Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Dinosaur Named Sue

Sue the T. rex, on display at the 
Field Museum in Chicago.

This is a story about a T. rex names Sue. In her 28 years of life she suffered many injuries and illnesses. A careful study of her bones tell us much about the hard life she lived. She suffered nine broken ribs, torn ligaments, infections and arthritis. Yet what probably killed her was a parasite. Holes in her lower jaw indicate she may have suffered from trichomonosis, a killer of modern-day birds of prey. If Sue had this disease, as indicated by the holes, it would have caused a serious infection in the back of the throat, making it very difficult to eat and breathe. So even if she did survive the infection, swallowing would have been so painful that she would have likely died of starvation. A difficult end to a difficult life.
   Fast forward 67 million years to the summer of 1990. Fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson was working near Faith, South Dakota, for the Black Hills Institute, a commercial fossil-collecting team. They were digging at the ranch of Maurice Williams and discovered that one of their trucks had a flat tire. While the team went into town to get it fixed, Sue stayed behind to investigate a weathered bluff she had noticed previously. Quickly she found some bone fragments that had fallen down the hillside. Looking to see where they fell from, she saw several vertebrae exposed in bluff face. Sue immediately knew they were bones from a large carnivorous dinosaur, possibly a T. rex. When her team returned, they verified her findings and named it Sue in her honor.
   After the Black Hills Institute finished excavating Sue, they knew they had an incredible specimen, possibly the best ever found. Sue was unique because she was so large and well preserved. Over 90% of her bones were intact. As word of their discovery spread, a fight erupted over the ownership of Sue. The Black Hills Institute had paid Mr. Williams $5,000 for permission to dig on his land and believed they owned the fossil. But Mr. Williams claimed that the money was only for permission to dig. And because the property fell within the boundaries of a Sioux reservation, the tribe also claimed ownership. Even the federal government became involved to determine if Sue had been found on federal land, launching an investigation against the Black Hills Institute. Meanwhile, Sue was locked away awaiting a decision as to who owned her. In the end, after a five-year legal battle, a judge determined that Sue belonged to Mr. Williams who promptly decided to sell Sue to the highest bidder.
   On October 4, 1997, Sue was put on the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York. In just eight short minutes Sue had a new owner. The Field Museum in Chicago bought Sue for a record $8.36 million. Sue made her public debut on May 17, 2000. The culmination of ten years of effort had finally brought the world’s biggest, most complete, and best preserved T. rex to a public stage and Sue’s fans were elated.
   Next week we’ll finish up our story about Sue and discover what has been learned since she has been in the care of the Field Museum.

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