot be answered at this time, or perhaps ever.

The debate and legal battles over this amazing fossil have focused attention on the problem of what to do with fossils. Who has the rights to them? Should they be protected by federal laws? Should they be allowed to be sold outside of their country of origin?

Recent discoveries of important fossils and the information they provide has stirred a great deal of interest in Earth's history. New fossils of dinosaurs from China indicate that some dinosaurs may have had feathers, supporting the idea that birds are closely related to dinosaurs. What would happen if these fossils had been sold to private collectors? Dinosaur eggs are unique in that they reveal a great deal of information about the embryology or juvenile growth of certain dinosaurs. They even indicate some dinosaur behavior since they are often found in grouped nests. This grouping tends to support the idea of herding or social grouping between dinosaurs. Scientists argue that this type of information should be protected for study and that fossil hunters should not be allowed to simply collect and sell fossils.

On the other hand, the rights of landowners and the support of free markets are part of the basic foundations of society in the United States. Some people argue that to interfere with these rights may be unconstitutional.

Whatever the sentiment, it is a debate that is not likely to end very soon. Even with federal protection, important archaeological sites are often raided by poachers and valuable artifacts are stolen for sale on the black market. Other countries face the same problems. There are not enough finances to protect all the sites. Even if fossils are protected by law, it is believed that the illegal sale of fossils will continue.

Not long after the Black Hills Institute discovered "Sue," they found another T. rex they named "Stan." North America and Canada are regions where many dinosaurs lived and died. The more fossils that are discovered, the more science will understand the natural history of these animals.

In addition to dinosaurs, there are thousands of other fossil animals being unearthed every day. These fossils add to the knowledge of how life evolved. Patterns of evolution are recognized throughout the fossil record. Even human history is recorded in fossils. The search is always on to find the relatives of ancestral humans. What the world does with these fossils has yet to be determined.


Further Reading

Fiffer, Steve. Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. Rex Ever Found. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2000.

Horner, John R., and Don Lessem. The Complete T. Rex. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Horner, John R., and Don Lessem. Digging Up Tyrannosaurus Rex. New York: Crown, 1992.

Lindsay, William. American Museum of Natural History: Tyrannosaurus. London and New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1992.

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