America's T. Rex Gets A Makeover Discovered in Montana in 1988, the Wankel T. Rex is a prize find — a nearly complete skeleton, now bound for display at the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C. But first, those old bones need some work.
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America's T. Rex Gets A Makeover

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America's T. Rex Gets A Makeover

America's T. Rex Gets A Makeover

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're returning now to the story of the Wankel Tyrannosaurus rex because we follow up on these things. We followed its journey from a Montana museum to the Smithsonian earlier this year. It's named after the Montana rancher who found it, and it is the first nearly complete T. rex skeleton at the Smithsonian. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this update.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The Wankel is destined to be the centerpiece for the new dinosaur hall at the National Museum of Natural History. But when it arrived at the museum, it was in pieces in packing crates. Rebecca Kaczkowski was on the welcoming committee.

REBECCA KACZKOWSKI: We went up one freight elevator, came over to the rex room, dropped off the crates, yes.

JOYCE: And here they are, right here behind you.

KACZKOWSKI: Yep.

JOYCE: Please do not touch the crates, it says. The rex room, as you might expect, is a very large workshop. Museum goers can look in and watch the scientists working on the skeleton. The first task is rehabbing the bones. They need work because when they were first discovered, they were in fragments. Kaczkowski says they've been glued together and sculpted with fillers to re-create their original shape.

KACZKOWSKI: Since they've come out of the ground, we have done various preparation techniques and added man-made materials to them. All of those things have a lifetime, and that lifetime is much less than 67 million years.

JOYCE: Preparators have to be sure that the glued-together bones will stand up to the stress of being mounted again. They're also scanning each bone with a device that looks like the one that reads the barcode on your groceries. That's Jon Blundell's job.

JON BLUNDELL: We've never had such a complete T. rex here. It's a total blast.

JOYCE: And not at all like scanning groceries.

BLUNDELL: You can actually see new teeth in the jaw that are coming out.

JOYCE: Un-erupted teeth still in the jaw. T. rex used to lose a lot of teeth. You can understand why given its feeding habits. So it was always growing new ones. The scans will produce a digital skeleton of the dinosaur. Then preparators will re-construct the whole animal virtually and then once more in the flesh, or at least the bone. The digital version will also be available on the Web. Preparator Steve Jabo says there are still things to be learned from the fossil, even though T. rex has been known for over a century.

STEVE JABO: Who would've known we were going to be doing CT scanning or surface scans and stuff like that - or even being able to find, you know, evidence of color in feather impressions and stuff like that.

JOYCE: Take the giant skull, for example. Matt Carrano, the curator of dinosaurs at the museum, says most T. rex skulls are either fragmentary or whole.

MATT CARRANO: This one's actually fallen apart. So you get a good view of all the different sides of all the different bones. And that's a really important aspect to understanding how it goes together - how it functions.

JOYCE: The digital version is all the Smithsonian scientists have at the moment. The bones have just been shipped to Canada - to one of the world's leading teams of dinosaur builders. They are constructing a huge armature that will cradle the re-assembled bones in a standing position. That will take two years, and two more years, to set it up back in Washington, D.C. In the meantime, Carrano is putting together the written material that museum goers will read as the Wankel looms over them. He says, in the past, the gist of the message was, gee, isn't T. rex big and scary? Carrano wants to tell a more nuanced story.

CARRANO: We talk more about what a T. rex really is. You know, it's a predator. It's an apex predator. That means it has a job to do in its ecosystem. It lives with all these other animals, right? It's not all by itself. So for us, we try to write things that provide a context for the things that they're seeing.

JOYCE: A giant, meat-eating dinosaur just trying to fit in with the crowd. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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