On August 12, 2020, Sue the legendary Tyrannosaurus celebrated its 30th….birthday? Anniversary? Date of discovery? Regardless of how you put it, the point remains the same: Sue the Tyrannosaurus is 30! For those of you wondering just who the heck Sue is, I’ll make it simple: Sue is the name of the most important specimen of Tyrannosaurus known to date. While Sue is well-regarded today as perhaps the most famous individual dinosaur ever, their early years weren’t so picture perfect. Their ownership started a custody case that made national headlines, started a discussion on the sale of fossils and led to a record-breaking purchase in which….McDonalds Corporation helped to buy a dinosaur?!?! Yes, you read that right, somehow McDonalds is a key party in the purchase of one of the most important dinosaur fossils ever. This is the story of Sue, the world’s greatest Tyrannosaurus specimen.
An… Unlucky Discovery?
The story of how McDonalds helped to buy a dinosaur begins in 1990 with an event that most would consider to be bad luck. Following the excavation of an Edmontosaurus skeleton in the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation of South Dakota, members of the Black Hills Institute led by Peter Larson prepared to depart for the summer when they noticed their vehicle had a flat tire. As recounted by several authors, while some of the excavating party tried to find a solution to their dilemma, one member of the Institute – Sue Hendrickson – decided to examine a few previously unexplored cliffs in the surrounding area. As she trekked across the steep cliffs of the badlands of South Dakota, she stumbled upon some curious ridges protruding from the hillside. After consulting with the rest of the group, the ridges were quickly identified to be the vertebrae of a Tyrannosaurus. Following her discovery, the team quickly worked to excavate the skeleton, removing it in its entirety in a truly astounding 17 days. Once fully wrapped in a plaster jacket, the Tyrannosaurus specimen – aptly named Sue in honour of the woman who discovered it – was delivered to the Black Hills Institute in Hill City for preparation. From there, Larson planned to establish his very own museum, with Sue acting as the ‘star’ of the exhibit. Or so he thought….
A Pretty Big Deal
Even while digging, members of the Black Hills Institute quickly realized that Sue was no ordinary Tyrannosaurus fossil. Rather, Sue is extraordinary due to the completeness of its skeleton. Since most dinosaur skeletons become scrambled after 65 million years plus of erosion, finding a near complete dinosaur is virtually impossible. Up until the discovery of Sue, most Tyrannosaurus specimens were heavily disarticulated and largely incomplete, preventing paleontologists from establishing a truly immersive view at Tyrannosaurus. This gap in our understanding changed with the discovery of Sue. At almost 90% complete, Sue finally gave paleontologists a clear view of Tyrannosaurus’ anatomy. To this day, Sue remains the most complete Tyrannosaurus specimen known and is often used as a reference point to other individuals within the genus. Additionally, Sue is one of the largest known Tyrannosaurus individuals, only recently being surpassed by the Canadian specimen known as ‘Scotty’. With this size came maturity; Sue is the amongst the oldest Tyrannosaurus individuals known to date with an age of 28 years old at time of death. Sue’s age demonstrated that Tyrannosaurus lived by the ‘live fast, die young’ mindset, maturing at a young age and dying a lot sooner than one would expect for such a gargantuan animal.
Here’s a fun fact: the Black Hills Institute has discovered three of the five most complete Tyrannosaurus specimens out there (including Sue). The other two, named Trix and Stan, don’t have quite as interesting of a backstory as Sue does, however. Which of course brings me back to….
Whose Tyrannosaurus is it?? (The Custody Case For Baby Sue)
In the years following its discovery, Larson’s ultimate plan of building his museum around Sue quickly unfolded. Since Sue was discovered on private property, Larson was required to obtain permission from the landowner, Sioux cattle rancher Maurice Williams, to excavate the fossil. The initial agreement between the two dictated that Larson would pay $5,000 USD to Williams for the possession (custody) of Sue. This agreement was apparently unclear to Williams however, as he believed the $5K was just the cost for looking on his property and that any discoveries would remain in his possession, not be shipped to the Black Hills Institute some 300 km away. Williams revoked the agreement with Larson and pushed for Sue to remain under his ownership. Since no legal documents were made, the recounting of the ‘contract’ between the two is very he-said-he-said in nature. Regardless, Williams’ claim to ownership was backed by one very powerful party: the United States government.
As it would turn out, the land Williams lived on was held in trust by the US government. This meant that Williams needed direct permission from the government to sell the fossil to Larson. Since Williams never even tried to obtain permission, Sue technically belonged to the United States, not Larson. This dispute escalated to the point where federal agents raided the Black Hills Institute in 1992 and took Sue into custody. In the two years following, both a District Court and the US Supreme Court ruled that the fossils had belonged to the government via the trust established with Williams, meaning that Larson officially lost his prized Tyrannosaurus. In the fallout of this decision, Williams was granted ownership of Sue, and Larson ended up facing criminal charges unrelated to the Sue dilemma. He would serve 18 months in prison for misdeclaring cash/checks at customs, purchasing illegally taken fossil from Custer Gallatin National Forest and removing a fossil (with a sub-hundred-dollar value) from protected lands.
At the time, there were disagreements amongst paleontologists regarding Larson’s punishment. Some believed he was a threat to science, as Black Hills is a private institution with a reputation for selling fossils to private collectors. Others believed he was the victim of overly harsh law enforcement trying to crack down on the sale fossils. All things considered, I think the punishment Larson received was extremely harsh. While I don’t support the sale of fossils, the charges he was sentenced for were ultimately very minor and thus he should have received some leniency. In the end, Larson recovered from this incident and has enjoyed a successful career as a paleontologist. His mishandling of Sue has served as a crucial lesson to paleontologists in the future: always check your permits!
McDonalds, Disney and the California State University System Buy a Dinosaur
Ok, now we get into the juicy bits. How Mickie D’s bought a Dinosaur. Sorry, how they helped to buy a dinosaur. Here it goes: After the ownership of Sue was granted to Williams, he decided to put it up for auction, as one does when they have a very valuable commodity that they don’t know how to manage (am I right, New York Knicks?). For paleontologists, auctions have the potential to become a disaster for science. If sold to the wrong buyer, say an avid fossil collector who doesn’t like sharing, then Sue may have resided in a basement for years to come, forever hidden from academic institutions that could conduct important research on Sue. With the threat of private ownership looming, something of an arms race occurred within the field of paleontology.
In order to buy Sue, whose bid began at $500,000 USD, institutions all across the country accumulated sponsors to help secure the necessary funds. Amongst these institutions was the Field Museum of Chicago, who was desperately seeking a museum centerpiece. They received funds to potentially buy Sue from the Walt Disney Corporation (ok), the California State University System (strange…), a few unnamed private individuals and, last but certainly not least, McDonalds. When the auction began, the Field Museum encountered heavy competition from multiple bidders including the Smithsonian Institute who seem to have felt entitled to Sue; Stan Adelstein, who attempted to bring Sue back to the Black Hills Institute where he felt they belonged; and apparently, even Michael Jackson tried to get in on the bidding. In the end, the Field Museum prevailed, paying some $8.36 million dollars to buy Sue. To this day, Sue remains the most expensive fossil known to date.
So why did McDonalds help buy Sue? Well, their plan was to send casts of Sue on a ‘world tour’, bringing in more customers to view the dinosaurs in their locations. Wouldn’t that be strange? You walk into a McDonalds to pick up a cheeseburger and instead you are greeted by the skull of a Tyrannosaurus. Regardless, Sue’s presence won’t change the fact that their ice cream machine is still broken.
Of note: Williams made a lot of money. And, he never refunded the original $5K…
The Dangerous Life of Sue
Nevermind their post-mortem story, let’s talk about Sue. As you may have noticed, throughout this article I have refrained from addressing Sue as ‘she’ or ‘her’. I have done this since, despite their name, nobody can be sure of Sue’s true gender and as such non-binary titles are appropriate. One thing that can be deduced from Sue’s skeleton is that they lived a tough life. Along the bottom of their left jaw lay curious holes scattered at random, likely the result of a serious bacterial infection. The right humerus (upper arm) displays signs of trauma which likely stemmed from their triceps getting ripped from the bone during a struggle, forcing Sue to live with a limp arm. Their left fibula (lower leg) shows sign of infection and their body shows signs of arthritis, likely making any motion on Sue’s behalf quite painful. It has been theorized that Sue was able to survive despite their injuries due to pack hunting behaviours amongst Tyrannosaurus. Living in a pack would mean Sue could rely on others to hunt for them, prolonging their life by quite some time. The sheer amount of pathologies and injuries that Sue survived shows the resilience of big carnivorous dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus.
In the Present….
As mentioned previously, Sue was sold to the Field Museum of Chicago, where they act as the central attraction for the museum. I have been fortunate enough to visit the Field Museum twice in my life, and I must say that Sue did not disappoint on either occasion. Sue has a certain…. Atmosphere to them, one that I would say is a must-experience for big paleo-geeks out there. While they may no longer be the largest or oldest Tyrannosaurus out there, Sue remains the most impressive by far.
I do not take any credit for any images found within this article.
Header image of Sue illustrated by John Gurche, found at the Field Museum’s website here
Golden Sue in the field museum found here
McDonalds Dinosaur Happy Meal found here
Purple Sue found here
Resting Tyrannosaurus courtesy of Max Bellomio, found here
Sue and the forklift found here
Sue Hendrickson and Peter Larson with Sue found here
Tyrannosaurus auction found here
Anonymous. “How Well Do You Know SUE?” Field Museum, 5 July 2018, www.fieldmuseum.org/blog/how-well-do-you-know-sue#:~:text=SUE’s%20skeleton,-We%20can%20learn&text=SUE%20was%2028%20when%20she,and%20even%20disease%2C%20including%20arthritis.
Black, Riley. “Twenty Years of Tyrannosaurus Sue.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Aug. 2010, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/twenty-years-of-tyrannosaurus-sue-78393958/
Browne, Malcolm W. “Pity a Tyrannosaur? Sue Had Gout.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 May 1997, www.nytimes.com/1997/05/22/us/pity-a-tyrannosaur-sue-had-gout.html.
Browne, Malcolm W. “Tyrannosaur Skeleton Is Sold To a Museum for $8.36 Million.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Oct. 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/10/05/nyregion/tyrannosaur-skeleton-is-sold-to-a-museum-for-8.36-million.html?auth=login-email&login=email.
“Deal.” The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, by Paige Williams, Hachette Books, 2018, pp. 44–48.
Lac, J. Freedom du. “The T. Rex That Got Away: Smithsonian’s Quest for Sue Ends with Different Dinosaur.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Apr. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/local/the-t-rex-that-got-away-smithsonians-quest-for-sue-ends-with-different-dinosaur/2014/04/05/7da9a73c-b9a6-11e3-9a05-c739f29ccb08_story.html.
Ruppenthal, Alex. “T. Rex Check: Sue’s Arm, Leg Bones Examined in Attempt to Diagnose Past Injuries.” WTTW News, 19 Feb. 2019, news.wttw.com/2019/02/19/t-rex-check-sue-s-arm-leg-bones-examined-attempt-diagnose-past-injuries.
Switek, Brian. “My T. Rex Is Bigger Than Yours.” National Geographic, 3 May 2016, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131016-tyrannosaurus-rex-smithsonian-wankel-fossil-day/.
Whitney, Barbara. “Sue.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 10 Jan. 2020, www.britannica.com/topic/Sue.
Wong, Kate. “Paleontologists Assess T. Rex Sue’s Pathologies.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 10 Oct. 2001, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/paleontologists-assess-t/.