First T. Rex Skeleton, Complete At Last Discovered in 1902 by the "Indiana Jones" of fossil hunters, the first Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton fascinated the public. It was sold off during World War II, but a lone rib bone remained forgotten in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Now, a century after it was unearthed, T. rex is finally whole.
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Bone To Pick: First T. Rex Skeleton, Complete At Last

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Bone To Pick: First T. Rex Skeleton, Complete At Last

Bone To Pick: First T. Rex Skeleton, Complete At Last

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Sometimes I think of my wife's late relatives in upstate New York - a charming couples whose rambling old house was full of treasures; rooms and closets stuffed with books and magazines and antiques and clothes that they'd accumulated over almost a century.


And I think of the back rooms of museums, which I assume, Steve, have stuff that's a little more exotic than what your family had - things like fossilized jellyfish, dinosaur eggs, mummified princes.

INSKEEP: NPR's science correspondent Christopher Joyce has been searching through some of that stuff, looking for lost treasures of science.

GREENE: And in today's story, the object is a misplaced bone and its very special owner.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: When Carl Mehling goes to the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, he plans for a good time - first lectures, then party. But not at the most recent meeting.

CARL MEHLING: Every moment of every day I had this annoying backpack with this monkey on my back - a big monkey with short arms and two claws.

JOYCE: The monkey was actually a bone. It belonged to one of the world's most important skeletons, one that was discovered a century ago in a Montana hillside - and carrying it around made Carl Mehling nervous.

MEHLING: It went to bars. I remember either touching it with my foot or my hand or something. I didn't want to be the jackass who lost it.

JOYCE: The story of that bone begins 109 years ago.


JOYCE: In the early 1900s, dinosaur bones were like Egyptian mummies - mysteries that dazzled both the public and scientists. Larry Witmer, a paleontologist at Ohio University, says scientists clamored for more bones.

LARRY WITMER: It was literally the Wild West at that time. When people went out looking for dinosaurs, they were trophy hunters. They were looking for specimens that they could mount in museums. Very often they were head hunters looking for skulls, because they were flashier.

JOYCE: And Barnum Brown was among the best - the Indiana Jones of dino hunters. He was flamboyant. On dinosaur digs he'd wear a full-length fur coat. But he was a serious scientist too. He held the top paleontology spot at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, a job now held by Mark Norell. Norell says Brown mixed his science with show business.


MARK NORELL: People would flock to his trains when it arrived in stations across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have always been in the show business of running a fossil menagerie.

JOYCE: In the summer of 1902, Barnum went to Hell Creek, Montana. It was a region that had yielded exciting dinosaur bones before. This time, Brown found something unlike anything he'd ever seen.

NORELL: It was very secretive when they were excavating it. And they didn't want to let people from the competing institutions come out into the same area.

JOYCE: Brown's team blasted a hillside with dynamite, then dragged the ground with horse-drawn earth-movers. He wrote letters back to the museum in New York asking for more money - and to complain.

MAN: The bones are separated by two or three feet of soft sand and each bone is surrounded by the hardest blue sandstone I ever tried to work.

JOYCE: Brown knew he had something incredible.

MAN: There is no question but what this is the find of the season.

JOYCE: Over three years of digging, the beast slowly emerged from the ground - a huge tail, tiny forearms, and a bone-crunching jaw. Brown packed the bones in plaster - the skull alone weighed over a thousand pounds - and sent them by train to the New York museum. There scientists registered the bones with the number 973 and officially named the beast Tyrannosaurus rex, the Tyrant King. It was what scientists call the holotype specimen of a new species, the first against which all others are compared. The T. rex was put on display in December of 1906. The crowds lined up for blocks.

NORELL: The public at first I think just couldn't believe it, there could be a carnivorous animal that was this big that walked North America.

JOYCE: The T. rex was beloved, but Brown soon found more T. rexes, even bigger, and the original went into storage, until 1941, when Brown did the unthinkable: he sold it. And the reason he gave...

NORELL: He was very, very concerned that New York City was going to be bombed during World War II.

JOYCE: Now, dino historians say Brown's correspondence contradicts that and suggests that Brown really wanted cash to hunt more dinosaurs. In any case, he got $7,000 for the skeleton. The bones went to the New York museum's biggest rival - the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, which wanted its own crowd-pleasing monster. However, the skeleton shipped to Pittsburgh was incomplete. No one realized that for decades, until a young researcher took his first-ever trip to New York. Thomas Carr was doing research on dinosaurs and he spent day after day going through the tall green cabinets that house the New York museum's spare bones.

THOMAS CARR: When I was going through this process of opening up cabinets and looking through shelves, I came upon this one cabinet, opened it up and saw before my unbelieving eyes some fragments of the original name-bearing specimen of T. rex, which I never expected to see. And I knew what it was because of the number, 973.

JOYCE: 973, the number given the first T. rex skeleton. Thomas immediately called the collections manager, Carl Mehling, our man with the backpack and the wandering bone.

MEHLING: 973? You know, I was like, what?

JOYCE: Carl knew a bone from Number 973 did not belong in his museum. So he made a few phone calls, and he got out his backpack.


JOYCE: Which brings us to Pittsburgh and the most recent meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. It's a raucous bone fest for fossil hunters. There's a late-night auction where scientists sell rare books as well as paleontologist Barbie dolls. Away from the action, though, at a quiet table, a transaction takes place. Carl Mehling has arranged to meet the curator from the Carnegie Museum, where the holotype T. rex is still on display today.

MEHLING: This is the hand-off.

NORELL: Yeah, it is.

JOYCE: Carl pulls a Styrofoam box out of his backpack. He's labeled it 973. His colleague Mark Norell slits open the box.

NORELL: Fortunately, bones aren't fragile.

JOYCE: And hands a slender, curved bone to Matt Lamanna from the Carnegie Museum.

NORELL: Here it is, Matt. I think you've got it all now.

MATT LAMANNA: Nice. We thought we had the whole thing, and so when I got Carl's message, I thought, you know, wow, this is really cool, and it's honestly really cool of them to tell me, because I wouldn't have known otherwise. It's effectively priceless.

JOYCE: Everyone is happy. Especially Carl Mehling, who is relieved to finally have that precious bone off his back. And Carnegie's Matt Lamanna can put the last bone back into the first T. rex. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Now scientists have learned a lot about how T.rex moved and stomped since that first skeleton was discovered. You can watch video animation showing T.rex in action, and also see photos from those early dinosaur digs, at

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