The University of Kansas is now home to one of oldest — and most complete — Tyrannosaurus rex fossilized skeletons of its kind, thanks to paleontologist David Burnham, a team of students and volunteers and the donors who helped dig up the specimen and bring her home to Lawrence.
Yes, her. The skeleton, excavated bit by bit over four summers near Jordan, Mont., has a nickname. Burnham and his crew like to call her “Lucy.”
“One of my students told me, ‘She may be ugly, but she’s our girl,’” jokes Burnham, who estimates Lucy must have been about 15 years old, nearly full-grown, when she died.
Some of her fossilized bones are still being cleaned up in KU Biodiversity Institute labs — the dinosaur suffered quite a few injuries before her untimely death, Burnham said — but will eventually be added to the exhibit on the third floor of the KU Natural History Museum.
The fossil skeleton may be one of the earliest in the rock record, Burnham said. It’s also a more complete specimen than the T. rex displays at Chicago’s Field Museum, he added, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
As of June, Burnham and his team had unearthed about 25 percent of Lucy’s skull, about 60 percent of her hip bones and 45 percent of her leg bones.
If you go
What: Check out fossils (including "Lucy") and chat with paleontologists at National Fossil Day at KU.
Where: KU Natural History Museum, 1345 Jayhawk Blvd.
When: 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8
The expeditions to Montana’s Hell Creek Formation were funded through a pair of back-to-back crowdfunding campaigns in 2016 and 2017, with the latter bringing in more than $15,000. Boston residents John Weltman and Cliff Atkins, whose son attends KU, donated the bulk of the funds.
Burnham said the Natural History Museum exhibit “takes the CSI approach” in presenting what scientists were able to piece together about Lucy’s short life. The calcium content of the bones indicated Lucy was carrying T. rex babies right before she died.
“That’s the sad part of the story,” Burnham said. “She probably died right before she could lay her eggs.”
Lucy also had a couple of broken and healed ribs, a foot injury and a lower-leg injury, Burnham said, adding that some of bones looked like they had been “chewed up” by another T. rex. (They were apparently territorial creatures.)
Jen Humphrey, director of external affairs at the museum, said Lucy’s exhibit has been well received so far.
“There’s such a continuing fascination in the public with the T. rex, and it’s one of the reasons we’re so excited to bring this material to KU and display it,” Humphrey said. “And the public continues to be fascinated by it — dinosaurs light up the imagination.”
More than 200 people attended the museum’s “Tooth and Claw” event last week, Humphrey said, which featured a talk with Burnham.
The paleontologist said he hopes to resume digs in Montana sometime soon. Aside from Lucy, excavations have also unearthed a mysterious theropod jaw (the dinosaur group includes the T. rex, among other large carnivores) and teeth, Burnham said.
Altogether, the Hell Creek fossils might provide some answers into why, for example, this particular T. rex species was so densely concentrated in that one area, Burnham said, in addition to clues about T. rex lifestyles and how the creatures evolved over time.
In the meantime, Burnham said he hopes to make “Lucy” a permanent exhibit at the KU Natural History Museum. He’s “fantastically proud” to have brought the specimen back to KU, he said.
“It’s a paleontologist’s dream to work on a T. rex,” Burnham said, “And it feels really cool to have your dreams fulfilled.”