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KU is hunting a Tyrannosaurus rex with the help of crowdfunding - T. rex that David Burnham and his team are digging for in Montana holds scientific secrets. The hope is it will be the only T. rex with skull intact in Missouri or Kansas

July 22 , 2016

by Mará Rose Williams

The University of Kansas is acquiring a Tyrannosaurus rex and funding the dig through crowdsourcing. KU paleontologist David Burnham and a team are spending most of July at Montana's Hell Creek Formation to continue to uncover the iconic dinosaur. Fifteen percent of the T. rex has already been uncovered, and more is being excavated daily on this year's dig. Video by Jill Toyoshiba, Montana dig site photos and video courtesy of David Burnham.

It had been a long day baking in the 100-degree sun and digging in the dry Montana earth, the end of a four-week paleontological dig last summer.

Then one of David Burnham’s graduate students spotted a dinosaur bone in the rock.

Burnham, paleontologist, finder and preparer of fossils, had been ready to pack up and head home with his team of students and volunteers, back to the University of Kansas.

“Thrilling” is how Burnham described the unearthing. Researchers, he said, sometimes can dig for 10 to 12 hours a day, for days, without finding a thing.

“It can be frustrating.”

Not this time.

“I knew the minute I saw it that it was a toe bone. A Tyrannosaurus rex’s toe bone,” Burnham said.

There was no better way to end the excavation, he said. The money for the dig had run out, and they were heading home the next morning,

He was certain more of that T. rex foot, more of the whole monstrous creature, was there in that hole where the grad student had been digging. Earlier expeditions had found about 15 percent of the specimen’s bones, and now there suddenly was hope the rest would be uncovered.

Since last summer, Burnham was eager to return to that butte along a cliff in the Hell Creek formation in eastern Montana near Jordan.

Earlier this month, supported by money from a crowdfunding campaign, Burnham and his team of seven returned to the scene. A giant Jayhawk flag marks the spot.

About 100 miles from Canada, the Hell Creek formation runs through Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming. Owned by the Bureau of Land Management, it’s world famous among scientists. Geologists and paleontologists have found a bounty of 66-million-year-old animal and plant fossils there.

It is where, in 1895, University of Kansas alumnus Barnum Brown, who at the time was an assistant curator for the department of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, dug up the first T. rex fossil.

And get this — the first part of T. rex that Brown found? Yup, it was a toe bone.

That very bone digit is now displayed at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, a part of the KU Biodiversity Institute and where Burnham works.

Weeks before leaving for this summer’s dig, Burnham descended the metal steps to his lab in the belly of the museum.

The lab appears to be a disorganized mass of animal fossil finds — some encased in plaster, some resting in white jewelry-size boxes, others lying naked on a wooden work table that runs the length of the space.

Fossils share the table with dental picks, X-Acto knives, pickaxes and various brushes.

Burnham, without searching, stretched across the collection and plucked up a small box.

“Here’s that toe bone we found last year,” he said.

Throughout the place, precisely pieced-together skeletons of the dinosaurian community perch on shelves and towering file cabinets. Replicas of small birdlike dinosaurs dangle on wires from the ceiling.

Posters of T. rex baring its gigantic serrated incisors plaster the walls.

Already displayed in glass-covered cases in the upstairs museum is the 15 percent of the T. rex found on two previous trips — leg, ribs and foot bones discovered by the KU team and other parts of a jaw, a skull and pelvis bones found even earlier by a field crew from the St. Louis Science Center, which then passed the dig site to KU to complete the find.

That toe bone the grad student found? It fit “like Cinderella’s slipper” to a foot piece found earlier, Burnham said.

If Burnham and his crew find the rest of the bones encased in the Montana rock, it will bring KU’s relationship with T. rex full circle.

Burnham could give the Lawrence university its first full T. rex, making KU one of only a handful of universities in the country to have the big, bad, flesh-eating beast under its roof.

For the record, T. rex is one of the largest theropods — that means beast-footed — that ever existed.

The hope is that it will be the only T. rex with skull intact in Missouri or Kansas. The Museum of World Treasures in Wichita has the body of a T. rex that it bought in 2007 for display.

But what Burnham and his seven-person crew are doing is more science than show.

“We are giving this animal context,” Burnham said. “We are doing the whole picture. Taking not just the bones, but everything we find with it, plants, soil, revealing the depository environment. It’s huge.”

“It’s a window into time. It’s a time capsule, and we get to open it up and go through it page by page, to step into their world.”

And the prize, Burnham said, would be to find even one of the ferocious creature’s puny, two-fingered forearms. Full forearms have not been found, Burnham said. Finding any portion of them, he said, is rare.

A dig like this is expensive. To pay for it, KU launched a crowdfunding effort.

By the time the team arrived in Montana on July 3, it was just $700 shy of the $16,700 needed to pay for a three-week dig.

Photos of the team back on the dig site, displayed on Facebook, pushed the crowdfunding campaign more than $7,000 over the top.

Crowdsourcing for such expeditions is gaining popularity among research institutions.

When KU Endowment, the independent fundraising arm of the institution, approved crowdsourcing as another tool for small-scale fundraising, Jen Humphrey, director of external affairs for the university’s Biodiversity Institute & Museum of Natural History, waited for just the right project to test it.

“I wanted something with broad public appeal,” Humphrey said. “Everybody loves dinosaurs. I also wanted it to be a project that could reach out to people not so familiar with our museum.

“I think crowdfunding succeeds best in the $3,000 to $5,000 range,” Humphrey said. “People who don’t have much to give can still contribute. A $20 here or $50 there adds up.”

Right off the bat, the campaign received a $10,000 infusion from John Weltman and Cliff Atkins of Boston, whose son is a student in ecology and evolution biology at KU. Their son, who Weltman said has loved dinosaurs since he was 4 and never stopped, had been asked to join Burnham’s field team.

His dads were excited about him getting an opportunity to help dig up a T. rex.

“We gave because it is a fantastic opportunity,” Weltman said. “It was a ‘thank you,’ not a ‘please let him go,’ gift.”

Weltman and Atkins plan to visit the dig site this summer and are hoping to see the team unearth T. rex fossils while they are on the butte.

Burnham’s team has already made some significant scientific breakthroughs at Hell Creek formation in South Dakota.

In 2013, Burnham and a KU team of paleontologists unearthed the first physical proof that T. rex was definitely a flesh-eating hunter and killer.

Believe it or not, until that find, scientists weren’t all so sure. Ever since the giant creature was discovered, scientists have debated whether it was a predator or a scavenger.

But Burnham and his team found proof when they unearthed the crown of a T. rex tooth — nearly a foot long — lodged in the fossilized spine of a plant-eating hadrosaur that had survived the attack.

“We found the smoking gun,” he said. “We now know the monster in our dreams is real.”

The T. rex Burnham and his team are now digging for might tell researchers even more secrets about the animal — and about humans.

First, Burnham believes his T. rex was a teenager, maybe 14 or 15 years old. Few of this age have ever been found, he said, and maybe this one can help researchers more precisely calibrate the animal’s growth curve.

And then there’s this: Dinosaur bones, like the bones of birds, are hollow. But in a leg bone of KU’s T. rex, Burnham found a substance he thinks may be egg-laying bone, which is produced by female birds as a way to store calcium used to create shells for eggs.

That would prove that KU’s T. rex was an egg-laying female. Or the substance could be disease, “maybe a cancerous tumor,” Burnham said. “That would mean cancer has been around as long as there were animals,” a tremendous discovery.

Of course, Burnham said, those answers might not come for some time.

But the buzz already is attracting students, researchers and volunteers to Burnham’s basement vertebrate paleontology lab.

Nick Borchardt, 16, of Walpole, Mass., is visiting his grandparents in Lawrence for the summer and has spent hours in the lab with Burnham learning to clean delicate fossils.

Borchardt hopes to study paleontology someday. For now, he said, he just wants to be in a place where discovery is happening.

“I’m learning how the work is done,” he said. “It is just really cool.”

What Borchardt won’t see, since he won’t be on the Montana dig, is how the scientists will carefully extract their T. rex fossils from the ground and transport them to campus at the end of the month.

When those doing the digging discover a fossil, they scrape away the dirt around it to determine how wide and how long it is.

Then a trench is shoveled out around the specimen and a wedge is left at the bottom so the fossil, still encased in the earth, is left sitting on a hard dirt or rock pedestal.

For protection, the fossil is covered with paper towels or cloth and covered with plaster-of-Paris-soaked burlap. The bottom wedge is cut from the earth and flipped so the plaster portion is on the bottom, and the fossil remains protected in the casing.

Later, the paleontologist will carefully chisel away the dirt using dental tools and brushes and chip away the plaster to fully expose the fossil.

A kind of sandblasting machine, which instead of sand holds baking soda because it is softer, is used to blow remaining particles of earth from the fossil. It’s similar to the minty baking soda polishing you get at the dentist.

When fossils are small, the process is fairly simple. When they are gigantic, say a T. rex thighbone that could weigh 100 pounds, the plaster adds a good deal of weight.

Burnham, soft-spoken, lights up and becomes increasingly more animated as he talks about how he came to be hunting these particular T. rex bones.

The New Orleans native and KU alumnus specializes in little raptors and was originally hired in 1998 as the state paleontologist. His dad was a geologist, and as a kid Burnham would follow him on fossil hunts.

“It’s my whole life,” he said.

So when the St. Louis Science Center decided to give up its hunt for T. rex bones, Burnham jumped at the chance to claim the Hell Creek site.

They knew the bones were there. A rancher’s teenage daughter, Maddy Billing, had pointed out some bones she’d stumbled on while walking the site near her home.

The KU team had visited the Montana site in the Hell Creek formation twice before, hunting for the rest of this T. rex’s skeletal remains. This summer makes the third visit. They are certain there will be more summers on that butte.

Most digs, Burnham said, take about five years.

“We could be out there two or three more years.”

And Burnham already is thinking about naming their T. rex once more of her is pulled from the earth.

“Maddy sounds good,” he said. “That is my vote.”



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