The Smithsonian already has a T. rex, sort of. One recent morning, a young boy entered the dinosaur hall and walked straight to the life-size replica.
Its pose suggested that it was walking and just beginning to crouch — “and presumably about to inflict mayhem on somebody,” said Hans-Dieter Sues, the Natural History Museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology.
“Look at the size of it!” the boy said. “Whoa.”
His father nodded, then read the sign near the dinosaur: “They found this in South Dakota.” He did not mention that it was a cast made from “Stan,” a T. rex found on private land in the Hell Creek Formation in the 1980s.
Many of the museum’s more than 7 million annual visitors don’t realize it’s a replica (even though it says so on the sign), or they don’t care, officials said.
So, why the years-long obsession over getting a real specimen?
“Think about what the museum is,” said Johnson, the museum’s director. “It’s a place where real treasures of the natural world are on display. If I said I have a glass replica of the Hope Diamond, you’d be less impressed. . . . It’s really important for us to have a real object for people to see and experience and be amazed by.”
Fewer than 50 T. rexes have been found — and only about a quarter are considered “nearly complete,” meaning that more than half of the bones were retrieved, Johnson said. Between 80 and 85 percent of the Wankel T. rex bones were collected, making it the fifth- or sixth-most complete T. rex skeleton in existence.
It was found just before Labor Day in 1988. The Western states were dried out by a historic drought, and Yellowstone National Park had been burning for most of the summer.
Kathy and Tom Wankel were camping with their family near the reservoir ,and their three kids were with an uncle. They walked across what was once a bay to what was once an island, and Kathy Wenkel was looking down — she was a rockhound and knew that there could be dinosaur bones around. She wasn’t from the area, but she’d seen bones before at a local bar.
She saw something — “like just a corner of an envelope sticking out,” she recalled. “Tom said, ‘Hey, I think I’m finding some bone stuff down here.’ And I said, ‘No, you’d better come up here.’ We started chiseling away around the bone and didn’t get it all dug, so we covered it up and came home.”
When the Wankels returned, weeks later, they uncovered the bones of . . . something. They took the fossilized bones to their camper. That night, a violent thunderstorm pounded them. “It was almost like the gods were saying, ‘Don’t take them out,’ ” she said.
But they did, and that Thanksgiving, the family drove them to the Museum of the Rockies.
The museum’s chief “preparator of paleontology,” Patrick Leiggi, was smoking a Marlboro, Kathy Wankel said. When he saw what they had in their station wagon, “he really got puffing. He said, ‘You guys better follow me.’ We went downstairs to their lab, and pretty soon people were coming out of their offices, and they were all puffing on Marlboros and talking.”
The paleontologists asked the Wankels whether they’d take them to the site the next year, and when they did, they located the golden prize — the skull — along with some of the vertebrae. Because the bones were penetrating the hillside, they had to return in 1990 to finish the dig with a larger crew and some heavy machinery to move the over-dirt.
The Wankels knew that they’d found the bones on federal land and that the dinosaur belonged to the Corps. “We laugh, because our ranch is about 50, 60 miles away,” she said, “and if he would have just taken some giant T. rex steps as he was dying and staggered down here, we could have paid off our ranch mortgage.”
She laughed and then remembered something about the aftermath of her discovery.
“We got a hand-slap letter from the Army Corps of Engineers,” she said. “They said, ‘You did the right thing by bringing it to the museum and not taking it in the middle of the night and selling it to the Japanese or something. But you weren’t supposed to be digging it out.’ We didn’t know.”