The museum announced Thursday that it will borrow the T. rex for 50 years from the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns it, and the state of Montana, which has had it since the late Cretaceous Period.
The big beast — named the Wankel T. rex after Kathy Wankel, the rancher who made the prehistoric find — will be trucked to the Mall for National Fossil Day on Oct. 16, then put on temporary display until the museum’s dinosaur exhibit closes for a $48 million renovation next spring. Eventually, the 35-foot-long skeleton will be mounted in a lifelike pose in the new dinosaur hall when it opens in 2019.
The trip will end the Smithsonian’s long, frustrating search for the king carnivore. It will also add considerable heft to the Natural History Museum’s collection: The Wankel T. rex will surpass just about every one of the roughly 127 million specimens and artifacts held by the world’s second-most-visited museum.
“It will be one of our most important and iconic objects,” said Kirk Johnson, the museum’s director. The Hope Diamond remains the crown jewel of the collection. But, Johnson said, a natural-history museum is nothing without dinosaurs, and no dinosaur captivates people quite like Tyrannosaurus rex.
“If you stand next to a real T. rex, it is just an awesome experience,” he said. “Their teeth are the size of bananas. Their skulls are huge. They’re one of the great predators of history. They’re impressive in size, scale — everything. Just imagine an animal that big, that awesome, alive.”
The Wankel T. rex — estimated to have weighed six to seven tons — died in a riverbed near the eventual site of Fort Peck Reservoir. By the time Wankel stumbled upon the first lower-arm bones of a T. rex ever found, the land was controlled by the Corps. Thus, the Corps owns the skeleton, although the fossils have been conserved, studied and displayed at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
That the Corps had a T. rex to lend was news to many of its senior leaders. “They didn’t know we had a dinosaur,” said Sonny Trimble, who oversees curation and management of archaeological collections for the Corps. People transfer, he said. Many retired. So “the chief engineer doesn’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘How’s our dinosaur doing?’ ”
In fact, the Corps has two: A T. rex — known as Peck’s Rex — was found near Fort Peck in 1997. It, too, is at the Museum of the Rockies, where it will go on display.
When Corps leaders learned that the Natural History Museum was interested in borrowing the Wankel T. rex, Trimble said, they were happy to oblige.
The Wankel T. rex is currently crated and stored in a warehouse in Montana. (Secrecy abounds, given the sky-high prices the bones would fetch in the shadowy commercial fossil market.)