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SUE the T. rex had battle scars, arthritis — and really bad breath

Teams from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago have been unpacking the Tyrannosaurus rex as the Royal B.C. Museum prepares to open SUE: The T. rex Experience

Paleontologists can tell a lot about the life of the Tyrannosaurus rex known as SUE from its remains.

SUE — the most complete specimen ever found — lived a long life, carried scars of battles and infections on its face and legs, broke ribs and damaged a shoulder blade while struggling with prey, and was likely in pain from an arthritic tail and spine.

On Wednesday, teams from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago were unpacking SUE in all its glory as the Royal B.C. Museum prepares to open a massive exhibit on the T. rex and other dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, about 67 million years ago.

Displays chronicle SUE’s chaotic life in tropical environs that are now central North America just prior to the asteroid that scientists say struck Earth and killed almost all of the great dinosaurs.

Unearthed in the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota in 1990 with 90% of its bones intact, the T. rex was named after Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the specimen by accident when her crew working to dig out another dinosaur in the area had a flat tire and left her on a road while they went to get it fixed.

Visitors to the exhibit, which starts Friday and runs through the new year, will see that, yes, the T. Rex had the tiniest of arms — not much bigger than our own — along with wickedly bad breath.

You can open a sensory panel and take a whiff, but balance it with more pleasant aromas from SUE’s home, such as flowering trees, ginger plants and conifers.

The exhibit includes SUE’s cast skeleton — the original stays at the Field Museum — as well as a life-size, fleshed out model of the T. rex chomping on a juvenile Edmontosaurus.

The size of a double-decker B.C. Transit bus, SUE is 12 metres long and four metres high and commands attention with banana-sized teeth, giant hind legs and massive feet. Its weight is estimated at between eight and 12 tonnes.

Victoria Arbour, head paleontologist at the Royal B.C. Museum, said SUE lived to the upper end of the life expectancy of a T. rex and is estimated to have been 28 years old when it died. “The T. rex kind of lived fast and died young, so 28 is something.”

Dinosaur bones have growth rings, like trees. After examining the rings, Field Museum scientists determined SUE had an adolescent growth spurt, gaining as much as 4.5 pounds per day, and was full size at 19.

The sex of SUE has never been determined, said Arbour.

She said another T. rex specimen was getting ready to lay eggs and paleontologists were able to determine the sex.

“It’s a special type of tissue that gets laid down in the bone right before they lay eggs. You have to cut the bone open and look for this particular cell structure and we haven’t seen that in SUE, so it could be female not laying eggs or it’s a male.”

The cause of SUE’s death is unknown, but clues point to old age.

“Or SUE could have just had a bad day and picked a wrong prey item or picked a fight with another T. rex,” said Arbour.

“She had ripped one of the tendons on her arm and had damage to her shoulder and several ribs. They are quite puffy-looking callouses on the skeleton. Those are fractures that had healed, probably resulting from fighting with something.”

There is damage to the leg bones, likely injuries from fights with others of her own species or from falls resulting from fighting with prey, said Arbour.

Of the more than 30 T. rex skeletons that have been found over the years, only one is bigger. Scotty was 13 metres long after about 65% of his fossilized remains were excavated near Eastend, Sask. in 1991.

But none are more complete that SUE. The Field Museum collected 250 of the 380 known bones in the T. rex skeleton, including the furcula (wishbone) and gastralia (a set of rib-like bones stretched across the dinosaur’s belly, believed to have helped SUE breathe).

SUE has taught scientists about bio-mechanics and movement, dinosaurs’ intellect, and even how much SUE weighed, said Peter Makovicky, the Field Museum’s curator of paleontology.

Hendrickson, who found the dinosaur, spotted a few large vertebrae jutting out of an eroded bluff on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and followed her hunch that there was more beneath the surface. In the end, it took six people 17 days to extract the dinosaur’s bones from the ground.

A legal dispute over ownership ensued between the owner of the land and the diggers. The remains of SUE were handed over to the landowner in 1995 and he put them up for auction.

Fearing the bones would go to a private collector and never be seen by the public, the Field Museum enlisted financial support from corporate giants Disney and McDonald’s for the auction. In 1997, the Field Museum was the winning bidder at $8.3 million.

SUE joins Buster, the star of the museum’s newest attraction, Dinosaurs of B.C., an exhibit designed by museum staff that opened last month. It has fossils from Vancouver Island and the B.C. Interior, including massive footprints found along riverbanks in the Tumbler Ridge area and inside coal mines in southern B.C.

Buster is the first dinosaur species of its kind ever discovered and unique to B.C. — a relative of the triceratops.

Arbour will lead another RBCM expedition in the B.C. Interior this month to hunt for more fossils, including what is hoped to be traces of a T. rex or a close relative, she said.

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• SUE: The T. rex Experience runs June 16 to Jan. 7 on the Royal B.C. Museum’s third floor.

Dino Saturdays: On the last Saturday of June, July and August, dinosaur activities for kids will be held on the second floor, including Dino Dice and inventing your own dinosaur.

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