Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to display U.S. Army Corps T. rex from Montana’s Museum of the Rockies at MSU

Monday Jul. 8th, 2013

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University June 27 announced an unprecedented agreement to showcase a famous Montana Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the National Museum.

The Wankel T.rex will be on display in the National Museum’s new paleontology exhibit scheduled to open in 2019.  The skeleton is one of the most complete T.rex specimens ever discovered, with 80-85 percent of the fossilized bone recovered. At the conclusion of the 50-year loan, the fossils will return to Montana.

The Wankel T. rex was found on federal land near the Fort Peck Reservoir in 1988 by Kathy Wankel, a rancher from Angela, Mont. It was excavated in 1989-90 by field crews led by paleontologist Jack Horner from the Museum of the Rockies. The full specimen was housed at the MOR in Bozeman where it was prepared in public view, studied extensively and ultimately placed on display.

The Wankel T. rex will leave for its new home in Washington, D.C., in October and arrive at the Smithsonian, appropriately enough, on National Fossil Day.

“We’re thrilled to welcome this extraordinary fossil to the Smithsonian,” said Kirk Johnson, Sant Director, National Museum of Natural History. “The Wankel T. rex will be the most viewed T.rex fossil in the world, and we wish to extend our sincere appreciation to the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the Museum of the Rockies and the Wankel family for all they’ve done to make this possible.”

The National Museum of Natural History is the largest and most visited natural history museum in the world, with over 7 million visitors annually. It houses 127.3 million specimens and artifacts and its scientists publish more than 500 scientific research papers each year. The Wankel T. rex will be the centerpiece of its new $35 million dinosaur hall.

“Montana’s breathtaking and timeless landscape is home to some of the world’s greatest natural treasures,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. “The Wankel T. rex is an eternal testament to the legends that once roamed Montana’s vast lands, and it is the perfect match for one of the world’s most famous natural history museums.”

Kathy Wankel discovered the specimen while on a family outing on the Fort Peck Reservoir. She took the bones to MSU’s Museum of the Rockies for identification. “They turned out to be the first arm bones of a T. rex ever discovered,” explained Wankel. “It was a very exciting time for us. We are thrilled that our T.rex is going to be at the Smithsonian where everyone can see it.”

In 2001, the Wankel T. rex was cast in bronze and placed near Museum of the Rockies’ front entrance where the skeleton, nicknamed “Big Mike,” became a popular photo opportunity for tourists.  In 2005, the bones were displayed in their original “death pose” in the MOR’s Hall of Horns and Teeth in the Siebel Dinosaur Complex.

“We are honored that the Wankel T. rex will be representing Montana at our national museum,” said Waded Cruzado, MSU president. “Kathy Wankel is an alumna of MSU and the Wankel name will always be associated with this important discovery.”

Johnson said, “The inclusion of the Wankel T. rex in the National Museum’s paleontology exhibits will be one of the landmark events in the Smithsonian’s 167-year history.”

The partnership between the Museum of the Rockies, the Corps and the National Museum of Natural History began in 2005 when former Smithsonian Secretary Larry Small visited Bozeman to welcome the MOR as a Smithsonian affiliate. At that time, he asked Jack Horner, a Smithsonian adjunct senior scientist, to find a Tyrannosaurus rex specimen for their new hall. Five years of fieldwork funded by Smithsonian donors on lands owned by the U.S. Corps of Engineers yielded several partial T.rex specimens but nothing to compare with the Wankel T. rex.

“It’s only fitting that Montana sends its best to our national museum. This is such an important paleontological find and all of us who worked on it are very proud to see it displayed for the nation and the world,” said Horner.

MOR also announced that it is collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mount another federal T. rex specimen in its Siebel Dinosaur Complex. Known as the Peck’s Rex, it is as complete a skeleton as the Wankel T. rex and will be on display sometime in 2014.

“We are very fortunate to have two such wonderful specimens reposited at MOR,” said Cruzado. “One goes to the Smithsonian to represent Montana and the other will be on display at the Museum of the Rockies for our visitors. Everyone benefits.”