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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. are unpacking some rare and precious cargo. It is something the Smithsonian has never had before - a nearly complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. In the coming months, NPR's Christopher Joyce will check in occasionally as the tries to make this meat-eating giant the nation's most famous dinosaur. Here's his first story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: For decades, the Smithsonian has coveted a real skeleton of a T. Rex, a charismatic 40-foot-long beast that's not only deliciously frightening to contemplate but fascinating to scientists. How did such an animal grow so large? How fast did it run? Was it a predator or a scavenger? And now, courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, they're getting one.

SHELLEY MCKAMEY: This is MOR-555, which is the scientific name of the specimen.

JOYCE: In Bozeman, museum director Shelley McKamey stands eye to eye with the ferocious looking skull in the glass case in the museum's dinosaur hall. The room is dark with the rust-colored skull bathed in a spotlight beamed from above. It is actually even bigger than I thought. It's really huge, and just the teeth are incredibly frightening.

MCKAMEY: Quite large. We call them banana-size teeth.

JOYCE: The skull is over four feet long, with a gaping maw that could bite a cow in half. It's actually a cast for display. A copy of the real skull that's in the museum's basement, along with the rest of the animal, about to be shipped off as a gift to the Smithsonian.

Now, this is no run-of-the-mill gift. Commonly known as the Wankel T. Rex, after the Montana rancher who found it, it's one of the most complete T. Rex skeletons in the world - 80 percent of the animal's original bones are intact. So why give it up to the Smithsonian?

MCKAMEY: The opportunity for this specimen to be probably the most visited, the most visited famous T. Rex in the world, you know, its deserves its chance in Washington.

JOYCE: McKamey also points out that Montana is thick with dinosaur bones. Sixty-five million years ago, this place was practically crawling with T. Rexes. The museum already has another mostly complete T. Rex in its collection, called Tex Rex.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

JOYCE: Down in the basement at the Bozeman Museum, workers are packing the last parts of the Wankel T. Rex bones into wooden crates on a loading dock. Watching intently is a tall, brown-haired paleontologist who's the beneficiary of all this. Kirk Johnson, the new head of the Smithsonian's natural history museum. He's seeing the skeleton for the first time.

Workers pull off the top of Box Number 15 to give Johnson a look. Inside, the dinosaur's arm bones are velcroed into a white plaster cradle. They look like an entree in a porcelain serving dish.

KIRK JOHNSON: Wow, wow, wow.

(LAUGHTER)

JOYCE: This was the first complete T. rex arm ever found. For such a giant beast, it's laughably small.

JOHNSON: I mean the amazing thing is, look at this. It's like my arm. My arm is the size of the Tyrannosaurus Rex arm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

JOYCE: Museum staff re-seal the box and tape it up.

There's another Smithsonian scientist here, their Curator of Dinosaurs. Matt Carrano has been waiting two years for this day.

MATT CARRANO: It is little bit like Christmas early, you know. It's very rare that you get to get your hands on even part of a T. Rex, right, so there's almost a complete skeleton over there.

JOYCE: The Wankel T. Rex will be the star of the Smithsonian's new, $48 million Dinosaur Hall now under construction. The museum draws seven million visitors a year. But Carrano says there's also lots of new science to learn from such a complete skeleton.

CARRANO: You can do things like ask how old it was when it died, ask what kind of life it had before it grew up.

JOYCE: And what on Earth those little arms were for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING CRATES)

JOYCE: The next day, workers roll the crates out to a Federal Express tractor-trailer. FedEx is giving this the white gloves treatment, the truck will even have escort vehicles on its four-day drive to Washington. After the boxes are loaded, a crowd gathers on the windy front lawn of the museum to say goodbye. There's a hot dog lunch and a guy in a dinosaur suit.

And Kathy Wankel is there. She's the rancher who discovered the first bone in 1988. She didn't quite know what she had until she showed it to a paleontologist at the Bozeman Museum.

KATHY WANKEL: He took one look in that box and his eyes got huge. He said: You better come with me.

JOYCE: She's a little sad to see it go.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

JOYCE: Finally, the truck pulls off. Behind the wheel is the husband and wife team of Tammy and John Brubaker. The truck has got a 10-foot painting of a lunging T. Rex on the back.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MUSICAL HORN)

JOYCE: With a cavalcade of cars behind it, the truck drives down Main Street, past the old Baxter Hotel and Wild Joe's Coffee House, then out to Interstate 90. With two Chase vehicles for security following behind, it could be the only T. Rex that's been chased out of town.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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