What About the Susan Who Found Sue by Steve Brusatte
A Portrait of Susan Hendrickson
by Steve Brusatte
During first half of 2000 dinosaur fans around the world were abuzz with the excitement involving the mounting of the skeleton of Sue, the world\'s largest and most complete T. rex, at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Television shows, radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, and websites from around the world endlessly reported stories on the discovery of Sue\'s skeleton and the ensuing legal debate over its ownership.
One of the most frequently talked about people in this media blitz was a small-town Midwestern girl by the name of Susan Hendrickson.
Hendrickson vaulted to world fame after her discovery of Sue\'s skeleton in 1990, but before her famous discovery and flirtation with the law, Hendrickson had already lived a life full of adventure, including many exciting experiences in paleontology.
Hendrickson grew up in the suburban city of Munster, Illinois, about a half-hour drive from Chicago. During her childhood Hendrickson enjoyed reading and doing homework. But, at age 15 the so-called \'perfect child\' began to rebel. Hendrickson confessed that she had a hard time fitting in at school, and her mother compared her to a \'square peg in a round hole.too bright and too far ahead to fit in.\"
At age 16 she would often lie to her parents, telling them she was going to a friend\'s house but instead sneaking into the city of Chicago and sitting on the docks of Navy Pier, secretly wishing that she was far away. \"I was bored. I hated my high school and I hated my home town,\" Hendrickson later told a Chicago Tribune reporter.
After several \'heated clashes\' Hendrickson and her mother, Mary, agreed that a change of scenery was needed, and Hendrickson moved in with her aunt and uncle in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. When they grounded her for staying out all night, Hendrickson ran away with her boyfriend, dropped out of school, and never came back home.
\"He (the boyfriend) liked to dive, and I loved the water, so our plan was to work on a shrimp boat in Lafitte, Louisiana,\" Hendrickson said. However, although both seemed destined to live a settled life near the ocean, the two ran into trouble in Louisiana, and for the next few years they crisscrossed the country, living and working unusual and odd jobs in cities from San Francisco to Boston.
Living the life of a nomad was not easy, and Hendrickson constantly found herself scraping for cash, once having to pawn her gold watch for $20 when she was down to her last 36 cents. But, despite the fact that she had broken bridges with them, Hendrickson\'s father agreed to loan Susan a small some of money. Hendrickson used this cash to put the down payment on a 30-foot sailboat. Soon after Hendrickson and her boyfriend were earning a living painting and varnishing the boats of their wealthy neighbors at a marina.
Two years later the couple broke up, and Hendrickson and her boyfriend went separate ways. Always fascinated by the sea, Hendrickson returned to Florida and began diving for tropical fish for a local museum. After a year of diving, Hendrickson moved to Seattle, where her parents had relocated, and finally began to mend some of the bridges she had burned.
At this time she was 21, and for the first time in her life the high-school dropout had though about college. She easily passed the high school GED equivalency test, and talked with the chairman of the marine biology department at the University of Washington about possibly enrolling in their program. However, Hendrickson soon learned that college was not for her.
\"I asked him what I would get for seven years of study, and he said I couldprobably dissect fish or take pollution counts. I decided I could just go back to Florida and do what all the other Ph.D.\'s were doing-catch tropical fish,\" Hendrickson recalled. Instead of immediately returning to Florida, though, Hendrickson remained in Seattle for another year, working as a sailmaker. She then moved on to Marathon, Florida, where she once again dove for tropical fish.
One day, in the summer of 1973, while visiting diver friends in Key West, Hendrickson was presented with a question that would change her life-she was asked to help salvage a sunken freighter.
She gladly offered her services, and enjoyed the treasure diving so much that she eventually moved to Key West, where, over the next few years, helped raise tens of sunken planes and boats. Later, in 1974, Hendrickson ventured to the Dominican Republic, where she participated in a marine archaeology project. She soon fell in love with the country, and returned whenever she could, always looking for new adventures. On one of her visits Hendrickson decided to take a detour from diving, searching for some of the amber mines she had heard about from a group of locals. After hours of hiking she eventually located several miners, who showed her their treasures, golden lumps of amber with preserved scorpions, beetles, termites, and other insects inside.
\"It was like seeing a whole other world.a window into the past,\" Hendrickson recalled.
When she later returned to the Dominican Republic she attempted to try her hand at digging this amber, but soon learned that you could spend an entire year digging for the fossils and never find one specimen. Instead, she opted to pay the local miners for their specimens, often from $10-$35. She proceeded to bring several of her finds to an entomologist friend in Gainesville, Florida, who identified several new species, fossils that had never before been identified by science.
After amassing quite a collection of amber, Swiss paleontologist Kirby Siber collaborated with Hendrickson to build a fossil museum outside Nasca, Peru. Siber and Hendrickson soon became good friends, and it was he that
convinced Hendrickson to hunt for larger fossils. He invited her to join him in a fossil expedition to Peru in 1985, which is where Hendrickson was introduced to South Dakota fossil hunter Peter Larson, and little did anyone know was the start of a partnership which would affect paleontology for years to come.
After she clicked with Larson on the 1985 expedition to Peru, Hendrickson joined her friend for four summers, searching for dinosaur bones in South Dakota. One of these summers, the summer of 1990, turned out to be Hendrickson\'s last. But, more importantly, this expedition turned out one of the most important dinosaur fossils ever discovered, a monstrous fossil which caused a stir that the paleontological world would soon like to forget-and likely won\'t stop feeling the effects of for years to come.
The day was August 12, 1990. Larson\'s crew from his fossil hunting business, the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, were experiencing problems with their trucks. Growing tired of the waiting, with the sun quickly setting, Hendrickson decided to take a walk. The team had explored six outcrops of Cretaceous rock that day, but had decided against looking at the seventh and final cliff in the area because of the impending darkness. But Hendrickson had a feeling. Something mysticaldrew her to that cliff, she later explained.
So, she took the two-mile trek to the distant cliff face, and began to look for loose bones, which may have fallen from the rocky ledges. Almost immediately after arriving Hendrickson noticed some small bone fragments lying on the ground. Not knowing what they were, she slowly gazed up at the cliff face and was greeted with an amazing site: a complete set of vertebrae from what looked to be a carnivorous dinosaur. Hendrickson quickly knew who they owner of these bones had to be, for the great Tyrannosaurus rex was the only carnivorous dinosaur of that size to be present in the Hell Creek Formation, the rock unit which Hendrickson was exploring.
She quickly yelled to Larson, who ran over to the site and was equally amazed to see the remains of the large dinosaur. After a few quick glances at the vertebrae and leg bones, he knew that he had a Tyrannosaurus rex. What had only minutes before looked like a poor field season had turned into the biggest success of Larson\'s life.
The team spent two weeks excavating the specimen, which they astonishingly found out was 90 percent complete, making it the most complete Tyrannosaurus specimen known. It was also the largest, measuring in at an approximated 41 feet.
Larson had dreams of preparing and mounting the specimen, making it the centerpiece of a planned paleontology museum in the Black Hills. After excavation he paid the landowner on whose land the fossil was found, and carted the amazing specimen back to his lab in Hill City, South Dakota. For nearly two years Larson and his colleagues cleaned and studied the bones of the Tyrannosaurus, which they christened Sue after its discoverer, and even arranged to have her skull CT scanned at a NASA facility in Huntsville, Alabama. On the morning of May 14, 1992 the staff at Larson\'s institute was preparing for the shipping of the skull to NASA, which was to take place later that day, when they heard an immense commotion accumulating outside. Moments later several FBI agents busted down the doors of Larson\'s institute, demanding the bones of Sue and all papers pertaining to the excavation.
Earlier that year landowner Maurice Williams, who originally received $5,000 for the specimen, a deal which was caught on videotape, demanded the fossil back, saying that the agreement wasn\'t legal because the bones of Sue were a part of his \'land,\' which was actually owned by the Sioux Tribe and held in trust by the US Government. The proceedings of the trial were not ultimately resolved until January 29, 1996, when the bones of Sue were awarded to Williams and Larson, who had been charged on over 125 federal counts, was sentenced to two years in jail on the charge that he failed to declare several thousand dollars in travelers\' checks when returning to the US from a fossil hunting expedition.
Williams, on the other hand, decided to put the bones of Sue up for auction, and, on October 4, 1997, they were auctioned off at Sotheby\'s Auction House in New York City. Larson sent several representatives to the auction, armed with over one million dollars, in hopes that they could buy the specimen back. But, what happened next Larson, nor anybody else, could have never imagined. What was originally expected to haul in about $500,000, Sue was sold for an astounding $8.36 million! The winner-the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois.
The Field Museum almost immediately began preparation of Sue\'s bones when they arrived in 1997. In the summer of 1998 the Field hired recent Ph.D. graduate Dr. Chris Brochu to lead the Sue research team. His first course of action was to arrange for Sue\'s skull to be CT scanned at a Boeing laboratory in California, meaning that six years later Larson\'s plan to scan her skull had finally become a success, although under much different circumstances.
In May of 1999 the Field Museum, in collaboration with National Geographic Magazine, opened up a new exhibit entitled \"Sue, the Inside Story.\" This exhibit concentrated on the CT scanning of the skull, a scanning which revealed that Sue, and likely all tyrannosaurs, had unbelievably large olfactory bulbs. This discovery led Brochu to proclaim that Sue \"smelled its way through life.\"
Hendrickson was on hand for the 1999 exhibit opening in Chicago, where she signed autographs and greeted fans. She was briefly interviewed by Field Museum President John McCarter before Dr. Brochu\'s lecture, where she showed off her dog, Skywalker, to the crowd and answered questions about her discoveries. During an interview she disclosed that she, \"was glad the Field acquired Sue, but still believes that the Black Hills Institute was the rightful owner.\"
One year later, on May 17, 2000, a new age of paleontology was opened as the finished mount of Sue was unveiled at the Field Museum at 6:47 A.M., in front of a crowd of VIP\'s, school children, and reporters. Sue\'s skeletal mount, which is mostly all original bone, marks an incredible technological step for paleontology. Each bone is locked in its own small metal frame, which makes it possible for researchers wishing to study Sue to simply unlock the frame and remove the bone.
It is likely that several researchers will come to Chicago to study Sue. Not only is the dinosaur complete and large, but also very fascinating. It contains a wishbone, the first discovered in tyrannosaurs, which lends evidence to the argument that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Sue\'s skull, legs, and vertebrae also contain several interesting pathologies, or injuries, which may help paleontologists learn more about illnesses in the Mesozoic.And, the continuing debate of Sue\'s gender still remains heated. While Larson argues that Sue is indeed a female, Brochu has offered evidence that Larson\'s arguments do not stick up, although Brochu has not offered any insights of his own. Above all, the entire Sue skeleton offers many exciting research opportunities.
The skeleton, which is mounted as if temporarily distracted while hunting, is 41 feet long and approximately 13 feet high at the hip. Sue\'s original skull is displayed in its own display case on the second floor balcony, which overlooks the Sue mount. Renowned paleoartist John Gurche even painted a mural depicting
Sue in her Cretaceous environment, which is exhibited near the skull, also overlooking the skeletal mount. With the final mounting of Sue, one of the most turbulent periods in paleontology may now come to a rest.
But, nobody will soon forget the discovery, preparation, seizing, custody battle, purchase, preparation, casting, molding, and mounting of a prized Tyrannosaurus rex specimen simply known to the world as Sue. And, nobody will soon forget the Midwestern girl who discovered this creature one dark August night. Susan Hendrickson will live on in paleontology lore for years to come.
Brusatte, S. An Interview With Susan Hendrickson. Prehistoric Times. August/September 1999.
Debus, A. and S. Brusatte. Long Live the Queen! T. rex Reigns at the Field. Dinosaur World. Spring/Summer 2000.
Fiffer, Steve. Indiana Bones. Chicago Tribune Magazine. April 4, 1999.