- Society for Sedimentary Geology
Sue is the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton currently known. The 14+ meter biped dominates Stanley Field Hall at the Field Museum. A sea of people moved in on the day it was unveiled to the public in 2000, almost like a mob rushing the gates of a castle, the moment the museum doors opened. The crowds have diminished, but they remain crowds nonetheless.
That Sue drew public interest is self-evident, but it also caught the gaze of professional paleontologists. Sue was an immediate, if inanimate, celebrity; and large sums of money were involved in its acquisition. The controversy over its ownership, starting with its collection in 1990, seizure by federal agents, complex legal battle, and ultimate sale at auction boosted the specimen's notoriety (Fiffer, 2000; Larson, 2002). But it represented a species known for nearly a century—a species that surely had been the focus of extensive research. How much new information could we really expect? Was it worth the cost?
These are the most common questions I have been asked about Sue. This essay is, in part, a response to those questions. We absolutely learned new things about tyrannosaurids from Sue, but its real educational value comes from its taxonomic status as a cultural icon, the resulting media attention it acquired, and ultimately, the opportunity it gave us to present the scientific method to the public. Sue is a big T. rex. This naturally attracts dinocentric 5-year-olds, but adults also stand in awe as Sue's 5-foot-long skull stares them down. A wonderfully complete crocodile, bony fish, trilobite, or bivalve will simply not attract the same public interest as a tyrannosaurid, and any science we do with it can thus be done in the public eye.
This is also a set of observations made by a naive …