The Washington Post

T. rex skeleton’s trip to Smithsonian delayed by shutdown

The Wankel T.rex died in a riverbed more than 65 million years ago and was discovered by Kathy Wankel, a Montana rancher, near the Fort Peck Reservoir in Eastern Montana in 1988. (Courtesy Museum of the Rockies)

The latest victim of the shutdown has been dead for 65 million years.

It is the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that was scheduled to be delivered this month to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The fossil’s cross-county trip has been postponed until next spring, museum director Kirk Johnson said Friday.

“Our primary goal is the safety and security of this specimen,” Johnson said. “It just doesn’t make sense to make the move now.”

The fossil — one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever recovered — belongs to the Army Corps of Engineers and has been in Montana since the late Cretaceous Period.

Smithsonian paleontologists and preparation staff and Army Corps personnel were supposed to be in Bozeman, Mont., next week to inspect and catalogue the specimen, which is coming to Washington on a long-term loan. It was scheduled to depart Bozeman by truck next Friday and arrive in Washington in time for a high-profile introduction on the Mall on Oct. 16 — National Fossil Day.

But, Johnson said, most of the 472 staff members at the world’s second-most-visited museum aren’t working because of the shutdown. The Army Corps, too, is short-staffed from the shutdown. Ditto the National Park Service, which produces the National Fossil Day event. Oh, and the Mall itself is closed.

“We’re all playing with our hands tied behind our backs,” Johnson said. “It made a complicated situation more complicated. You don’t want to mess up something as important as this, so we did what was prudent.”

The fossil — known as the Wankel Rex, after the Montana rancher who discovered it in a remote section of a wildlife refuge — will remain in a Museum of the Rockies storage facility, Johnson said.

It will be trucked to Washington next spring, before the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur exhibit closes for a $48 million renovation. The 35-foot-long skeleton will be cleaned, restored and studied in Washington, then sent to Toronto, where it will be mounted in a lifelike pose.

The Wankel Rex is not scheduled to go on permanent display until the new dinosaur hall opens in 2019. “So we had some flexibility,” Johnson said. “We didn’t need to move it” right away.

Still, he added, “I’m terribly disappointed. . . . As a paleontologist, I’ve been looking forward to a Tyrannosaurus rex coming here for a long time.”

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.


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