LANCE CREEK -- Dwaine Wagoner has found tyrannosaurid bones before.

In 1997, he traveled with famed paleontologist Phil Currie, retracing the trail of the legendary Barnum Brown up the Red Deer River near Alberta, Canada. Brown, the man who discovered the first T. rex, took lousy notes, and the location of the Dry Island bone bed had been lost.

Brown's old photographs led the men to the site, which had produced the feet of several distinct specimens of Albertosaurus, a smaller version of a T. rex. Wagoner collected the first bone -- a toe -- from the quarry that would produce 13 more Albertasaurus specimens.

Wagoner later found six tyrannosaurid teeth along the same route, part of a fairly complete skull.

But on June 14, digging for a Tyrannosaurus rex north of Lusk, Wagoner's hole was empty. Cleanly dug, perfectly square, but empty.

"You got the square with the skull underneath," Wagoner said to fellow Tate Geological Museum volunteer Steve Pfaff, who was digging in the meter-square grid section beside him.

The Tate announced the discovery of the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen named Lee Rex in February, and the excitement has mounted since. Lee is the first T. rex specimen found in Wyoming in 13 years. Joining Dee the Mammoth, it could be another dinosaur-sized feather in the cap of the small museum at Casper College.

Within days of the announcement, more than 70 people volunteered to dig Lee out of the prairie. The discovery of two small cervical rib bones -- small bones behind the head that stick out of the neck vertebrae of most reptiles -- gave hope that a skull was buried nearby.

The first two days in the pit produced rock, scraposaurus, a tooth of a plant-eating dinosaur and more rock. Little of Lee Rex.

The crew had 28 days left, lots of time. But J.P. Cavigelli, the one who discovered the site, would have liked to see more actual bones. What they needed was a little of Wagoner's luck.

***

As he is -- encased in a rock 18 feet long and 8 feet wide -- Lee Rex already offers much to be excited about.

Every book you've read about T. rex, every movie you've seen, has been based on just about 50 discovered specimens, most of them in Montana, South Dakota and Canada. Lee is the seventh Tyrannosaurus rex unearthed in Wyoming, and none of those are more than 20 percent complete. That means, out of 300 or so bones in a full skeleton, the most found for a Wyoming specimen is 60 bones.

Lee will be the first T. rex that stays in Wyoming.

Cavigelli has so far counted 34 bones from Lee, most of them in the rock.

These kinds of rocks -- or concretions as paleontologists call them -- are where tissue is found, if there's any to find.

"There is potential for skin, maybe even the potential for muscle tissue or shapes of muscle around the bones," said Peter Larson, president and founder of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, S.D.

"We won't know until it comes out of the ground, is turned over and is being prepared."

Only one other specimen of T. rex has been found with skin, and it had just a dozen or so patches, none more than a few centimeters across, Larson said. Meat-eating dinosaur skin is rare, and these patches showed finely textured skin, like skin found between the toes of an emu. Scientists don't know if this pattern would have covered all of T. rex, or just bits of him.

Larson has unearthed eight T. rex specimens. He led the team that discovered Sue, the largest, most complete specimen ever found. The institute mounted Dee the Mammoth for the Tate, and Larson is proud of their association. He drove to Lusk to see Lee early last month.

"For a small museum, (the Tate has) found great fossils, and I expect more significant finds from them," he said.

On Friday, Lee's rock -- all 5,000 or so pounds of it -- will be packed with foam, hoisted, boxed and trucked to the Tate. With, 1,000 pounds of plaster already laid down and 4,000 pounds of steel for the frame, the cargo will weigh 10,000 pounds, give or take a ton.

"Everybody's going to be waiting with bated breath to see what happens on the other side of that concretion," Larson said.

Then, Tate crews will flip it over and begin looking at the secrets hidden inside.

***

Lee Rex is 35 to 40 feet long, and "18 of them are here," Cavigelli said, pointing to the rock during an in-the-field pep talk. His long dark hair had been braided into a couple dozen strands, easier to manage at a dusty dig site.

"It's pretty cool articulation, so let's keep going. If things go really, really well, we'll find another rock over here with the front half.

"We could be done in a week!"

Cavigelli considers himself a mammal man, but Lee is a big find for him.

He grew up in the suburbs of Boston and studied biology in college. On a break, he studied prairie dogs from February to June at Wind Cave in South Dakota. He went to Badlands on a day off and found the skull of an oreodont, a sheep-sized mammal that lived around 30 million years ago.

"It was beautiful," he said. And he was hooked.

Cavigelli finished his biology degree, but built his career around fossils, digging here and abroad. He developed a reputation for his skills in fossil preparation.

Cavigelli went to work for the Tate in 2004. He discovered Lee in 2005, though he didn't know it was Tyrannosaurus until 2010.

Lee is not his first T. rex.

In 1997, he was working in Laramie when a Montana colleague called. They needed someone to clean the fossils of Peck's Rex, now on display at Fort Peck Interpretive Center in Montana.

"It's an impressive animal," Cavigelli said. "As much as I say I'm not too fond of dinosaurs -- there are so many other interesting fossil remains out there -- a mounted T. rex is pretty darn cool."

***

T. rexes are formidable animals. The public pays attention. Attention brings donations, donations lead to grants, and grants pay for more discoveries in the field.

The Tate's purpose is to bring people into paleontology, said curator Kent A. Sundell, also head of the Casper College geology department.

Dee the Mammoth did that. He hopes Lee Rex will too.

On July 2, a caravan 15 cars long drove through Lusk and along an hour's worth of gravel roads. It was Visitors Day and 47 people showed up, almost double the number who came the previous two Saturdays the site opened to spectators.

Darrell Lake of Denver was driving his kids, Mackenzie and Conner, to Mount Rushmore when he heard about Lee. They spent the night in Lusk and happened to meet Steve Pfaff, Cavigelli's right-hand man, at the hotel's breakfast nook.

What are you doing for the Fourth? Lake asked.

I'm digging a T. rex, Pfaff answered. Lake joined the caravan.

"How's that for fortune?" Lake said.

"Who wouldn't want to see a T. rex, as long as they aren't alive?"

The pit was hardly recognizable after three weeks of digging. The sagebrush and cactus were removed, a black widow with an egg sac relocated, a rattlesnake killed. The hole was chest deep instead of shin deep.

Lee's rock, covered with plaster, gleamed snow white even from a mile or so away.

Few new bones had been uncovered, but the visitors crowded around the hole to see anyway.

"Hi, I'm J.P.," Cavigelli announced into the microphone. "Where you are standing is often referred to as ‘The Middle of Nowhere.'"

In the late Cretaceous, when Lee used his binocular-like vision to spot his dinner, big Mississippi-sized rivers flowed slowly through the area. There was an ocean 100 to 200 miles to the east, growing mountain chains to the west.

For whatever reason, Lee fell down dead. A flood probably caught him and moved him, "floated and bloated, as we like to say," until he lodged against a natural levy, Sundell told the crowd. Debris covered Lee Rex. He might have stayed lodged there for 10 years, maybe 100, sloughing off bones laterally.

That's why more aren't sitting there next to the rock, waiting to be uncovered, Sundell said.

It means crews will just have to dig farther and farther out, until nothing new is discovered.

"Do you think the skull is nearby?" A visitor asked.

"Ah!" Cavigelli answered. The million-dollar question.

"I was hoping the skull would be in this area," he said, pointing to a wide hole in the pit, near the discovery of the two cervical ribs, those small neck bones close to the head. But no skull bones have been found there.

"We hope it's nearer by than farther by," Cavigelli said.

Sundell hopes Lee's head hit the levy first and, under the weight of its massive body, snapped off at the neck. That would mean the skull could be on the underside of that rock.

Not so pleasant for Lee. Awesome for those who'd like to see the king of the dinosaurs sneering at us from the Tate's showroom.

Contact Features Editor Kristy Gray at 307-266-0586 or kristy.gray@trib.com.

 

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