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This month we celebrate Saskatchewan's biggest resident and the world's largest Tyrannosaurus rex, Scotty, who was discovered 30 years ago just outside the town of Eastend near Cypress Hills.
On August 16, 1991, a local school teacher, Robert Gebhardt, joined Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM) paleontologists and other fossil enthusiasts on an expedition in the badlands around Eastend. That day, Robert uncovered a tail vertebra of a T. rex on a cattle trail along Saskatchewan's Frenchman River Valley.
The vertebra finding was followed by the unearthing of a piece of jaw with teeth still attached – led by the RSM's Tim Tokaryk – and then approximately 65 per cent of Scotty's remains. Much of the laboratory preparation of Scotty was done by the RSM's Wes Long, and it took nearly 20 years of hard work to extract the fossils from the rocks.
Wes Long, a volunteer with the museum at the time of Scotty's discovery, is now a paleontologist for the RSM, and he recounts being a part of the findings.
"Tim came back to the Regina lab with a tail vertebra and a couple of teeth and told us that we have a T. rex. Needless to say, there was plenty of excitement."
"The T. rex is without a doubt the most recognized dinosaur in the world. The discovery of a T. rex brings international attention from the public and researchers. Having the world's largest T. rex is a whole different level. It's something everyone wants to see. Not only is T. rex our provincial fossil, Scotty is the most complete T. rex skeleton found in Canada, and having the biggest T. rex in the world is the icing on the cake."
Scotty's discovery in Saskatchewan was more than just amazing to the paleontologists involved; the town of Eastend and the province of Saskatchewan bought into the hype of this magnificent finding.
After the news broke in 1994, the small town of Eastend (population 500) quickly mobilized to form a tourism authority that would lobby to have the T. rex Discovery Centre built and fundraise the millions of dollars required to do it.
The discovery of Scotty attracted people from all over Saskatchewan and the world, as all eyes were on Eastend in the mid-1990s. Visitors would come to Eastend for the T. rex Discovery Centre and find themselves amazed by the findings but also fall in love with the unique landscape and history of the southwest.
And, as Wes Long explains, the town enjoyed the worldwide attention:
"It definitely put Eastend and Saskatchewan in the international spotlight. The Royal Saskatchewan Museum set up a temporary fossil research station in the town of Eastend, and the town also ran tours from this facility out to the dig site. Thousands of people from all over the world went on the tours."
In 2019, Scotty, named after a toast with a bottle of scotch upon discovery, was declared the largest T. rex ever found by paleontologists. She was 13 metres in length and is estimated at an astounding 8,870 kilograms (19,555 pounds).
Dr. Emily Bamforth, an RSM paleontologist at the T. rex Discovery Centre (TRDC) in Eastend and life-long dinosaur devotee, first learned about the terrific beast in 2007 after making a trip to the TRDC while still a paleontology graduate student. She explains that the full-scale mount of Scotty was not erected until 2012, as it took almost 18 years to fully prepare the skeleton.
"I was truly amazed the first time I saw the full-scale mount. Although Scotty wasn't declared the world's largest T. rex until 2019, I don't think there was any doubt."
Dr. Bamforth joined the RSM team in 2009, spending five summers doing research for her doctoral studies at McGill University before accepting a full-time job, based out of the TRDC. Today, Dr. Bamforth is the "Scotty expert" at the TRDC.
"The most common question I get from the public regarding Scotty is if the full-scale mount at the T. rex Discovery Centre [and RSM] is made up of the real bones. The answer is no. What is on display, both in Eastend and the RSM in Regina, are casts of the original bones."
The original findings are kept in safe storage in the collections of the RSM. The security of these individual fossils is invaluable as researchers from far and wide come to Regina to access and study the finding.
Additionally, the fossils aren't light in weight, as Dr. Bamforth explains.
"Scotty's femur alone weights about 200 pounds. Using lightweight replicas of the original bones allows specimens to be mounted in dynamic poses, such as those seen in the TRDC and RSM."
The T. rex is known as one of the largest land predators that has ever lived on earth and would typically be found in western North America, as Dr. Bamforth notes.
"These animals are more commonly found in the United States, although this is almost certainly a reflection of the fact that people have looked a lot harder for [T. rex fossils] in Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas than in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Canadian T. rexes – like Scotty and Alberta's 'Black Beauty' – tell us about how T. rex populations may have changed from north to south."
Though our hometown T. rex Scotty was a special one, as Dr. Bamforth points out, "Literally everything about Scotty is unique."
Upon Scotty's discovery, paleontologists noted that Scotty's bones – especially her leg bones – were unusually robust for a T. rex. With this finding, paleontologists were able to suggest that this animal was uniquely massive in size when alive.
Another rarity found was that a T. rex of this size would be able to live so long.
"It was speculated, and later confirmed based on histological studies, that Scotty was a senior T. rex. At the age of its death, Scotty was at least 30 years old, making it the most elderly T. rex ever found," Dr. Bamforth says.
It is estimated that Scotty died naturally 300,000 years before the extinction of dinosaurs, and with no evidence of a life-threatening wound or a debilitating illness.
Although now in bone form, Scotty continues to bring smiles to the faces of individuals who come and see her, as this T. rex remains groundbreaking in the world of paleontology.
"Scotty is really the poster child – well, the poster grandparent – of Saskatchewan paleontology. Although the province has a long history of paleontological research, it is arguable that Scotty's discovery and fame brought Saskatchewan's fossil resources to the attention of the world."
"Scotty represents the potential of the provincial fossil records. Scotty is just the tip of the iceberg, and that is what I'm reminded of every time I look at it," says Dr. Bamforth.
The T. rex is now Saskatchewan's provincial fossil emblem. However, Scotty replicas don't only live at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and T. rex Discovery Centre. An exact cast of Scotty is also part of travelling exhibits based in both Australia and Japan.
Help the T. rex Discovery Centre and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum celebrate 30 years of Scotty's unearthing on August 16, 2021, with a visit to either location and marvel at this truly amazing discovery.
T. rex Discovery Centre
#1 T.rex Drive
Eastend, SK S0N 0T0
Royal Saskatchewan Museum
2445 Albert Street
Regina, SK S4P 4W7
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