KU researchers prepare new digs

A month after a team of researchers planted a KU flag atop a Montana rock formation called Hell Creek, David Burnham hit bone.

Burnham and his team had already uncovered more than 50 bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex, including part of the lower jaw, but the biggest find came on the last day of the dig in June.

About three feet long and with the appearance of a broken log, the bone is believed to be a femur.

Burnham, preparator of vertebrate paleontology at the KU Biodiversity Institute, has led to two expeditions to the Bureau of Land Management site since KU took possession of the T. rex collection from the St. Louis Science Center.

For the digs, Burnham was accompanied by small teams of graduate students, undergraduates, and volunteers. He didn’t require them to have paleontology degrees, he says, but they did need to be willing to pick up a shovel.

“Digging up a dinosaur sounds romantic,” he says. “But it’s a lot of moving rock.”

 

Only about 50 T. rex skeletons are known to exist, and most are less than 60 percent complete.

 

The first few days of the dig, the team moved rock with shovels and pickaxes. As they got closer to the “bone zone” — the layer of rock most populated with bones — the equipment got smaller and the instruments more precise: X-Acto knives and even dental tools.

“This T. rex decided to hide inside a cliff, so we climb up here every day with our tools and equipment,” Burnham says. “It’s summer. It’s hot. We get sandblasted by wind, but we’re finding bones, so we don’t care.”

With this summer's discoveries, researchers are drawing some conclusions about the dinosaur. For example, we think the T. rex was a female between 14 and 16 years old. We know she lived a combative life. “She has an injury on her leg, her foot, and one of her ribs has been broken and healed,” Burnham says. “Usually adults have accumulated injuries over their lifetime, but not a dinosaur this young.”

So far, 15 to 20 percent of the full skeleton has been recovered. Burnham is able to dig one month a year, at most – and even that depends on the funding. At that rate, it could take years to unearth the complete skeleton.

According to Burnham, the goal is to mount the full skeleton in the Natural History Museum. “The animal is 40 feet long, which will require a lot of space,” he says.

“It’s going to be a heck of a beautiful dinosaur.”

 

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