Diary of a Dinosaur and Beyond

So in the previous posts, I gave a fair bit the history of the beginnings of Burpee’s paleontological field programs and how Jane, our famous juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex was discovered and all the logistical planning, hard work, teamwork that was required, along with a smattering of luck.  For those wondering about the infamous “Nanotyrannus” debate and why we determined she was a T.rex you’ll need to either come to Burpee or wait for the scientific paper to be published to find out for yourselves.

In reality, the discovery and excavation of Jane was “easy” compared to all that came next.  We had to prepare a substantially complete dinosaur for research and exhibit.  This meant Burpee had to build a fossil prep team, upgrade its lab, meet and plan for an exhibit and the list goes on.  I was lucky enough to be hired to build the prep team and outfit the lab, This career change also allowed me time to return to college and finish an A.S. degree and move toward a B.S. in Geology.  I had a small amount of fossil preparation experience.  I had read several books, a few prep papers, received advice and notes from a few in the field, but felt we needed more training. So I approached several experts in preparing dinosaur fossils; Bill Simpson, Geology Collection’s Manager at the Field Museum; Bob Macek at Sereno Labs and Peter Larson, Black Hills Institute.  I received tons of help and good advice from all of them. We also had a few Field Museum preparators come on weekends to help train and prep.  Fossil preparation takes a lot of dedication; good eye for detail, hand/eye coordination and patience (in many cases you are sitting in one spot or position for hours), in other words it takes a special person. Fossil preparators use a variety of tools; dental picks, pin vises, small pneumatic tools (microjacks), air abrasion to name a few. More than a few people have come to volunteer in my lab and have said “I always wanted to do this”…then they realize how time consuming and monotonous it can be.

After a bit of searching around and getting some good volunteers we were able to build a prep team, none of which had any formal training or experience.  Over 10,000 work hours went into preparing Jane’s bones for research and exhibit.   For a small museum like Burpee, it is a great accomplishment to go plan and execute a dinosaur dig and then return to prepare all the material in house, but we did it.  Many of the world’s best known paleontologists like Drs. Philip Currie, Thomas Carr, Jack Horner, Peter Makovicky, Bob Bakker, among many others, have seen Jane’s bones up close and commented on what a great prep job was done.  So needless to say, I am proud to say that they were a great team and had great skills.

Being planned in tandem with the preparation of fossil material was the exhibit concept, interpretation and design. Burpee staff met every week for about two solid years to “flesh out” and develop the exhibit. We met with the project manager, the exhibit fabrication company, the specimen mounting firm and more. Building a 2500 sq foot exhibit is like building a house; you have to go over every detail. It was a lot of work and often very stressful, but I am happy to say Burpee pulled it off again.  The Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur exhibit opened at the end of June 2005 to a huge crowd (approximately 3000 for opening day), within the first year of its opening Burpee had about 65,000 general attendance visitors, not to mention another 20,000 kids for school tours.  This was a nearly 200% increase in attendance compared with the previous year. It was clear that Jane had some star power.

The award winning “Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur” exhibit at Burpee Museum in Rockford, IL, featuring Jane the juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex.

There were other high points, for example the opening of the exhibit and announcement that Jane was a juvenile T.rex was covered on CNN and other major news outlets.  The exhibit went on to win the American Association of Museum’s (AAM) Excellence in Exhibition Award and we even had a Jane month declared in Rockford.  One of the big deals surrounding Jane was we had been working with Dave Monk and Brave New Pictures on a documentary about Jane and Burpee.  In 2006 The Mystery Dinosaur (hour long documentary) aired on the Discovery Channel it was later shown on the Science Channel. This show has been aired on and off for the last five years and its estimated that approximately 40 million people worldwide have seen the show.

Aside from all of the attention, increased attendance, TV shows, etc, Jane provided Burpee the opportunity to keep moving forward.  I liken it to surfing.  If you are on a killer wave and you fall off it, you may never catch the same wave again.  So keeping that in mind we continued our field work in the Hell Creek formation and in other localities.  During the last six years we have made other notable discoveries; Homer and the first Triceratops bonebed, collected early Permian tetrapods (some of which may be new species) from Oklahoma and in 2007 the discovery of the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry, near Hanksville, UT.  The HB-Quarry is a massive dinosaur bonebed found in the late Jurassic Bonebed Morrison Formation.

Now that you have the history of our fieldwork I can finally dive into what we are doing out here and why it’s a BIG DEAL….but that will have to wait for the next blog!

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