A roughly 9,000-pound slab of rock encasing a 76-million-year-old tyrannosaur was airlifted off public lands near Glasgow, Mont., Saturday, Oct. 16, and transported to the Dickinson Museum Center and Badlands Dinosaur Museum.

Dr. Denver Fowler is the curator of the Badlands Dinosaur Museum in Dickinson. He holds a PhD in earth sciences from Montana State University and a master’s degree in paleobiology from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Fowler said they found the 76-million-year-old tyrannosaur near Glasgow, Mont., while surveying an area of public land in 2017 when they noticed both feet sticking out, which he said is always a good sign.

“If you have both feet together, then that means you’ve got the legs together. You have legs down and they move together, which means you have hips, so the rest of the body (must be there)... When they’re preserved or articulated and curled up, like we see the tail going out on the top, they’re usually pretty intact. A few things have moved, we know that. The feet moved around a little bit. One of the hip bones moved slightly,” Fowler said. “So this thing filled up with gas after it died because it rotted and then its belly burst. That’s why the ribs looked the way they did.”

Destiny Wolf holds one the tyrannosaur's belly ribs. (Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)
Destiny Wolf holds one the tyrannosaur's belly ribs. (Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)

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Many of the ribs were in delicate condition and some showed signs of injury.

“This thing probably got a kick in the ribs every now and then because most carnivores have rough lives. They don’t get a lot of sympathy from the things that they kill and eat,” he said.

The fossil and massive rock encasing it had to be removed by a Chinook helicopter because the terrain rendered the area inaccessible to ordinary vehicles.

“I don’t know of any museum that has used a helicopter this big. I’ve seen Blackhawks before, those can do a fair amount of weight. But the Chinooks can lift tanks, or about 26,000 pounds,” Fowler said. “This is a big deal for Dickinson.”

The lift operation was made possible by a grant from Trans-Canada Energy, Conoco-Phillips and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Fowler said he’s tremendously grateful to these organizations for their support. He said most of the fossils they find are on public lands under the purview of the BLM.

The tyrannosaur and rock encasing it weighed a total of about 9,000 pounds. The custom welded frame is 1,000 pounds. (Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)
The tyrannosaur and rock encasing it weighed a total of about 9,000 pounds. The custom welded frame is 1,000 pounds. (Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)

The tyrannosaur was transported to Dickinson on a large tractor-trailer and placed in a metal frame, Destiny Wolf said. Wolf is a member of the Southwest North Dakota Museum Foundation board, fossil preparator and field crew member.

“This was actually the maiden post military flight for the aircraft that they use, and the whole frame was custom welded by our board president,” Wolf said.

She said the airlift process was chaotic and nerve-wracking.

“When the Chinook came over, from the coolie over to us, we had four lead ropes and you grabbed it and you prayed,” she said. “Thank God we didn’t have any wind that day because there were moments where it was really scary to try and get this thing perfectly centered.”

Fowler said the reason they’re going to flip the rock once they get it in the lab is to have a better chance at keeping intact skin that may have been preserved in fossilization. He said the process of removing bones from the concretion will be a long one, and will take roughly two years to complete because it’s a delicate process.

“These concretions sometimes have skin preserved. For example, we have an arm in the exhibit that has skin on it and skin is usually preserved on the underside,” he said. “So if you had a dead deer in the field, all the bones on the top row are showing but it’s the skin that’s often underneath. Same thing with dinosaurs, so if this thing has anything really nice preserved it would be on the underside.”

Fowler said authentic dinosaur skin is a relatively unique find in paleontology.

“It’s not as rare as people think but it’s rare enough that it’s well worth getting if you can,” he said.

Fowler said he believes the private sale of dinosaur remains is problematic because there’s a public interest and when they're in private hands there’s no way to guarantee that they’re being preserved and stored in a climate controlled environment.

“If all the land was private and everyone had to buy these fossils, then museums like Dickinson couldn’t have any decent dinosaurs. And because we couldn’t, we wouldn’t exist,” he said, adding that in such a scenario dinosaurs could only be viewed in bigger city museums.

Fowler said they enjoy going to K-12 classrooms and doing presentations there, but the coronavirus pandemic has made that difficult because their presentations are usually so hands-on.

“Frankly it’s been weird, with COVID, you know. We used to go to schools a bit more,” he said, adding that he misses the free donuts and coffee. “We’ve just been sort of figuring out in this brave new world what we can do because it’s always nice to do lots of hands on… but with COVID it’s a bit of an issue.”

He said they’d like to expand the kid-friendly aspects of the museum to boost attendance with locals by installing more interactive, hands-on exhibits.

Fowler and Wolf said the museum is always looking for more volunteers to help out in the field during the summer, and especially in the lab this time of year. They said they have several projects they need help with.

“We’re willing to teach people, you don’t have to have a background in it. You just have to be careful and you have to be interested,” Wolf said.

Fowler said unlike many other paleontology operations, they don’t charge people to tag along in the summer to help them dig.

“A lot of places charge you thousands of dollars to dig a dinosaur for a week, we don’t do that,” he said. “It’s hard work camping in a field. That’s not luxury. We’re really appreciative of our volunteers. But I think that the stuff you get to work on is pretty mad (cool).”

Wolf said they have volunteers join them for summer digs from all over the world so they must be doing something right.

The museum is open to the public year round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children.