Some people think a flat tire is bad luck, but not fossil collector Sue Hendrickson. Back in 1990, while waiting near Faith, S.D., for her team to return from a trip to town to fix a flat, Hendrickson stumbled across some bone fragments under a sandstone bluff. Looking up to see where they may have fallen from, she saw large bones protruding from the cliff. When her teammates returned with their flat tire repaired, they realized they'd made a remarkable scientific discovery -- the largest, most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil unearthed to date. The crew immediately named the fossil Sue, in Hendrickson's honor.
Legal ownership of the fossil became an immediate issue, because it was found on a Sioux Indian reservation, but on the property of a private rancher, who was part Sioux himself, with his land held in trust by the U.S. government. After five years of legal wrangling, a judge decided that Sue belonged to the rancher, who auctioned it off to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for $8.4 million.
The original Sue remains in Chicago, but a life-size cast of the fossilized skeleton -- 42 feet long and 13 feet tall at the hips -- will go on display this Saturday at the MAC as part of "A T. rex Named Sue," the Field Museum's monstrously popular traveling exhibit.
"We'll see more people this summer than we see in an average year -- by about double," says Jill Strom, public relations coordinator at the MAC. The exhibit has been so popular in other locations that the MAC will be selling time-frame tickets through TicketsWest -- something that's not been done for any previous exhibit. Unlike some other museums, though, the MAC is not altering any prices for the exhibit.
The skeleton is only about half of the total exhibit, which arrived Monday at the MAC on three semi-trailers. Ten interactive "pods" allow guests to do things like work a mechanical model of Sue's arm to experience its range of motion, or to see how her tail would work, or to see through various configurations of a dinosaur's eye. There will be touchable replicas of teeth and bones, along with informative videos.
Inhabiting the western portion of North America more than 65 million years ago, Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the largest terrestrial carnivores on the planet. Sue weighed an estimated 14,000 pounds in life, with a 5-foot long, 600-pound skull and serrated, flesh-shredding teeth up to 12 inches in length. Those teeth could munch through bone.
Only seven T. rex fossils have been found that are more than 50 percent complete. Sue was about 90 percent intact and in such good condition that the surface of the bones could be studied to determine how muscles and ligaments attached. Scarred and dinged up with several injuries, including a tooth fragment from another Tyrannosaurus embedded in one of her ribs and others broken, she lived a tough 29 years. The dinosaur's gender is not actually known.
In a local media exclusive, the normally reticent Sue agreed to a brief interview with the Inlander, revealing that behind those big old teeth, she's just a sweetheart.
Inlander: Sue, you're looking great. They say you're 67 million years old, but you don't look a day over 50 million.
Sue: Thanks. I lost a lot of weight in South Dakota.
Is it your winning smile that draws the crowds?
It's hard to say what amuses you monkey types. You know, for many creatures during my lifetime, these teeth were the last thing they ever saw. I get the impression that visitors are always trying to imagine that final moment, you know, when they get eaten by a seven-ton lizard with teeth the size of bananas.
I bet. Let's be candid here -- would you have eaten me?
[laughter] Honey, you'd have been a warm, soft little hors d'oeuvre for a T. rex named Sue. Nothing personal.
Of course. So, what's with your tiny little arms?
I ate the last person who asked me that. Just kidding, just kidding! Small is a relative term. My "tiny little arms" were extremely well muscled and could curl more than 400 pounds.
Dare I ask about the size of your brain?
I don't understand the question. [raucous laughter] Let's just say that you have your ways of solving problems, and we had ours. Besides, life was a lot simpler in my day. Eat or be eaten, you know? It's not like we were concerned with the theory of relativity. Sheeesh.
Did you see Jurassic Park?
I had only been out of the dirt three years when that movie came out. I was rooting for the reptiles the whole time. Great stuff.
What do you like best about your new job?
I guess what I like best is the fascination from all ages, from little kids to the old fossils. [laughter] It's the look on their faces as they try to come to terms with giants like me roaming the Earth. The fact of my existence seems stranger than fiction to many people.
Anything else you'd like to say to our readers?
Rawr, baby. Sue's in the house. Check me out.
"A T. rex Named Sue" will growl at the MAC, 2316 W. First Ave., from April 28-Sept. 2. Museum hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 am-5 pm. Tickets: $7; $5, seniors and students; free, children 5 and younger. Visit www.northwestmuseum.org or call 456-3931.