Alberta Dinosaur Bones 'Re-Excavated' at Smithsonian Museum

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Gorgosaurus fossil, discovered by Barnum Brown near the Red Deer River in Alberta, gets a makeover at the Smithsonian museum of natural history in Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian Institution)

The Smithsonian is renovating its fossil hall and specimens are getting a fresh look in the process.

Schlepping a nearly complete tyrannosaur skeleton through the Alberta badlands in 1913 can't have been easy, but the man who found the bones was resourceful.

American fossil hunter Barnum Brown and his crew transported their Cretaceous treasures, jacketed in plaster and burlap, by barge on the Red Deer river.

The tyrannosaur fossil in their cargo was from a Gorgosaurus, a smaller, rather toothy relative of the T. rex.

The specimen was prized at the time. It still is.

"It's definitely one of the better skulls of this animal out there," said Hans Sues, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian's museum of natural history in Washington, D.C.

Everything old is new again

For decades, the Gorgosaurus skeleton has been mounted in a slab of plaster high on a wall at the museum.

The old home of the Gorgosaurus (formerly known as an Albertosaurus) at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. (Smithsonian Institution)

Not anymore.

The specimen, along with hundreds of others, has had a makeover as the Smithsonian's famous fossil hall undergoes a five-year, $110-million renovation.

"A lot of the old ways of displaying fossils aren't really the way we like to do it now," said Matthew Carrano, a curator at the museum.

"They would often embed the fossil in the wall and plaster. And the Gorgosaurus, this tyrannosaur, was one of those. It was very lovely, but you could only see the one side of it,"

Extricating the skeleton from the plaster took several weeks.

"It's not actually that different from excavating from the rock in the first place," Carrano said.

Smithsonian staff extricate the Gorgosaurus skull from its old plaster casing. (Smithsonian Institution)

The Gorgosaurus skull, with its freshly polished teeth, like oversized steak knives, will be displayed at eye-level in the new exhibit. 

"We're very happy to have this out of the wall," said Sues.

Visitors will be able to get up close and perhaps find themselves trying to imagine what dinosaur breath would have smelled like.

A prehistoric construction zone

The space hasn't been fully renovated since it opened in 1910 as the "Hall of Extinct Monsters."

Now it's a busy prehistoric construction zone, as museum staff prepare to re-open the hall in June. 

Crews unload crushed limestone at the scene of a primeval smackdown between a T. rex and a Triceratops.

A diplodocus cranes its long neck over a forklift moving a stack of shipping crates.

For scientists, the changes aren't just cosmetic.

They're getting to see specimens acquired more than a century ago in a new light.

Dinosaur specimens get a second look

"Nowadays, when we know so much more about dinosaur structure you, of course, want to see as much detail as you can," said Sues.

"These days also we can take a thin sections of bones and actually figure out how old the animal was," he said.

It's a question Phil Currie has been hoping to answer for years.

The University of Alberta paleontologist has made a couple of visits to the museum to size up the Gorgosaurus specimen for his research.

He once arranged to use a hydraulic crane, so he could see the bones up close in their wall mount.

Legendary American fossil hunter Barnum Brown discovered the Gorgosaurus skeleton near the Red Deer River in 1913. (Smithsonian Institution)

Now that they've been pried free from their plaster casing, Currie is planning on returning to get a complete set of measurements.

"It's very exciting news to me," said Currie. "Specimens like this one in Washington, which are in the mid-size of growth for these animals, they help fill in some of the gaps and so we can in fact see a continuum from the small ones to the big ones."

Other Smithsonian specimens are also getting a fresh look during the renovation.

Staff are discovering previously hidden rows of tendon and cartilage preserved along tails and in rib cages.

"You could start imagining from that how muscles and ligaments and tendons connect to bones and work. And then you can start thinking about how an organism moves. So, it gets you thinking about something as a moving, living, working organism," said project manager Siobhan Starrs.

Curators hope the new exhibit brings the anatomy of the dinosaurs alive for visitors and researchers.