A huge new specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex has been uncovered in northern Montana, and researchers say it may offer intriguing insights into the lives of the iconic carnivores at the very end of the Age of Dinosaurs.
Paleontologists have uncovered about 20 percent of the animal so far, including several vertebrae and ribs, and large parts of the skull, pelvis, and jaw.
Based on what they’ve discovered to date, they estimate that the dinosaur is among the largest T. rex specimens ever found, having stood about [or 20 feet] at the hip, and stretching up to [40 feet] from nose to tail.
In honor of the two volunteers who made the find — named Jason Love and Luke Tufts — scientists have named the specimen Tufts-Love, and they say it may have a lot to teach us.
“Having seen the ‘Tufts-Love Rex’ during its excavation, I can attest to the fact that it is definitely one of the most significant specimens yet found, and because of its size, is sure to yield important information about the growth and possible eating habits of these magnificent animals,” said Dr. Jack Horner, research associate at Washington’s Burke Museum, which is spearheading the excavation.
The two volunteers found the fossil after discovering bone fragments eroding out of the base of a hill at an unspecified site in northern Montana, part of the large swath of famously productive fossil deposits known as the Hell Creek Formation. [See a photo gallery of a ‘magnificent’ T. rex specimen excavated nearby: “‘Magnificent T. Rex’ Found on Montana Ranch“]
The first fragments turned out to be pieces of vertebrae, whose large size and porous structure suggested that they belonged to a carnivorous dinosaur.
“At this point, we knew it was a dinosaur because of the size,” said Dr. Gregory Wilson, University of Washington paleontologist who led the research team, in a separate statement posted by the Burke Museum.
“There were no other vertebrates on the land that were this size.” [See new evidence of how T. rex hunted: “T. Rex Tooth Found in Dinosaur’s Tail Proves Tyrannosaurus Was a Predator, Study Says“]
After two weeks of digging, the team uncovered more pieces — first some enormous ribs more than a meter long, followed by pelvic bones, and more vertebrae.
Then came the skull, only partially exposed, but sprouting large serrated teeth.
And then the scientists knew exactly what kind of dinosaur they were dealing with.
“When we started to see those teeth with the skull, we knew we had a fantastic specimen,” Wilson said.
“The combination of the skull features, the size of the bones, and the honeycomb-like appearance of the bones tell us this is a T. rex.
“This was a very exciting moment for us.”
With more of the remains exposed, the scene of the dinosaur’s death began to come into focus, researchers say.
The fossils were entombed in a layer of sandstone that was once a Cretaceous river bed.
So the T. rex may have died in the water, or it may have died on land — from as-yet unknown causes — and then washed into the river during a flood.
The layer of sediment where the specimen was found has been dated to 66.3 million years ago.
The scientists added that Tufts-Love was probably about 15 years old at the time of death, though its sex is still uncertain. [Learn more about T. rex behavior: “T. Rex Fossil Found in Wyoming Reveals Cannibalism Among Tyrannosaurs“]
The parts of the dinosaur that have been found so far have been encased in protective plaster and shipped to the Burke Museum in Seattle, where the fossils will prepared — a process in which the surrounding rock is carefully removed from around the fossilized bone.
But plans are already in place to return to Montana next summer, because there’s likely more of Tufts-Love — and its life story — still waiting to be discovered.
“There’s a very good chance that the other half of the skull is there,” Wilson said.
“But the more we expose [of the skull out in the field], the greater the risk of damage.”