The 25th anniversary of the dig that uncovered the world’s biggest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton was celebrated at an event in Eastend that brought together participants from that historic event.
The evening program at the T. rex Discovery Centre on July 27 highlighted the scientific importance of the discovery of Scotty the T. rex, but also provided a glimpse into the many human stories and friendships that were part of the dig.
The event started with a slideshow presentation about the dig by Tim Tokaryk, who has worked at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for over 35 years.
There was a break for some refreshments and informal conversation, and during the second half of the evening some staff and volunteers shared stories and experiences from the dig. They were joined on stage by retired Eastend teacher Robert Gebhardt, who discovered the first pieces of Scotty in 1991.
Tokaryk, who is curator of vertebrate paleontology with the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and also adjunct professor of geology at the University of Regina, said afterwards it was special to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the dig with those who were there with him on the excavation site.
“It’s wonderful, because it’s been years if not decades since we last met and worked together,” he mentioned. “So seeing people come together, especially from other parts of the province or even New Brunswick, to celebrate all the blood, sweat and tears that went into getting this thing going has been really, really good.”
Scotty has been an important part of his career as a paleontologist, and he was there from the start of the discovery of Saskatchewan’s famous T. rex.
“It’s been a very long battle with that animal and being there from the beginning, I’m very fortunate to do that,” he said. “I feel prouder now for the stuff that I’ve been able to accomplish because of the T. rex, either directly or indirectly with the work and research on other things as well.”
In the early 1980s he skipped math class in high school to volunteer at the museum in Edmonton, and his goal from the start was to make a real contribution.
“I’m just so overwhelmed by the idea of learning, and what better way to learn than the discovery of this sort of stuff,” he said. “I wanted to make a contribution to science, in some ways alter it, in some ways better it, and the biggest footnote in there is the T. rex.”
Robert Gebhardt felt it was a great idea to have the 25th anniversary event for the dig, although he did not expect to end up on stage with the staff and volunteers.
“It's very different than a school reunion or a family reunion, because of the nature of the reunion,” he said afterwards. “It's digging fossils out of a hill and what happened during the years that it went on. It warms the heart.”
He was a science teacher with a long-time interest in fossils when he went out into the field with Tokaryk and John Storer on Aug. 16, 1991.
“We went out in the morning and we collected all kinds of micro fossils, like teeth of crocodiles and vertebra of fish,” Gebhardt recalled. “Then we had a lunch, and then later in the afternoon it was exploration time. We wandered out and they said let's go cover this area. … So we just wandered around willy nilly, and I looked down at the right time.”
He found a tooth fragment and a vertebra from Scotty’s tail. At the time he did not know it belonged to a T. rex, but he immediately knew from the size of the vertebra that it did not belong to a horse, a cow or even a bison.
“This was large, and so I didn't really know what I found, but you tap it and you recognize it's hard,” he said. “So I got a bit excited and I called John and Tim over and they took a look and they got a little bit excited, but you could tell that they were just holding back a little bit.”
Gebhardt said it is a nice feeling to be the person who did the initial discovery of Scotty, but he feels the real credit must go to those who did the work afterwards.
“I really do give credit to the people who put in the time and effort to do the dig, to carry out the dig, and to prepare it and get it on display and all that,” he noted. “I look at my role more as one of I happen to be at the right place at the right time with the right people, and I looked down at the right time. I could have taken one or two more steps and I would not have seen that.”
Tokaryk was only able to return to that location in 1994 to take a closer look at the area, and he then fully realized the importance of what was discovered.
“Robert found a couple of bone fragments that suggested it was from a T. rex, but it could be a site that has more than one species of dinosaur in it,” he said. “You just don’t know until you actually start removing the hill, and in August 1991 we weren’t prepared to open anything up. We didn’t have the resources. It was later in the summer. So we just left it.”
He came back to the site with Grant Schutte, who was at the 25th anniversary event. Tokaryk found the huge teeth still in the jaw of the T. rex, which meant there was some trapping mechanism holding them in place.
“That was the moment I knew right away that all bets were off,” he said. “This is something we have never handled before. … So within five minutes of finding the teeth and the jaw I went running around, I chain-smoked, I swore up and down, and I couldn’t focus for a while to figure out the next step, how do I get it out?”
The start of the excavation drew over 6,000 curious visitors to the site in 1994 and the discovery of the first T. rex in Saskatchewan made news around the world. The process to excavate Scotty and learn more about the 65-million-year-old skeleton took a long time.
“I think we were finished in 2002 at the actual site, but it was only about seven years ago that we finally finished pulling the bones out of the rock here in the lab as well as in Regina,” he said. “It was like pulling teeth. Paleontologists have said it usually takes about 18 person years to fully pull a skeleton like that out; and overall between all the time for excavating and all the time for preparation it did take us almost 18 years to pull this thing out.”
Scientists are still learning more about Scotty. Earlier this year a University of Alberta research paper confirmed that Scotty is the biggest T. rex ever found.
The discovery of Scotty had a lasting impact on paleontological research in Saskatchewan. In 1994 there was only a small provincial operation that consisted of Tokaryk and John Storer, who also attended the 25th anniversary event.
“With the added resources and the larger awareness internally within the government, we were recognized as a tourism feature, a good news feature,” Tokaryk said. “The discoveries we were making year after year, not just with the T. rex, but since the T. rex, are a significant benefit to the public image of the province. It’s emulated in the Canada Post stamp that featured our T. rex. The provincial fossil is a T. rex. So it raised the profile of interest of visitors to here as well as Regina of having the museum, having paleontology relevant in today’s culture as well as today’s science.”