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The story of a T. rex named ‘Sue’

By Staff | Dec 23, 2012

There have been some times when I was camping with the family that I took my grandchildren on a hike and said we were going to look for dinosaur bones.

We have often found some.

While some folks might claim they were the bones of deer or other indigenous animals, we say we can’t totally rule out that they are not dinosaur bones without doing further DNA testing.

The prized possession is a skull with large sharp teeth almost fang-like. We say it could be from a prehistoric raptor; others could say it’s a raccoon.

Again, without further testing, who can say for sure.

But when you read in the story this week about a local man, Jim Pollard, taking his two sons on several trips to South Dakota to search for dinosaur bones, it is not quite the same thing as my hiking around the Bluff Country of Winona County.

Pollard and his boys were doing the real thing. And they have some of the fossilized dino bones to prove it. Including one large leg bone from a duck bill dinosaur.

The Pollards were part of a group from the Black Hills Institute searching for fossils on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation, near the town of Faith in western South Dakota.

They helped find a lot of dinosaur bones, under the guidance of Peter Larson, a friend of Pollard’s and the director of the Black Hills Institute.

Pollard says that at the end of each dig, members of the group would search out likely spots for dinosaur bones that could be searched for the next summer.

One year, Pollard and a friend from Wisconsin and their sons went searching for half a day. They found a likely spot across the Moreau River, near the Hell’s Creek rock formations.

It is in the middle of nowhere, Pollard says. Director Larson got permission from the rancher to do some searching there the next summer.

Unfortunately, family issues kept the Pollards from going back that next year.

But the group did do some digging there and found two triceratops dinosaur skulls and many other fossilized bones in the spot.

Then, as they were about to leave, Peter Larson’s girlfriend and partner, Sue Hendrickson, went exploring and made the discovery of a lifetime.

She found some bones sticking out of the Hell’s Creek cliff and Peter Larson confirmed they were from a Tyrannosaurus rex.

What they discovered was the largest most complete T. rex skeleton ever.

Named ‘Sue’ after Hendrickson, the T. rex was more than 43 feet long, with an intact 5-foot long skull with most of the teeth still in place.

Most T. rex skeletons are usually missing at least half of their bones. ‘Sue’ was more than 80 percent complete.

It was estimated ‘Sue’ was 28 years old when she died. She had suffered arm damage, three broken ribs and damage to her skull none of which caused her death. Neither did a foreign tooth imbedded in one of her bones. Cause of death has never been determined.

Scientists have also determined ‘Sue’ suffered from arthritis and gout.

After her discovery and months of recovery of the bones, a dispute arose over the actual ownership of ‘Sue.’

Key players in the dispute were Larson and the Black Hills Institute, Maurice Williams who owned the land, a Sioux tribe which Williams was a member of, and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In 1992, the FBI and the National Guard raided the Black Hills Institute, confiscated the bones, and took them to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

After a lengthy trial, a judge eventually ruled in 1995 that the rightful owner was landowner Williams. He decided to auction off the T. rex bones through Southby’s Auction House in England.

‘Sue’ fetched $7.6 million. The winning bid was from The Field Museum in Chicago with backing from California State University, Walt Disney Resorts, McDonalds and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

She still is on display at the museum in Chicago where she has been since 1997, with replicas of her skeleton, made from exact casts of her bones, in a traveling exhibit and at Walt Disney World.

While Pollard takes no credit for direct discovery of ‘Sue,’ he does note that he helped with the site location. So, actually in some way, he was involved in its discovery.

He also laments the fact that those who actually discovered and uncovered the massive dinosaur basically had it taken away from them.

That does seem a bit unfair. At least discoverer Sue Hendrickson had her name attached to the skeleton.

But, if Pollard had been able to go back to the dig that next summer, maybe we would have been calling the T. rex ‘Jim,’ instead of ‘Sue.’