Celebrating and Serenading Tyrannosaurus Sue

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The Field Museum of Chicago is in the midst of celebrations for Tyrannosaurus Sue, the popular name of the dinosaur skeleton it put on display five years ago. Host Jacki Lyden talks about the 67 million-year-old fossil with Steve Fiffer, author of a book about T-Rex Sue; and with jazz singer Al Jarreau, who sang a special birthday tribute to Sue at the Field Museum.


The Field Museum of Chicago is in the midst of celebrations for one of its most distinguished residents, Tyrannosaurus Sue. Some might call her just another old fossil; the South Dakota native is about 67 million years old. But the museum calls this her fifth birthday because her remains went on display five years ago. It's a big event for Steve Fiffer, the author of "Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T-Rex Ever Found."

Welcome to the show, Steve Fiffer.

Mr. STEVE FIFFER ("Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T-Rex Ever Found"): Hi, Jacki.

LYDEN: Are you going to the party?

Mr. FIFFER: I hope so.

LYDEN: Now not only was this the most expensive fossil ever to be acquired, but digging her out was apparently easy compared to all the claims that were made about these bones. Who were some of the claimants?

Mr. FIFFER: The claimants included the United States government, an individual named Peter Larson, who had found the bones and paid $5,000 for the rights to the bones from a Native American named Morris Williams. And Morris Williams later claimed the rights of the bones. And, finally, the tribe to which this Native American, Mr. Williams, belonged also claimed the bones.

LYDEN: Did the government get involved?

Mr. FIFFER: Well, the government got involved 18 months or so after the bones were actually found. It staged a morning raid in the laboratory where the bones were being studied. The FBI and the South Dakota National Guard seized these bones from Peter Larson, the fellow who had originally found them.

LYDEN: What did they do with them?

Mr. FIFFER: They carted them off to a warehouse in Rapid City, South Dakota, and they sat there for several years until they finally went up for auction. And that's when the Field Museum won the auction and acquired the bones for $8.3 million.

LYDEN: So if someone had bid 8.8, this whole entire dinosaur skeleton could be sitting in Bahrain or a museum in Tokyo.

Mr. FIFFER: That's one of the ironies of this. The government initially seized the bones, saying that they didn't want these bones to leave the country. But then the government actually facilitated the auction, at which anybody could have bid for these bones. And fortunately, a museum that has the reputation of the Field Museum was the winner.

LYDEN: How do we know that this is Tyrannosaurus Sue and not Tyrannosaurus Sam?

Mr. FIFFER: Pete Larson named it after the member of his party who actually spotted the bones for the first time, Sue Hendrickson. The studies, up to this point, actually haven't revealed whether Sue was a he or a she, and the jury is still out on that.

LYDEN: Have any new discoveries been made about her since she became an exhibit?

Mr. FIFFER: Well, yes. They've determined the speed at which these T-Rexes moved. Some people had thought they moved maybe 35 or 40 miles an hour at top speed, and by studying the bones, they've determined that the T-Rex moved more slowly than that. They've also tried to determine whether T-Rex were predators or scavengers and, also, whether they were warm-blooded or cold-bloodied, but there's still study to be done on determining the answers to those questions.

LYDEN: What's the feeling you get when you stand in front of this big dinosaur?

Mr. FIFFER: The most impressive thing to me is how complete it is, because when you go to other museums and look at dinosaurs in general, and T-Rex in particular, many of the bones that you're seeing in the display in the museum are casts of plaster and so forth that they've just used to fill in the skeletons. When you look at Sue, you're seeing, really, the real thing, not to mention that it's huge.

LYDEN: So what do you wear to a birthday party for a dinosaur?

Mr. FIFFER: I guess you'd wear old clothes.

LYDEN: Well, Steve, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. FIFFER: No problem, Jacki. Thank you.

LYDEN: Steve Fiffer is the author of "Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T-Rex Ever Found."

Not only will Tyrannosaurus Sue have a special dinosaur-shaped chocolate cake created by Chef Wolfgang Puck, singer Al Jarreau went to the museum last week to serenade Sue with a special birthday tribute. Jarreau is the only American vocalist ever to win Grammys in three categories: pop, jazz and R&B. And he's probably now the only artist to have ever sung "Happy Birthday" to a dinosaur, at least in recorded history. Al Jarreau narrates a new CD, "A Dinosaur Named Sue," and he joins me from Chicago.

Al Jarreau, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. AL JARREAU (Singer): Hi

LYDEN: You are a world-renowned singer. You tour Europe, you scat sing, you blog on your own Web site, you make all these great CDs. Why did you take time out of a very, very busy career to sing songs about T-Rex Sue?

Mr. JARREAU: Educational things are really important for me. And I see Sue and its attractiveness to children and adults who still have an open mind and aren't part of the `Flat World Society' to come and learn something more. And it's easy to get my interest on projects like this. I'm a spokesman for literacy. So, yeah, it's close to my heart, these kinds of things, and I may have more information about natural sciences at home as an amateur than most people.

LYDEN: You recorded one song on the CD. Any chance of getting you to sing a little bit of that for us?

Mr. JARREAU: To sing a little bit of "Bones" for you?

LYDEN: Yeah.

Mr. JARREAU: (Singing) Sue got a whole lotta bones, mighty bones and a pile of bones. World just loves her style of bones. Sue's got bones. Sue's got a whole lot of bones, a stack of bones and a rack of bones, a huge, gigantic pack of bones. Sue's got bones. She got bones in her hands, bones in her feet. Sue's set of bones is almost complete. Bones in her head, bones in her eyes, more bones in her body than a baker's got pies, bones that did what they supposed to do. A whole lotta bones make a T-Rex Sue.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JARREAU: So, you see, it's--that's the character of the music on the record, to be fun and interesting and maybe excite some pictures in your mind about a dinosaur and maybe you'll go and get a book about T-Rex Sue.

LYDEN: Well, Al Jarreau, I think the Field Museum and the kids who sang for and Tyrannosaurus Sue and our listeners are all very lucky. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Mr. JARREAU: Well, thank you so much for your interest and letting me talk about this.

(Soundbite of "Bones")

Mr. JARREAU: (Singing) Bones through her body, bones through her body, bones through her body, bones through her body. Bones, bones, bones...

LYDEN: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Jennifer Ludden returns next weekend. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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