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Watch out! Here comes T. rex

Full-size cast of ‘Sue’ to visit S.L. museum in 2002

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An exact, full-size cast of the world's greatest fossil is coming to Salt Lake City.

A precise copy of Sue, the famous Tyrannosaurus rex that recently went on display in Chicago's Field Museum, will dazzle visitors to the Utah Museum of Natural History from May 25-Sept. 15, 2002, says Patti Carpenter, the museum's public relations manager.

"Tyrannosaurus rex is without doubt the most famous, the most spectacular, the most imposing of dinosaurs," said Scott D. Sampson, curator of vertebrates at the museum, on the University of Utah campus.

Not only is T. rex the most imposing dinosaur, the meat eater that has captured the public's imagination more than any other, but Sue is the top carnivore among that breed. The 67 million-year-old fossil is by far the largest, best-preserved and most complete Tyrannosaurus ever uncovered.

Sue is more than 40 feet long and stands 13 feet tall at the hips. The dinosaur (nobody knows the sex) has a skull 5 feet long, bristling with 60 teeth.

The fossil is named for Sue Hendrickson, who discovered it in 1990 in the badlands of South Dakota. The petrified bones were excavated, then auctioned off in 1997. The winning bidder was the Field Museum, which purchased it for $8.4 million, the world record for sale of a fossil.

The purchase was made possible by an education and financing partnership among the Field Museum, McDonald's Corp., Walt Disney World Resort, the California state university system and private donors, according to the Chicago museum.

It's not just a cast of hundreds (of bones) that is coming. The nationally touring exhibition, called "A T. rex named Sue," includes a separate, full-sized cast of Sue's skull mounted at eye level, touchable models of the dinosaur's 12-inch teeth, interactive models that control movements of tail, jaw, neck and forelimbs.

Also, the display includes CT scans of the inside of Sue's skull — the first of any T. rex skull — with images to show how people's ideas about these carnivores have changed over the past century, along with other interactive exhibits.

"It's a full-scale cast," said Ray Geiser, exhibits manager for the Utah Museum of Natural History. "We needed a 16-foot ceiling just to set this dinosaur up."

That will require toting heavy boxes of plaster casts and steel armature upstairs to the museum's second floor, the only exhibit hall big enough for Sue. While other museums may have big service elevators, this one does not because it started out as a university library and was refurbished as a museum after the construction of Marriott Library.

In addition, museum officials worked with experts at the Field Museum to design the exhibit. They wanted to make certain that the show could come here, which meant it had special constraints.

"We had to make special detachment points where the armature could come apart," Geiser explained. That's so the boxes would be small enough to get through the doors, since officials could not tear apart the historic doorway.

"His shoulder blades are too wide to fit through this opening," he added. The solution was to design a way to take the cast apart where the scapula, the shoulder blades, mount on the armature.

Even so, the cast of the rib cage with its support will weigh more than 500 pounds. The skull casts also are massive, since the skull is five feet long.

"We're going to have to move a great deal of that material (displays presently on the second floor) out of the way," Geiser said.

"In terms of exhibits, this is by far the largest skeleton we've brought into this building."

Special scaffolding will be built to help assemble the T. rex on the second floor.

"This is going to be great. It's going to be wonderful," Geiser said.

Carpenter and Sampson were in Chicago for the unveiling of the skeleton on May 17. "The level of excitement in the room — I mean, I never experienced anything like it before," Carpenter remembered.

About 75 schoolchildren were present in the crowd in the main foyer of the Field Museum when the skeleton was unveiled. A recorded roar simulating a dinosaur's noise rang through the great hall, as Sue remained hidden behind a curtain.

"They dropped the curtain and the kids just screamed," she said.

Sampson is thrilled with the lifelike mounting of the fossil. "You really get the impression of an animal walking," he said. It is "one of the best mounts of a carnivorous dinosaur I've ever seen."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com