The fossil hunter
Sue Hendrickson, 67, is a legend among dinosaur-lovers – she found what it is still the most impressive T-Rex fossil ever unearthed. Here, she explains how she got into fossil hunting
What was the first fossil you ever found? I always liked looking for things and when I was four or five I would go up and down my alley where there were burners that people would put their burnable things in and I’d go poking around in them looking for treasures. But I guess the first fossils I found were insects in amber in the Dominican Republic.
Sounds like the start of Jurassic Park! I’d taken a few friends to the mountains to see what the amber mines were like and one of the miners showed me an insect in amber. I was immediately hooked. Over the next few years I became one of the world’s top experts on fossils in amber, and from there I got into mega-fossils: dinosaurs.
What memories do you have of your early dino-digs? The first dinosaur fossils I found were when I was at the Black Hills Dinosaur Institute almost 30 years ago and they had a dinosaur quarry in South Dakota. It was where a few thousand dinosaurs had died and their bones had all been mixed up; there was an 18-inch layer that spread for a couple of miles. Every summer they would spend a couple of months there digging bones.
What did you find there? Bits of triceratops, mostly. I never found any bones of T-Rex because they are really rare. It’s like finding a mountain lion in a herd of buffalo – you might have thousands of buffalo and a single family of mountain lions. I did find some well-preserved T-Rex teeth, but no bones… until I found Sue.
Sue has become the most famous T-Rex of all time: how did you find her? It was the summer of 1990, I was volunteering with the Black Hills Institute and there was a film crew who wanted to come after the quarry was closed for the season. So after everyone had gone home a couple of us stayed and we figured we’d go scouting on neighbouring ranches to pass the two weeks until the film crew arrived.
One of the ranches was somewhere we hadn’t been before; we got permission from the owner to look around. It was mostly poor grassland, almost desert, but there were six buttes (isolated, rocky hills) to inspect, and we found basically nothing. A few days later I was up a high ridge and could see a seventh butte that we’d missed. It stuck in my head and I said I’d go back.
When did you get your chance? It was our penultimate day there, I was collecting up some triceratops bones and the guys had to go into town because we had a flat tyre. I said, ‘You don’t need me, I’m gonna go to this place I’ve been wanting to go.’ I set off for the seventh butte and it was real foggy – and it’s never foggy in summer in South Dakota – and I had to walk four or five miles. Two hours later I realised I’d walked in a circle, but then the fog lifted and I headed out to where I wanted to be. A few minutes into walking around this cliff I saw a bunch of crumpled bones; as I looked up I saw three vertebrae exposed, still in line – just as they were in life.
Is that common? Not at all. Usually you find one little bit of a broken bone and you never find any more, so to have three was extremely important and they were going into the hill on both ends so there was a good chance of more. What was amazing was that the bones were hollow, like chicken bones, which indicates a carnivorous dinosaur. The bones were huge.
How long did it take to get her out? It took us five days to take down 30 feet of rock that was on top of her to get to the layer she was in, and then another 12 days. Three people with picks and shovels in 50-degree heat.
Is it true there was an ownership dispute? Yes, sadly. Finding her was totally unbelievable and even 27 years later it’s still unbelievable to me, but it was good thing – and then two years later the sad part began. To cut a long story short it went to a huge court case and the judge decided that she belonged to the ranch owner, who put it up for auction with Sotheby’s.
Who bought it? I was horrified by it all, but Sotheby’s treated her very well and McDonald’s and Disney had agreed to bid for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It was their gift to the children of the world and the purchase price was $8.36 million.
Has Sue ever been bettered? No. We keep thinking someone’s going to top her, but not yet. She’s 80-90 per cent complete; the next best is about 50 per cent.
Do you still go fossil hunting? I do. I went looking for dinosaurs just last year and found the usual scraps that people find. I’m not sure I’ll ever top Sue.
Have you ever looked in the UAE? I’m not aware of any good fossil sites in the UAE, although I have been there and really like it. My main job is a marine diver, and as I trade natural pearls I’m fascinated by the natural pearls from the Gulf region that are historically the most famous and the best.
Where should a dinosaur fan go hunting for fossils? The best thing to do is study a geology map and look for deserts. If you can get the right geological layer you can go look and hope, and if you have a trained eye you can pick out where old rivers used to be. These are where you would head for.
Finally, if you had a time machine, when would you go back to? The late cretaceous period, around 66 million years ago. Actually, I wish the late cretaceous period would come to us. We’re the evil species, and we have destroyed our planet. Yes, I want to see dinosaurs, but rather than go back I’d rather bring them to us so they could wipe us humans out.