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New Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton latest in a flurry of finds - Researchers from the Burke Museum in Washington have found a new Tyrannosaurus rex in Montana, but this is less rare than you might think

September 15, 2016:

by Dave Hone

A newly discovered Tyrannosaurus rex skull and partial skeleton have been unearthed in Montana by a team from the Burke Museum, Washington. The skull is being described as mostly complete and at least some of the skeleton has been excavated, though more remains in the ground and has yet to be uncovered. In addition to the skull (which includes the lower jaws), some of the ribs, vertebrae, and the hips have been found so there is likely much more to come as the work continues.

As with many Tyrannosaurus skeletons, this one has already acquired a nickname and has become known as the “Tufts-Love rex” after the discoverers of the specimen, Jason Love and Luke Tufts. It looks set to be an impressive skeleton and although it is likely to be some time before the material can be prepared for research and display, the nature of the material recovered so far suggests that it is in superb condition.

The new specimen is from the famous Hell Creek Formation of Montana that has yielded animals such as Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, Anzu and numerous specimens of Tyrannosaurus. The specimen is dated to 66.3 million years ago which makes it a relatively old T. rex - the last of these animals were still around nearly a million years later when the mass extinction hit. Tyrannosaurus is known from a variety of locations in the west of the US and Canada with some isolated teeth and bones from Mexico also suggested to belong to this genus hinting at a large north-south range.

Although palaeontologists are naturally intrigued to see the new specimen and the potential for research it might bring, this discovery is not such a rare event as might be supposed. Dinosaur fossils are of course rare generally, but we actually have a good number of Tyrannosaurus specimens in public collections (and there are a fair few more in private hands as well). Larger dinosaurs tend to have better fossil records (they are simply easier to find) and more recent animals tend to produce more specimens (they have had less time to be lost to various geological processes) and so although large carnivores are rare, it’s perhaps not a big surprise that we have quite a few good rex specimens.

If anything, the Burke find is the latest in a little flurry of Tyrannosaurus specimens coming to the fore. Another Montana specimen is due to go on display shortly in Leiden in the Netherlands and one also recently went on display in Berlin late last year. Not only that, but at least one more tyrannosaur (a Tarbosaurus) has recently been repatriated to Mongolia after it was confiscated in the US following its illegal export.

Clearly it’s a good time for tyrannosaurs and indeed tyrannosaur specialists. Tyrannosaurus is one of the best known carnivorous dinosaurs given the amount of material, and has actually become something of a model organism for researchers, though more data is always welcome. As palaeontologist Dr Tom Holtz of the University of Maryland says “We can’t do biology (whether on a living species or an extinct one) on single specimens, or at least we can’t do it effectively. After all, the word “data” is plural, so we need multiple specimens to really grasp the life and habits of a species.”.

Still, the Mongolian specimen is just one example of specimens that have eluded researchers and the public and thus remains inaccessible. Several tyrannosaur fossils have recently come up for auction but have failed to find buyers (with museums or other private individuals) and there are plenty more that are known to be in private hands. Thus although tyrannosaurs are relatively well known compared to most dinosaurs, researchers are inevitably frustrated that a third or more of the known specimens cannot be studied. That makes specimens like the Burke discovery important as it can begin to fill in further gaps in our knowledge and of course potentially present us with new insights. We await with bated breath.



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