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Photo: Field Museum

How exactly does one move a 40-foot-long, multimillion-dollar dinosaur, anyway?

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For a moment, the nerves had subsided, and Lisa Geiger felt something else. Emanating from the massive claw in her hand—one claw, a mere fraction of the extremity—was a realization, a small suggestion of the power of the animal which had possessed these four brutal inches at the end of a puzzlingly short forearm more than 60 million years ago.

The claw’s owner, the most complete and exceptional specimen of one of the most dramatic creatures to ever walk the earth, would scarcely notice her, Geiger thought. What is one small, fleshy mammal to Tyrannosaurus Rex, undisputed ruler of the past? There, with the claw in her hand, Geiger had an intense moment of commune that took so long to unfold the human mind can scarcely grasp it—a baton pass from the ruler of the ancient world to the rulers of the current one.

The exhibitions registration assistant at the Field Museum in Chicago, Geiger’s job is to ensure the safety of the museum’s formidable collection. There is perhaps no more important and famous specimen in that collection than SUE, the T. rex which has greeted visitors in the museum’s cavernous Stanley Field Hall since 2000. This past winter, SUE was moved upstairs and remounted, where its massive skull—backlit by construction lighting and surrounded by scaffolding—looms Crichton-esque through a window as its new home is completed. It is the first step in a culmination of the museum’s original plans for rex.

SUE has long been an icon and ambassador for the museum, a fossil with 43,000 followers on Twitter, whose bio reads “Legendary Fossil. Apex Predator. National Treasure.” But the T. rex was robbed of its immediacy and context in the cavernous hall; more art object than formerly fearsome living thing. The new habitat hopes to correct that. In the meantime, an even bigger behemoth inhabits SUE’s former digs: Maximo, a titanosaur 122 feet long, its Instagram-ready head reaching up to the second floor, the largest dinosaur to walk the earth.

“One thing that we’ve learned from our visitors over the last few years is that people wanted to know more about SUE’s world,” says Hilary Hansen, the senior project manager for capital project exhibitions. “The new exhibition for SUE will kind of fill in the blanks for our visitors. What the environment was like; what kind of animals lived at the same time as SUE.”

Confronted face to face with the beast in a room of human scale, SUE’s imperious nature is properly revealed for the first time. Which raises the question: Just how does one move a priceless scientific specimen, the most famous and expensive fossil on the planet, anyway?

The new mounting gives SUE a broader, more menacing appearance, more great white than mako. Michele Kuo/Field Museum

As far as fossils go, SUE is superlative. In addition to being the most complete T. rex ever found, SUE is also the oldest and largest. And no, it’s not necessarily female; SUE was named for its discoverer, paleontologist Susan Hendrickson, who spotted SUE’s vertebrae jutting from a bluff in South Dakota.

“As the most complete T. rex, I’ve used an analogy of it being the Rosetta stone for the species,” says William Simpson, head of geological collections and collections manager of vertebrate fossils. Few people know the T. rex as well as Simpson does; he helped prepare—chipping the bones from the rocky matrix—and mount SUE for the first time.

If you have a partial T. rex, Simpson says, SUE helps determine the proportions of the missing bones. As the largest example of the species, SUE is crucial for locomotion studies. As the oldest, SUE plays a pivotal role in growth research. The museum took advantage of the move to core the left femur and section the right fibula to help determine the dinosaur’s age when it died, the results are currently being verified. 

This combination of extremes makes SUE among the most important research specimens in science and moving it a daunting task years in the making.

SUE's Twitter bio reads "Legendary Fossil. Apex Predator. National Treasure. New Suite Getter. All Caps Name Haver. 'They/Them' Pronoun User. LARGE M U R D E R B I R D." John Weinstein/Field Museum

One moves a dinosaur, it turns out, via meticulous planning, careful handling and a symphonic sense of teamwork. After, of course, the funding is figured out.

SUE’s relocation and new home is part of the Kenneth C. Griffin Charitable Fund’s $16.5 million Griffin Dinosaur Experience, which also paid for Maximo, hanging gardens, the Field’s Antarctic Dinosaurs traveling exhibit and the museum’s imposing flock of pterosaurs—including the bogglingly large Quetzalcoatlus (which Scientific American once called an “evil, pin-headed, toothy nightmare monster that wants to eat your soul).

The Field Museum spent roughly a year determining the logistics, a museum-wide effort in which collections, exhibitions, security and public relations all had roles to play.

Yes, the most famous dinosaur fossil in the world was defecated upon by its living descendants.

Research Casting International (RCI), a Canadian outfit that specializes in the casting, mounting and preparing of dinosaurs and other fossils, was contracted for the physical relocation, which required removing SUE’s priceless (well, technically, $8.4 million, but scientifically priceless) bones from their mounting, packaging them, transporting them upstairs to the new hall, staging them, then re-mounting them. Geiger and the collections department installed an indexing process to photograph and make a digital record of every bone as it was removed.

“SUE was a single animal in life, but is made up of 280-plus parts,” Geiger says. Each of those parts needed to have a digital footprint that could be tracked along the way; the loss of any bone would affect the value of SUE as a whole. The bones were given updated condition reports, noting any damage they had accrued in their almost two-decade exposure to the public in the semi-controlled environment of the museum.

“Birds get into Stanley Field Hall,” Geiger says. “There was some bird poo on parts of SUE, which we totally expected.” Yes, the most famous dinosaur fossil in the world was defecated upon by its living descendants.

SUE’s remarkable bones were moved to their new home in a variety of ways. Those that were small enough, were removed by hand from a scissor lift—distal tail vertebrae slid off their mounting like a kebab. Others required a roust-a-bout and, in the case of the mighty hip bones, which weigh hundreds of pounds and were mounted 13 feet in the air, a cage-like apparatus that surrounded the massive girdle as it was lowered onto a cart built specifically for the purpose.

Though very hard, fossilized bones are also incredibly brittle. Something as seemingly inconsequential as the wheel’s contact with the floor or the exact amount of vibration in the museum’s elevator had to be considered. RCI’s custom cabinets included rubber gaskets to eliminate vibrations and snug-fitting foam slots to cradle bones, while expanding foam was activated to form ad hoc molds for irregularly shaped bones. Heavy duty velcro kept the fossils in place, while RCI’s crew—flanked by security—moved SUE upstairs.

The Field took advantage of the move to re-mount SUE in a more scientifically accurate position. They added the gastralia, special rib-like structures which aided with breathing and give SUE a broader, more menacing appearance, more great white than mako. SUE’s posture has been adjusted, bringing that skull closer to eye level, and the proper wishbone—hidden amongst the bones because of its asymmetry—has been mounted, adjusting the shoulders and arms closer together and farther down the chest.

“You really get a feeling for how robust this animal is because it’s got this big belly now,” Will Simpson says. “Not nearly as gracile as it was before.”

By early 2019, the museum hopes visitors will find SUE in the Evolving Planet hall surrounded by animated screens displaying scenes from its life, as well as other specimens from the Cretaceous era. By fleshing out the environment in which SUE lived—accurate down to the position of the stars—the Field hopes to place SUE in context. Visitors will understand the Tyrannosaurus rex as the carnivorous demigod it was, not experience it as an impressive sculpture.

Some semblance of that essence already emanates from SUE, posed in its current construction sarcophagus with a regal menace, a heightened sense of sublime awe, horror and wonder as only nature can provide. Its terrible jaws read as endless and fatal, like a five-foot, bone-cleaving knife block set atop a tugboat chest with legs powerful enough to propel it through millennia to a museum in Chicago. An emperor of the past, taking its place on a new throne.