By Hayley Young
In 2019, the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors to the new hall of dinosaurs and fossils. Its centerpiece: the “Nation’s T. rex.” Montana’s Kathy Wankel and 150 of her closest friends and family were in attendance to enjoy the unveiling of this remarkable dinosaur discovery.
The journey of this Tyrannosaurus rex to Washington D.C. began over three decades ago, when Kathy and her husband, Tom, discovered a fossil while on a family camping trip. The couple, along with their children and a few other family members, had set up camp near Nelson Creek on the Dry Arm of Fort Peck Reservoir for Labor Day. Tom and Kathy had set out to do some prospecting when they happened across a fossil that was peeking from its bed of Eastern Montana gumbo.
Kathy recalls, “It was the size of a corner of an envelope.”
Unequipped to dig up fossils, they headed back to camp for more tools and lunch.
They returned later with a screwdriver, knife, shovel, and the rest of the family. Uncovering the fossils was a slow
process that quickly ate away the afternoon. They had exposed more of a large fossil and what appeared to be the ends of three rib bones. With school starting for the kids the next day, the family headed home with plans to return.
Some weeks later, they brought home a few fossils from the site that Kathy was sure belonged to a dinosaur. She reached out to the Museum of the Rockies to see if they could help her verify the origin of these fossils.
Over Thanksgiving break the Wankel family hit the road west for the Museum of the Rockies, which had agreed to
look at the discovery. Experts quickly confirmed that these bones were from a dinosaur—specifically a carnivore. (The bone density is different between herbivorous and carnivorous dinosaurs.) It was the first ulna bone from a T. rex forelimb and the first to be found with remnants of dinosaur red blood cells!
The following spring, Tom and Kathy took three paleontologists from the Museum of the Rockies and an official from Charles M. Russel Wildlife Recreation Area to the fossil site. From 1989 to 1990 the field crew spent time excavating the dinosaur. Finally, the behemoth was ready to be moved to its new home at the Museum of the Rockies. The dinosaur would be known as MOR 555 and informally, the Wankel T. rex.
Once safely at Museum of the Rockies, an exhibit was constructed which allowed visitors to watch the team prepare the fossils before it was moved on display. The museum displayed the Wankel T. rex laying as it had been found, and kept it that way for nearly a quarter-century before releasing it on its next big adventure.
In 2014, the Wankel T. rex began the journey to its new home at the Smithsonian (which has the dinosaur on loan for 50 years). It made the long trek to Washington D.C., packed securely in a FedEx truck to be scanned. (The scan generated a 3D digital image.) Next stop was Ontario, where the Wankel T. rex was assembled before taking up residence at its new home in the Smithsonian.
Visitors will be left with a lasting impression of this dinosaur, as it is displayed in the “death pose” over the top of a Triceratops.
The Wankel T. rex is one of the most complete Tyrannosauruses ever discovered and is estimated to have weighed six to seven tons. It is an impressive twelve feet tall.
A bronze cast of this T. rex stands proudly in front of the Museum of the Rockies.