Jane: Do the tails tell the tale?

"Jane" Burpee Museum's juvnile T. rex

“Jane” Burpee Museum’s juvnile T. rex

One of the questions most often asked at Burpee Museum is “How do you know Jane was a girl?” You see “Jane” is the juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex discovered by field crews in 2001 and the star of the Museum’s Diary of a Dinosaur exhibit. “Jane” was named after Jane Solem, wife of Robert H. Solem, a major benefactor and lifetime member of the Museum.

Currently it is unknown if “Jane” the dinosaur was male or female. In fact, determining the sex of dinosaur specimens is a question that paleontologists have long been trying to find a method or skeletal indicator that would allow specimens to be defined as male or female.

Scott Persons, paleontologist at University of Alberta at Edmonton, Canada, has recently proposed a new idea that may allow the sex of some dinosaurs be determined. His most recent study, published in Scientific Reports, suggests that skeletal traits of some dinosaurs tails may show sexual dimorphism (a distinct morphological difference between males and females) and could be applied to other specimens.

Persons’ study examined two oviraptorosaurs, nicknamed Romeo and Juliet, that were found in Mongolia in the 1990’s and first described in 2001. Through this study differences in bones called chevrons at the base of the oviraptorosaurs tails were discovered. One specimen had longer chevrons with broader tips. Persons hypothesizes that males may have had longer chevrons with broader tips for increased muscle attachments, whereas chevrons in females may have been smaller to facilitate egg laying.

As Thomas Holtz, University of Maryland, has pointed out, it will be very interesting to see if these differences are borne out in further, larger studies of chevron shape of small to mid-sized dinosaurs.

Perhaps someday soon we will be able to confidently answer the question of ” Is “Jane” a boy or girl?”

To read more about Person’s study check out these resources:

Tails Tell the Tale of Dinosaur Sex, Nature News

Persons IV, W. S., Funston, G. F., Currie, P. J. & Norell, M. A. Sci. Rep. 5, 9472 (2015).

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The Jane Diaries

Dr. Thomas Carr a Tyrannosaurid expert from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin has been working with “Jane” Burpee Museum’s juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex specimen from the Hell Creek Formation in south eastern Montana to determine if “Jane” is indeed a juvenile T. rex or if the specimen should be referred to a different species of theropod dinosaur.

"Jane" Burpee Museum's juvnile T. rex

“Jane” Burpee Museum’s juvnile T. rex

Dr. Carr has spent countless hours documenting and studying “Jane’s” fossil components to observe as many details as possible so that the specimen can be placed soundly into a fossil species based on morphological characteristics. If you would like to follow his journey into the details of “Jane’s” skeleton check out his blog Tyrannosauroidea Central or follow him on Twitter at @TyrannosaurCarr. His work with “Jane” will be published as a manuscript once his research is complete – keep an eye on Dr. Carr and Burpee Museum’s social media outlets for updates on the manuscript publication as well!

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!

A Team Effort

Remember the phrase, “It takes a village”?  Well, in the case of the excavation of a fairly complete dinosaur, it may not take a village, but it’s going to require lots of dedicated people to get the specimen out safely. Excavating “Jane”, our juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, was no different.

On the heels of our successful 2001 foray into the Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana, plans were set in motion for 2002.  Chief among these was to obtain an excavation permit from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) for one site in particular.  On the second to last field day in 2001, some interesting bones were discovered at the base of an exposure. They were toe and foot bones and clearly belonged to a theropod dinosaur, possibly a large Struthiomimus.  Theropods are far less common than the large herbivorous dinosaurs of the latest Cretaceous, like the horned Triceratops or the “duck-billed” Edmontosaurus.  Complete “Struthio” specimens are even rarer, so we were pretty excited to get back there. One fairly large obstacle to this was about 12 feet of overburden (rock above the bone layer), and that an additional permit was needed.

After sending in the proper reports for 2001 and paperwork for 2002, we received our excavation permits from the BLM. Logistics were planned and a Burpee team went out to begin the thankless task of removing over 5000 cubic feet of rock. Sadly, I wasn’t able to come out directly as I was still doing my “cop job” and vacation time was hard to take. The initial team was a diverse group led by Mike Henderson and included a couple of geology students (Joe Peterson, who I mentioned in an earlier blog, and Chris Garnhart), Carol Tuck and Bill Harrison (co-discoverers), Carol’s husband Hazen Tuck (Burpee Board Member), and several other volunteers who came from various professions.  For several weeks these intrepid workers worked the hill down by hand, using paleo-picks, shovels, pry bars, etc.

Finally, after many hot, stressful days, they got into the bone layer. Once down to this level, tools shifted to more delicate instruments like awls, dental picks, small scrapers, tooth brushes, etc. Soon bones began to be discovered: ribs, more foot bones, limb material (tibiae and fibulae), and a partial femur. One thing was becoming clearer: this was no Struthiomimus; the bones were too large. Then came the “clincher”- the pelvis was discovered and exposed on its left lateral side. The pelvis is made of three paired (right and left) bones: the blade-like ilium, the pubis, and ischium.  The ilium on this dinosaur had a distinctive “hook” to the front end and an interesting attachment at the mid-point. Also, the pubis had a distinctive rounded protrusion at its end, known as a pubic boot. The size and characters meant Burpee had a found a tyrannosaurid (member of the tyrannosaur family)!  In the late Cretaceous you have several members of this famous family: Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus, Daspletosaurus, and Tarbosaurus, but by the very “end” you had just one left, the most famous member, Tyrannosaurus rex.  However, some paleontologists like Dr. Bob Bakker and Peter Larson believe there is evidence out there for a smaller cousin of T.rex that lived at the same time, “Nanotyrannus”.  Was it this controversial dinosaur that Burpee had discovered?

Several members of the Burpee Crew had to leave and go back to their “real world” jobs.  That’s when the 2nd wave (which included me) was able to tag in and do their part. It was now July and the heat of the summer was in full swing. I was able to get a few weeks off from work and drove a loaned Ringland Johnson Construction truck out to Ekalaka. I met up with Mike, Joe, Chris and a few other volunteers and got debriefed.  We were in a holding pattern. It was clear that heavy equipment was going to be needed to remove the rest of the overburden and widen/deepen the quarry. The BLM was petitioned to amend the permit and the waiting game for funding the renting of a backhoe was in full swing.  After a few days, Burpee’s then Director Lew Crampton was able to get help from back home. I should take a minute to point out that while the digging of Jane was ongoing, Lew was all over Rockford raising awareness, excitement, and securing funding.  I can attest (since Lew would later drag me along), that he left no city official, congressman, Kiwanis Club, Lion’s Club, Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, etc, unturned. It was thanks to Lew’s enthusiasm and showmanship that we were able to keep moving forward, but I digress (again).

Anyhow, we were able to get a local backhoe operator named Ernie Smith out to the site; quite a feat considering the nearly 3.5 miles this track hoe had to drive on a jeep trail. In a day and a half, Ernie and his machine did what it took 10 people three weeks to do by hand. As an aside, Ernie would come to our aid a few other times (including helping us out with Homer, our “teenage” Triceratops) and was a just great guy all around. Sadly, he passed away after a fight with cancer in the fall of 2010.

Once more of the bone layer had been exposed, work resumed. Very soon more bones were found: more ribs, limb material, and vertebrae. Then another exciting bone was found- Jane’s right dentary (jaw bone). Not only was it complete and nearly articulated with the surangular, but it still had several well-preserved teeth “rooted” in the alveoli. We uncovered more of it and realized that the teeth were laterally compressed and like the “Nano” teeth we had seen in the literature. Every one of us got up from where we were working to stare at this jaw. Mike kept saying “no…I can’t believe it, it can’t be”.  I turned to him and said “I’m quitting my job and staying here until Jane is out”.  Everyone looked like they wanted to start dancing, but sadly there was no music. The only tune running through my head at the time was the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”.

Jane’s dentary, jaw bone, as it was found in in the field.

After the rush passed over, we went back to work and continued excavation. Unfortunately, my two weeks went by faster than I wanted and I went back to traffic patrol, theft calls, DUI’s, and domestics. However, I stayed in touch with everyone there.  It was a real adventure! The remaining weeks involved excavating the bulk of Jane’s skeleton into a large “pod” that would eventually get plaster jacketed and reinforced.  Ernie was there with his backhoe to help roll the 4000 pound jacket and get it loaded onto a flatbed.  The “Pod” was taken out to the road where a Wood’s Equipment truck from Oregon, Illinois was waiting to take her home to Burpee. Jane rode the 1100 miles back to Rockford in style, and enjoyed a ticker tape, police escort into the Burpee parking lot where about 200 people waited to catch their first glimpse.

The total excavation of Jane took around 8 weeks. Over two dozen people from all backgrounds helped at some point with the excavation. We had assistance from the BLM, Ernie Smith, other Ekalaka locals, Peter Larson, Wood’s Equipment, ESTWING, Ringland Johnson, Rockford Blacktop, and the list goes on. Everyone had some part to play in Jane’s story and were integral in getting her safely excavated and brought back to Burpee, so hopefully you can see why the title of this blog is “teamwork”.  However, for as much work as the excavation was, even more work was going to be put into her preparation and research.  So, until next time…..

Big Things Have Small Beginnings

I thought I would steal the title of this blog from the upcoming Prometheus movie…which hopefully will make the sci-fi geeks happy.  In my last blog, I touched upon the very first, exploratory trip Burpee took to “investigate” whether the museum could create and sustain a paleontological field program.  It was a real adventure and we came away determined to get a BLM Permit and make our dreams a reality. 

When summer 2001 rolled around, I was still a Deputy Sheriff and volunteered (when I could) in the new prep lab.  Around this time I met a young man named Joseph Peterson who was also volunteering with exhibits and in the lab.  Joe had a strong interest in paleontology and was planning on attending SIU (Southern Illinois University) to get a geology degree (most recently Joe got his Ph.D. in Geology from NIU and now teaches at UW Oshkosh), but I digress.  In any case, we applied for our BLM permit for several sections in southeastern Montana where the Hell Creek was exposed.  We received our permit to do “limited survey” and made plans to take a crew into the “wilds”.  At the end of May, 2001 we packed up and headed to Montana with a field crew consisting of fourteen staff, volunteers, friends and family. 

Unlike, our 2000 trip, we chose to stay at Camp Needmore just outside of Ekalaka. Nestled within Custer National Forest, Camp Needmore is an old CCC camp built in the 1930s during FDRs forestry program.  It has barrack style cabins, showers, and a big rec hall complete with a full kitchen.  So for those of us who have spent time in tents, this is fairly lavish, although it can be hard to convince the “newbs” that Camp Needmore is a godsend.  In addition to a comfortable and beautiful setting, Camp Needmore promotes a communal setting and an opportunity for some fossil preparation.

We spent almost two weeks prospecting the Hell Creek exposures west of Ekalaka.  For our first excursion, I felt we were doing pretty well.  Within a short time we had collected a few isolated Triceratops limb elements, a variety of microvertebrate fossils (turtle shell, crocodile teeth, fish vertebra and a few mammal jaws) and a nice Pachycephalosaurus “dome”.  “Pachys” are one of the rarer dinosaurs in the Hell Creek and easily recognizable as the “bone-headed” dinosaur of the latest Cretaceous.  As cool as these finds were, nothing that was a “newsmaker”. 

Our big find would occur on our second to last day….but at the time we had no idea it would be our “big find”.  I remember the day well, it was now early June and the temperatures were finally going up.  This particular day it was about 95 degrees and not much for a breeze.  We were prospecting an area approximately three miles north of the  nearest road.  There was good exposure there.  Right off the bat, Richard and Jill Hertzing (former Burpee Educator) found a nice juvenile Triceratops horn core.   Another group found a couple nice micro-sites.  Of course, everyone had spread out through this valley and was calling out every new find, which meant I was running all over the place to help ID things.  Toward the end of the day I was called on the radio.  Apparently two of the volunteers (Dr. William Harrison, NIU Languages Professor and Carol Tuck a Rockford Accountant) had found something exposed at the bottom of an exposure.  I was pretty tired from traversing the valley so my response was a little less than enthusiastic…in fact I think it was “Yeah yeah….I’ll get there when I get there”.  Then I trudged my way over there. 

The trip was worth it.  Upon arriving, I saw what the excitement was about.  At the base of the exposure was a phalange (toe bone) and what looked like some other foot bones (metatarsals).  They appeared in good condition and what was more interested was that they were hollow!  Based on the morphology, size and hollow nature, it was easy to tell these foot bones belonged to a theropod (meat eating) dinosaur, but what kind?  Further examination indicated there might be more of this specimen there, within the same layer just a few feet away what appeared to be a hip bone was just getting exposed.   We felt pretty confident that this specimen may be fairly complete.  One problem was clearly evident…..there was about 12 feet of overburden to contend with and we were out of time and needed a proper excavation permit.  . 

There was also the question of what kind of dinosaur was there.  Clearly a theropod, but it wasn’t very big.  The toe bone was less than 20 cm in length.  We initially thought it might be a large Struthiomimus (ostrich mimic dinosaur). The problem with field IDs is that they change many times and are often only confirmed based on completeness, condition of the material and proper preparation.  

We were all very excited and reluctant to leave, but i was clear that we would need to plan for 2002.  So we left Montana behind, returned to Burpee and began making more plans for the next field season.  Of course, those few foot bones would lead us to a “HUGE” little find.  But again..that’s for the next blog!

Initial 2001 discovery of theropod phalange and metatarsal