Unearthing History

KU paleontologists track down rare Tyrannosaurus rex fossils

Days spent crouching down digging in the dirt in Hell Creek Formation in Montana through sweltering heat and 40 mph wind gusts doesn’t sound like an ideal summer vacation for most people. To student and staff paleontologists at KU, however, it is an opportunity of a lifetime. The team, led by David Burnham, has discovered Tyrannosaurus rex fossils and brought them back to campus for study over the past four years.

The most exciting find to date has been the bones of a young T. rex, first uncovered in 2016. So far, the team has retrieved upper jaws with a complete set of teeth, cranial bones, some back bones, part of the hip and sacrum, and a portion of the foot. The discovery is intriguing because only about a dozen young T. rex examples have been found and, despite the creature’s notoriety in film, little is known about it. Studying the T. rex fossils can reveal how these enormous dinosaurs grew, lived and evolved.

“The jaws of the juvenile indicates that it had not yet acquired the huge bite force we see in adults, which is necessary to kill and consume large prey items,” Burnham said. “This indicates there must be differences in feeding and behavior for young T. rex.”

The team is still sifting through the findings from their month-long field visit this past June. Among the new fossils collected are thought to be T. rex ribs, teeth and some unidentified fragments, along with a variety of plant and additional animal fossils. Collectively, the fossils provide a snapshot of what life was like millions of years ago.

The expeditions have been made possible through LaunchKU crowdfunding efforts and lead gifts from John Weltman and Cliff Atkins, whose son attends KU.