ASTERN MONTANA, June 1991 »I'm on my knees on the top of a bare, dusty hill. The hill is on the muddy shore of a reservoir in the middle of mile after mile of badlands. Ten expert dinosaur diggers are working next to me. With air hammers, picks, even toothbrushes, we're picking away at a skeleton bigger than all of us. We're breaking up and carting away tons of sandstone to get at the brown bones of the biggest killer anyone's ever found. It's late afternoon, and still it's 110 degrees in the shade. Only there isn't any shade. No wonder this place is called Hell Creek.
None of us is stopping work. We've got only a month to uncover this dinosaur and get it all safely out of the ground, so we need to keep working. Besides, we're having too much fun.
We're in Big Sky country, and we can see for miles and miles. Suddenly on the horizon I see thunderheads blowing in, fast. We scramble to get the tools together and the bones covered over with a blue tarp because if rain drenches the freshly exposed bone, it could turn the fossils soft and spongy. And the quarry would become a mud swamp.
We cover the pit just in time and clamber down the hill into our tents and teepees. The storm howls through the site, billowing the tarp. Balls of tum-bleweed fly through camp. In one of the storms here this month, hailstones the size of golfballs pelted the ground. In another, the wind blew so hard, it blew the rain sideways and ripped the tops off tents.
In an hour the storm blows over. There's the huge arc of a double rainbow and a fire-red sunset to follow.
The weather puts on one hell of a show in the Hell Creek region. Through these badlands, year round, the wind can blow hard enough to knock your tongue back down your throat. It blows away most everything on the ground until all that's left is dust and rocks. And the bones of dinosaurs. Some of the bones, more than any ever found in any other place known on earth, belong to the king of the dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex.
I'm no expert on T. rex. I found my first dinosaur bone when I was six, growing up in Montana. Ever since then I've been interested in dinosaurs. But not all dinosaurs. The bone I found was a duckbilled dinosaur, and it is duckbills that I spend most of my time looking for and thinking about. I've found thousands of duckbills since and figured out a lot about how they lived and evolved. And I've found lots of other dinosaurs—horned ones and brontosaurs and little predators and plant eaters. But never a T. rex.. Then again, all of the people who have ever found a T. rex aren't enough to field a baseball team.
I do think Tyrannosaurus rex was pretty neat, probably for the same reason you do. It was one humongous, frightening animal. T. rex was a genuine monster that's great to fantasize about. It's fun to imagine its life and its world.
And it's exciting to think what will become of the T. rex we dig out. A real skeleton of a T. rex is something that I can have molded and cast in bronze and put outside the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, where I work. I know a lot of people would come to see it. And while they are at the museum they'd get to see some duckbilled dinosaurs. That makes me happy.
But as a scientist I'm frustrated by T. rex. There is only so much science that you can do on one skeleton, or eleven skeletons, which is all we have of T. rex. You can find out the systematics—what is related to T. rex—by comparing bones. You can look at bones to study the biomechanics of the animal and figure out what it was able to do. But I'm primarily interested in animal
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