Joshua, engineer Jayk Cherry, producer Amanda Williams and Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson in front of the T. rex during a tour of the museum's fossil hall.

Joshua, engineer Jayk Cherry, producer Amanda Williams and Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson in front of the T. rex during a tour of the museum's fossil hall.

In 1988, Kathy Wankel, a rancher from Montana, stumbled upon a fossil with her family near Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir. She wasn’t a trained paleontologist, and she’d never found a fossil before.

Turns out, that bit of bone in the dirt once belonged to a T. rex.

Paige Williams, author of The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, writes about what Kathy and her husband did next in Smithsonian Magazine:

The Wankels were able to extract part of a shoulder blade and arm. They took the fossils to the Museum of the Rockies, in Bozeman, where the paleontologist Jack Horner recognized them as correlating to Tyrannosaurus rex. The museum dug out the skeleton, discovering it to be 85 percent intact—a remarkable percentage. Not only that—Wankel had unearthed a specimen that contained the first complete T. rex forelimb known to science. Because the interior of rex bones can be read like tree rings, paleontologists determined that this particular dinosaur was about 18 when it died, ten years short of the species’ estimated life span.

That T. rex is now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History — in addition to several other treasures, including one that Smithsonian’s NMNH director and paleontologist Kirk Johnson found himself in Alaska: a palm frond demonstrating how much earth’s climate has changed over time.

But unearthed fossils don’t always end up in museums. Williams writes in The Dinosaur Artist that “[c]ommercial hunters take pride in selling to museums, but they also court wealthy, private collectors. Successful dealers can make a living in fossils, though it is rarely a get-rich game, since so much of the profit folds back into the hunt.”

What can we learn from fossils? And what do we know about the trade that unearths — and conceals — these discoveries?

We take you on a guided tour as dinosaurs come back to life.

Show produced by Danielle Knight, in partnership with Smithsonian Magazine.

Guests

  • Kirk Johnson Director, The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; paleobotanist and geologist; @leafdoctor
  • Paige Williams Staff writer, The New Yorker; contributor, Smithsonian Magazine; author: "The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, And The Quest For Earth's Ultimate Trophy"; @williams_paige

Photos from our tour of the new fossil hall

Read an excerpt from The Dinosaur Artist

By Paige Williams

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