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

Friday - - My Working Life - er­

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.

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