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Museum to celebrate important dates of its most famous resident

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's not easy to throw a birthday party for the king of carnivorous dinosaurs. What do you do for a cake?

(Illustrated by Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette)

Even if you find a bakery that can make one big enough, odds are it won't have any of the birthday beast's favorite flavors, perhaps Triceratops with Edmontosaurus frosting and hadrosaur bone sprinkles.

And then you've got the even bigger problem of candles, since this creature's bones are -- careful now -- 65 million years old.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History is avoiding a fossil faux pas this weekend by celebrating not the birth, but the discovery -- 100 years ago -- of its mounted skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex.

The celebration includes not only a party -- with cake -- at the Oakland museum on Saturday, but also the official debut on Thursday of a near-life-size T. rex-plica at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Chances are, you've seen the original towering and toothy terror in Dinosaur Hall, where it has awed generations of visitors from Pittsburgh and beyond. This weekend's bash spotlights some things many people still don't know about this icon, such as how this fossilized skeleton is the first one found and described as Tyrannosaurus rex, whose Latin name translates as "tyrant lizard king."

 
 
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T. rex continues to rule in any language. Especially that spoken by dinosaur-loving boys.

"Ooooh, look! That's a T. rex!" exclaimed Eric Cooley the other day as he walked into Dinosaur Hall. He walked right up to the 18-foot-tall, 47-foot-long predator, staring and pointing up at jaws that easily could hold both him and his brother Riley. Eric is 4. Riley is 2. Their mom, Cathy Cooley of West Mifflin, says T. rex is the boys' favorite for the same winning trait cited by many other pint-sized paleontologists:

"'Cause he's mean!"

T. rex has clamped onto the fancies of boys and girls, men and women, writers and filmmakers for more than a century.

The fascinating tale of its discovery and its discoverer is especially appealing in Pittsburgh, where that skeleton wound up amid circumstances that still are a bit mysterious.

For instance: Did bonehunter Barnum Brown really wear his full-length fur coat while he worked?

Brown, who indeed was named after P.T. Barnum, had some circus flair himself. Employed by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, he was a dandy dresser, even in the field, and pursued ladies as enthusiastically as he did dinosaurs. It was said he could smell fossils, and his prowess made him "Mr. Bones," the greatest dino digger of the early 20th century.

According to information dug up by Carnegie staffers, his discovery of T. rex started when he looked at a rock that a friend had brought back from a hunting trip in Montana. Brown recognized it as part of a horn of a Triceratops, and so he decided to do a little hunting of his own where it had been found: the Hell Creek region.

Bingo: That summer of 1902, Brown found a hip girdle, hind limbs and a few vertebrae of some huge creature. It was so huge that excavating it took him and his crew two seasons and a lot of dynamite.

Then the American Museum staff had to remove the rock from the bones, which included much of a back, ribs, some of the hind limbs and a partial skull.

American Museum Director Henry Fairfield Osborn got to describe the find and named it T. At the same time, Andrew Carnegie's museum in Pittsburgh was in hot pursuit of dinosaurs out West, too, discovering in Wyoming a more docile new species dubbed Diplodocus carnegii.

Brown, for his part, kept searching in Hell Creek and found more T. rex remains, including, in 1908, a more complete skeleton with a fine skull and jaws.

Fast forward to the 1940s. The American Museum had two T. rexes and the Carnegie Museum had none.

There are conflicting versions of why Pittsburgh got the type specimen. Some sources, including "The American Museum of Natural History's Book of Dinosaurs and Other Ancient Creatures" by Joseph Wallace, say the American Museum feared that New York would be bombed in World War II and so sent the 1902 skeleton to safe haven in Pittsburgh.

But that reason isn't raised in archived letters sent between the Carnegie and Brown, who wrote in January 1941 that he thought the American Museum could spare one T. rex. That was nearly a year before the United States entered the war.

By that fall, the type specimen was packed into 15 wooden crates for shipment to Pittsburgh for the agreed-on price of $7,000.

Betty Hill, Carnegie Museum's vertebrate fossil collection manager who computer-curated the letters, marvels at the bill ("I thought, my God, all they wanted is reimbursement for expenses") but says the exchange was not unusual for its time. She doesn't think it would happen now. "No museum that I can think of would sell a type specimen today."

The 6,360-pound shipment arrived here by truck and was reassembled in Dinosaur Hall in 1942.

That means this weekend's party celebrates two anniversaries: the 60 years since T. rex came to Pittsburgh and the 100 years it's been known.

"Think of the thrill of finding that thing," said Mary Dawson, Carnegie Museum's venerable curator of vertebrate paleontology, "and recognizing that, my goodness, this is the biggest carnivore we've ever seen."

T. rex stands as it has since 1942, supported by a steel frame in the upright, tail-dragging pose that paleontologists now have scrapped in favor of the back horizontal, tail aloft. The skeleton is about 60 percent actual fossil bones, shiny with shellac. The rest of the bones are plaster casts. The skull is a cast, too, but the one displayed at its feet is the actual, much heavier one.

Besides being a point of pride, as Dawson explains, the type specimen remains the touchstone to which scientists must return to verify new finds as T. rex. It's not uncommon for researchers to pore over the skeleton using ladders and flashlights.

In fact, the extinct therapod's "bio" continues to evolve as scientists find more and learn more. Some now believe this ferocious predator was more of a slower scavenger.

Since 1942, T. rex has been holding forth in Dinosaur Hall. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Furthering that kind of knowledge matters more than what fossil was first, says Mark Norell, chairman of the department of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. He doesn't bite on suggestions that his institution let the big one get away. He's sure the fear of bombing was a factor -- museums in London were spiriting specimens out to the country -- and besides, "The specimen we retained is more important because it has the beautiful skull that was found with it."

Carnegie Museum isn't shy about bragging about having two other types in its stable of dinosaurs, which it bills as one of the world's best, and the best from the Jurassic period.

Competitiveness, it seems, is one of paleontology's constants.

What's indisputable is that T. rex has played a dominant role in Carnegie Museum's past and looks to have a main role in its future.

As you can see in a diorama there now, the planned $37 million expansion of Dinosaur Hall is to include the 1902 T. rex remounted in the scientifically more up-to-date position.

The museum is in final negotiations to get its hands on what some consider the best T. rex skull yet, recently discovered in South Dakota. Museum spokesman Dan Lagiovane says that if the deal is finalized, the fossil skull, nicknamed "Sampson," will be prepared in public view over 10 months.

Dawson laughs as she muses, "What did school children get excited about" before T. rex? "They had to use imaginary monsters."


Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.

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