The Fed Rex Express

After spending the past 26 years of its 66-million-year existence at the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Bozeman, Montana, the iconic Wankel tyrannosaurus Rex has been moved to the National Museum of Natural History in D.C. last month – a 2,000-mile (3,200km) trip that received national recognition in the US.

Rancher Kathy Wankel discovered the skeleton while out hiking with her family near Montana’s Fort Peck reservoir in 1988, on land that belonged to the US Army Corps of Engineers. One of the most complete Rex specimens in the world, it remained in Montana until 2013, when the Corps agreed to loan the Wankel Rex to the Smithsonian for the next half century. 

In late April, the colossal creature’s carcass finally made its way to Washington D.C., where it will eventually live in a new $35 million dinosaur hall to be completed by 2019. But, shipping the T. Rex was not exactly a case for Priority Mail.

“In some ways, moving a T. Rex is as simple as wrapping it up, putting it in a box, and sticking the box on a truck,” says Jane Lee, a journalist with National Geographic. “But when the cargo is a 38-foot-long (12m), 7-ton (6.4 tonne), 66-million-year-old fossil, not just any box or truck will do.”

According to Lee, the first order of business was to dismantle the exhibit in Montana to take an ‘exit inventory’, where each bone was documented with photographs and written descriptions to ensure nothing would go missing. Once the inventory was completed, each bone was preserved with a special plaster jacket and wrapped in foam before being stored in one of 16 crates, ranging from about 70kg to 600kg in weight.

A security device named SenseAware was then attached to each crate to monitor the temperature of the shipment. “The cellular device transmitted data about the shipment’s location, and also monitored if the shipment was exposed to light as a security measure. Even after the shipment was unloaded from the truck, FedEx was able to monitor the location of the shipment and its exposure to light through output from the SenseAware device,” says FedEx spokesperson, Parul Bajaj – explaining that the system also created a geo fence to keep track of each package. The crates were then loaded onto a 53-foot (16.1m), temperature-controlled semi-trailer operated by FedEx Custom Critical, a branch of FedEx designed to ship unconventional freight. Each crate had to go in a specific spot inside the van to ensure maximum safety and to maintain the correct axle-weight.

“On its entire trip, the interior of the trailer remained at room temperature, as requested by the Smithsonian,” Bajaj adds – pointing out that if the temperature would have gone outside the acceptable zone for dinosaur bones, sensors would have alerted the drivers to readjust the temperature. In addition, the truck was able to adjust barometric pressure and humidity as well, according to FedEx. Finally, the husband and wife team driving the truck was tailed by a two-person security team all the way from Montana to Washington, D.C. in order to provide an “extra layer” of security.

“This was a first for us so we’re very excited,” says Bajaj. “We’ve shipped parts of fossils and even parts of the Titanic when it was going through a museum exposition, but never a full skeleton.”

In Washington, the fossil will now undergo a second inventory, plus an additional conservation assessment, where a specialist will check if there are any issues that need to be noted for future handling.

The curation and inventory will last until mid-October of this year. During that time, the public will be able to see the T. Rex bones spread out in a special ‘Rex room’. Ironically, the skeleton will be on the move again once everything has been inventoried. The Smithsonian will send the T. Rex to a company in Canada that specialises in creating custom cradles and supports for dinosaurs going on exhibit.

Lee: “Once the T. Rex comes back from Canada, its bones will remain in storage until renovations are complete on the Smithsonian’s new dinosaur hall, slated for a Fall 2019 opening.”

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