The bare bones

■ • OW THAT WE'VE GOT all the bones back in the lab, what do we do with them? Usually we put them in storage for a few years. Unlike wine, they don't get any better in the basement. But, like other paleontology museums, the Museum of the Rockies has a huge backlog of fossils waiting to be cleaned. And just because T. rex has the biggest fan club doesn't mean we can shove aside the preparation of other valuable study specimens when a T. rex comes in the door.

We've got a waiting list for fossil cleanup partly because we re good at finding dinosaurs and other fossil animals. We don't prepare just any old bones, onlythose that are likely to offer new information about the animal, or are part of an unusually well preserved or complete skeleton. We've recendy found a lot of those, especially dinosaurs.

Also, like most paleontology museums, we can't afford the trained preparators needed to clean our fossils. I already mentioned the expense of preparing dinosaurs and the time needed—thirty thousand hours, or five people working for three years, for the Royal Tyrrell crew to clean a single T. rex. The Tyrrell used to have twenty preparators, but with economic slowdowns, they're down to a handful. We can afford only a couple of paid workers on the money we raise. Fortunately, we also have some top-notch volunteers. Other museums are worse off. Brigham Young University has one of the world's largest collections of dinosaurs. Most of it has been in plaster jackets for two decades, and the huge bundles fill the basement of the bleachers of their giant football stadium. "Dinosaur" Jim Jensen collected some of the world's biggest dino-

saurs for BYU, and nobody's quite sure if there isn't a bigger one still in those jackets. But who knows when we 11 find out, since BYU had to let its last paid preparator go this year.

Kathy Wankel's T. rex was bound to get worked on pretty fast, though, at our museum. For one reason, unless we worked on it, we couldn't even get it inside the door.

When Bill McKamey finished driving Kathy's T. rex across Montana to Bozeman on July 3,1990, he pulled up to the back of the museum, where the staff was ready with a forklift to haul the bundles on pallets into the loading dock. We knew T. rex wasn't going to make it into the lab the way it looked. The big bundles were so heavy they exceeded the architect's estimates of the carrying capacity of the museum's floors. Moved just as they were, the bundles would have broken through the floor of the museum.

We opened up the plaster jackets and removed sediment from the hip and vertebrae bundles on the the wankel t. rex gets dropped off at the museum of the rockies. some of the bone bundles were so heavy that they would have fallen through the floor if we didn't take them apart first on the loading dock.

1993 Dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus Rex

the preparation of the wankel t. rex goes on in front of the public at the museum of the rockies, we expect to have the skeleton cleaned and cast by june of 1993. that's three years after we dug it up, not long by paleontology standards.

the preparation of the wankel t. rex goes on in front of the public at the museum of the rockies, we expect to have the skeleton cleaned and cast by june of 1993. that's three years after we dug it up, not long by paleontology standards.

loading dock in a matter of hours, making them into smaller units. Instead of hauling the jackets into the storage area or the preparation laboratory next to my office in the basement, we brought them all upstairs to the museum display area, where we set up a special room to house the T. rex while three of our volunteer preparators (and sometimes Pat Leiggi) are working on it. The jackets are on tables behind big glass windows, and on the far wall of the big room is a mural of a T. rex skeleton. As visitors walk by, they can see the preparators working on the bones.

Fossil preparation in the lab is a difficult art. You've got to know anatomy and how to handle small tools, more delicate ones than you use in the field. You need a soft touch. And above all you need unbelievable patience. I prepared fossils for years at Princeton before I became a paleontologist, and as long as someone's paying me to look for and study dinosaurs, I don't want to be a preparator (though I still prepare really delicate and important fossils in my work, such as the embryos I've found in dinosaur eggs).

The equipment isn't anything too complicated. The fanciest tool we use is an air scribe. It's like a miniature jackhammer with a point as small as a pen. The tip vibrates in and out, chipping away at the rock surrounding a fossil. We couldn't use air scribes on T. raxsince the sandstone around the bones was too soft. Instead we used dental tools and paintbrushes and sometimes a toothbrush to clean the bones.

Each T. rex bone is prepared separately. Since all of us wanted to see the skull most of all, we worked on those bones first, except for the arm that preparators Ken Carpenter and Matt Smith had begun work on even before we excavated the rest of T. rex. We left the huge hip jacket for last because it needed so much work.

The bones were cleaned individually. If we found a crack in the bone, we removed the rock that had accumulated in the crack. If the remaining pieces of bone fit together, we glued the fragments. If there wasn't a clean fit, we didn't try to force things. Instead, we kept the parts, always logging in a collection number and a description on a tag tied to each bone.

As I'm writing, it's been more than two years since we excavated our T. rex, and we've still got at least a year to go before we're done cleaning it. The skull bones have all been prepared, and they're laid out—brown, shiny, and smooth—along with some of the arm, leg, back, and tailbones on long open-sided metal cabinets in our basement. That way I, or a visiting scientist, can just walk over to them, pick them up, measure them, and study them anytime we want. They're so much fun, I sometimes go into the collections just to look at them.

And we still don't know exactiy how much of T. rex we've got. Until we've cleaned up all the fossil bundles, we won't know if we've got, say, the bones of the other arm of T. rex. We're pretty sure we're missing the back end of the tail, some jawbones, one arm, and half of the rib cage. But we've still got a lot of T. rex parts to look at.

Aside from pleasure, what do we get from these bones? A lot. Individually, and together, they can tell us about T. rex's evolution, its movements, its five senses, its behavior. By looking at specific bones and groups of bones, we're learning a lot more about how T. rex might preparator and artist kit mather is at work here on t. rex's skull.

preparator and artist kit mather is at work here on t. rex's skull.

have looked and functioned. I'll describe some implications these findings may have for T. rex's behavior in Chapter 8. For now, here's some of what we're finding as we're cleaning specific areas of T. rex's skeleton.

0 0

Post a comment