A Story About Some Dinosaur Bones
When I saw Sue, I almost cried.
I had spent hours at the Field Museum, checking off display after display: a tiny replica of Teotihuacan; hallways filled with 1960s era science font; so many stuffed birds. I’d saved the Evolving Planet exhibit for the end, knowing that Sue featured prominently and that it would spark a bit of nostalgia for my days in BIOL 151 General Zoology. I passed one mass extinction, and then three more.
I turned the corner. And there it was.
Sue is famous not because it’s a big dinosaur fossil, but because of the circumstances; 90% complete by bulk and riddled with interesting physiological ailments and issues, Sue is a masterclass in storytelling through injury. But Sue is also famous because it had no home for a very long time. Sue was found on Native land here in South Dakota on lease from the U.S. Government, and three separate parties claimed ownership. The political battle around Sue forced the fossils into a warehouse for a few years and mired what might have been one of the most important finds in paleontological history in a mess of territory claims and government agents.
Sue (officially known as FMNH PR 2081, which is also the name used for its wonderful twitter account) is the one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever unearthed. On display, it’s terror personified. But due to the legal battle, it took nearly eight years after being discovered to provide some kind of scientific value. To learn what Sue’s history held for our understanding of dinosaurs. To hear what Sue had to say; what stories it held.
Since then, scientists have spent years learning from Sue, both on how Sue lived day-to-day, but also how the entire species of T. rex lived in general. They suggest that Sue was 28. Sue’s gender has not been determined, but they can tell it had arthritis in the tail, and potentially gout.
Sue had a right shoulder injury and three broken ribs. Sue’s left leg was infected to the point that it was twice the size of the left. They say that Sue died of starvation. There are holes in her jaw caused by a deep parasitic infection that swelled her neck to the point that it could not eat.
This is not the story you expect. This monster of the Jurassic, this speed-driven, spring-jawed horror story is supposed to end in some epic battle for territory, like some deleted scene starring a very handsome Chris Pratt. This story is not supposed to be about some kind of finders keepers battle where, upon finally pulling the bones out into the open, we discovery that Sue was a broken old dinosaur that probably died alone of starvation.
This is not the story you expect. But it’s the story Sue got.
When I was in grade school, I told my parents I wanted to be a paleontologist. My mom had to look the word up.
- “The Urban Theme” — Maxwell
- “Trigger Bang” — Lily Allen (w/ Giggs)
- “Superbike” — Jay Som
- “Indian Summer” — Beat Happening
- “A Boy Named Sue” — Todd Snider
- “Cities in Dust” — Siouxsie and the Banshees
- “Better Days” — OCnotes
- “Done It Again” — Mutts
- “The Argus” — Ween
- “Rock ’N’ Roll is Alive! (And it Lives in Minneapolis)” — Prince
- “Want You In My Room” — Carly Rae Jepsen
- “Turn the Levels” — Kool Keith
- “Sister Cities” — Hop Along
- “Heel Turn 2” — The Mountain Goats
- “Love Rain” — Jill Scott (w/ Mos Def)
I was all in on dinosaurs, just as so many kids go all in on dinosaurs. But to me, they were the first major thing I could understand. I played with cars but didn’t understand how they worked; I read books but never once thought about how they were created. Dinosaurs, though. I got dinosaurs. A kind of understanding clicked into place, and I easily grasped the natural progression of species. It’s a bit of projection toward my past, maybe, to assume that I understood the base concepts of natural selection and evolutionary biology before I had even learned what those words meant, but my clarity toward the seeing and recognizing the differentiation of dinosaur species is as clear as my first memories of the Batman soundtrack: bold, exciting, electric.
And so that’s what I was going to do. I was going to be a scientist.
I stuck with it for a long time. I shifted away at times, sure, but every time I thought I’d given up the biology bug it snapped back: a visit to Idaho State University’s biology program when I was in grade school; a Spielberg film; the dual pronged attack of a classroom crush and an inspiring teacher in my high school Biology II class. Dinosaurs weren’t very cool anymore, at least before Jurassic Park caused a resurgence, but to me, at times, they were everything.
I ended up getting a degree not in paleontology, but in secondary biology education. I subbed for a while and hated it. Once again, I lost the plot, and those dreams I’d had of being a biologist or paleontologist fell away. They weren’t what I wanted anymore, and I questioned if they ever were.
I just finished a biography that was titled to be about Joan of Arc but really was about Yolande of Aragon. The two stories are troublesome, just as any historical biography from the Middle Ages is troublesome, because they’re pieced together through a combination of conflicting testimony and, in Joan’s case, a smear campaign that painted her as a witch. There is no reliable thread of truth for Joan of Arc, and very little is remembered of Yolande of Aragon.
Their stories live on in some way, but the level to which we understand the truth will never be uncovered.
There’s no reliable thread of truth for anyone born before technology caught every aspect of our lives. And even now — where media cycles fill the air with the breathy examination of the most mundane celebrity life details — there’s little assumption that our stories are accurate or real.
So while it’s amazing that we know as much as we do about Sue, in reality we really know nothing. No one really knows how Sue died, not really; even the most skilled scientists are piecing together her life through the clues left through history: some scratch marks, some mangled bones, some location and context.
But we have that story, and that story is sobering enough. Sue did not die as a champion, but sick and alone. Sue was not undefeated, a monster that laid waste to all before it; instead, Sue was flawed and broken, struggling to survive. Sue’s story might be as troublesome as Joan of Arc’s, but until now there was no canonization, no conflicting testimony, no smear campaign.
Instead, there was nothing. Until discovered, Sue just died and was forgotten, like hundreds of thousands of dinosaurs before, like billions and trillions of living things before. To see Sue is to see what we might become – lost for centuries, erased, forgotten, with the slim chance that you’ll be resurfaced to show off to others, your story assumed and your life rearranged.
I don’t like to think this way. I like to think of all we’ve gained by finding Sue, that knowing Sue’s story is an illuminating spotlight on an entire species of lost animals.
But the reality is there. Sue was sick, alone, and probably scared.
And then Sue was gone.
I didn’t cry immediately. I’d seen something similar before; Sue’s been recast a few times, and traveling exhibits bring the cast around the world. I’d seen it once in Faith, and again once here at home in Sioux Falls.
But it wasn’t the shape that caught me. It was the story.
Because after settling in for a few seconds, I remembered that this one is real. These are the actual bones; those are the actual scars, and those are the holes from the tooth infection, and that is the skull that had been pressed over time, the weight of the world literally reshaping Sue’s head as it tried to be forgotten.
These are the kinds of things I might have discovered, in a different life, where I’d have taken a stronger step toward paleontology. These are the actual bones uncovered in an actual field here at home, in South Dakota, where giant monsters once roamed and lived and died and were buried forever and ever, amen. Bones that had been kept hidden from us for nearly a decade even after they’d been surfaced, when just as Sue’s story was ready to be released it was snatched from us and held ransom.
We only have these bones, and that story. The story of a terrible monster who lived where I live, who moved through the same places I’ve moved, who wreaked havoc and fought competitors and tried to survive. Who somehow manages to represent my home while at the same time representing a path I might have taken. Who represents my fears of being forgotten.
It was in that moment, when the room’s narrator discussed how Sue died — starved — only to be found millions of years later and brought back to prominence, to become one of the most famous dinosaur fossils in the world, that I felt a sting in my eyes. The scars, and the land battle, and the lost dreams of being a scientist, and the sadness in dying alone … these are the things that hit me all at once.
I almost cried at a pile of bones. Looking back, I’m not sure why I held it in.