Paleontologists presented the most complete skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex ever found, contorted in rigor mortis atop the green clay on which it roamed 65 million years ago.
"This will be the animal you'll see in the textbooks," exulted Greg Erickson, a crewmember of the Museum of the Rockies, after stepping out of the shallow 25-foot-square pit where brown hip, leg and backbone fossils poked several inches above the surface.The 40-foot-long animal - only the seventh tyrannosaurus rex ever found, and the sixth from Montana - was preserved lying on its left side in the Fort Peck reservoir on the Missouri River in the badlands of northeastern Montana, about 400 miles northeast of Helena. There was no indication how it died.
Its neck had curled over its back as the muscles stiffened after death, Erickson said, and the skull had come loose but appeared to be complete.
Erickson said the crew uncovered what apparently was the detached tip of the nose after removing the plaster-and-burlap "winter jacket" that had protected the exposed fossils since fall.
Much of the tail had become detached, but the 10 crew members were still optimistic they could find all the bones.
Researchers earlier examined the animal's left arm and determined it could lift and hold 400 pounds even though it was the same length as man's.
Most of the skeleton remained encased in light gray sandstone formed atop the green clay from the sediments of a catastrophic flood that trapped and preserved the carcass shortly after the seven-ton, carnivorous animal died, crew members said.
"It is the biggest meat-eating animal that ever walked on this earth," museum Curator Jack Horner said while strolling area around the dig site, where he recently found a 10-inch-long Tyrannosaurus tooth on the ground. "It had a whole mouthful of steak knives."
The remote dig site, situated in the sparsely grassed mud and sandstone badlands around Fort Peck Reservoir, will remain closed to the general public, but reporters and photographers were permitted to visit it Monday.
The paleontologists last week used jackhammers to remove up to 12 feet of sandstone covering the skeleton. For work on and near the bones, they relied on more delicate tools, including brushes, whisk brooms and a yellow mustard squeeze bottle filled with a plastic solution that both protected the bones and highlighted their red-brown color.
Back in the laboratory, technological advances will let researchers explore the structure of the bone and its blood vessels, which also are preserved in the fossil.
"You don't have to take it apart anymore," said crew member Scott Sampson. "Nowadays you can throw things into CAT scanners and look inside the bones."
The tyrannosaurus skeleton will be removed in about five pieces, starting next week, dig supervisor Pat Leigge said.
It will be prepared in public view at the museum in Bozeman over the next three years, Horner said.
The fossil was found in 1988 by amateur hunters Cathy and Tom Wankel of Angela when they noticed a half-inch-wide light brown fossilized bone protruding 2 inches out of dried mud near the reservoir.