Shimmying something as huge as Sue the T. rex indoors is not easy, even with the lofty ceilings and 8,000 square feet of ground inside Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Anschutz Gallery.
About two dozen sturdy replicas of the world-famous T. rex regularly tour the country, each of them measuring 40 feet from snout to tail, and 13 feet tall at the hip. Last week, arguably the most detailed, visually stunning one of the bunch arrived in Denver — albeit looking slightly different than it did for the last visit, given the new research that has reorganized Sue’s skeleton.
“The Denver area is plentiful with dinosaur fossils, and one of the reasons we wanted to get Sue back here was to show that Denver looked remarkably like Sue’s world 65 million years ago,” said Vince Morris, a Colorado native who grew up loving dinosaurs, and who is now an educator-performer at Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
If you go
“Sue the T. rex Experience.” Temporary exhibition running through April 25, 2021, at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd. Tickets: General museum admission required with timed exhibition ticket; $15-$20 for admission, plus $7-$9 for exhibition (3 and under free). 303-370-6000 or dmns.org
If any science museum is prepared to put Sue in context, it’s Denver’s, where dinosaurs are a longstanding pillar of interest.
Colorado Rockies’ mascot Dinger was named after a Triceratops fragment found where the MLB team’s dugout was excavated (now Coors Field in Lower Downtown), and DMNS’s own history of national media renown includes former staffer Scott Sampson leading live segments for the animated PBS show “Dinosaur Train,” an award-winning Jim Henson Company production. Dinosaur-themed tourism, science and entertainment can be found in nearly every major city in the state.
But DMNS is arguably the epicenter. Since its latest Sue the T. rex exhibition opened on Feb. 12, the museum can boast the equivalent of two Sues: the skeletal replica on loan from Chicago’s Field Museum through April 12 (when the timed, ticketed version closes) and an equally jaw-dropping, full-sized rendition of what the dinosaur may have looked like when it was alive.
The latter greets visitors — including my kids, ages 4 and 8, who were awestruck during a press preview — upon entering the roomy exhibition, its deadly jaws clenched around an unfortunate, dog-sized, duck-billed Edmontosaurus. The climate in Sue’s world — roughly the Badlands of South Dakota, where the world’s most complete, best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton was discovered in 1990 — resembled Northern Florida back then, as did much of what’s now Colorado.
The resource-rich, Late Cretaceous environment supported massive animals (Sue is the largest T. rex ever found) and a wet, fertile ecosystem that would look utterly alien to our modern eyes.
“If you have a shovel or a bulldozer, you have a good chance of finding a dinosaur or mammoth fossil around here,” Morris said as he looked at one of the most complete Torosaurus skeletons ever assembled — also here in Colorado. Sue’s arrival parallels new science being done at the museum, where researchers are investigating whether Torosaurus and Triceratops were separate species or simply different expressions of the same one.
Sue is the star, but the Colorado discoveries make it worth visiting in-person. Twenty specimens from the museum’s own collection are on display, including:
- The femur and a vertebra of the only T. rex skeleton ever found in Colorado
- Part of the Triceratops that was found at a construction site in Highlands Ranch in 2019
- The jaw from the Torosaurus that was found in Thornton in 2017
- The jaw of a mystery horned dinosaur collected from Leyden in 1975
- Rare skulls of armored and dome-headed dinosaurs never before displayed in the museum
- Crocodile, turtle and mammal specimens discovered outside of Colorado Springs between 2017 and 2019
The exhibition also features several safe, occasionally interactive components based directly on Sue the T. rex, such as floor-to-ceiling animations of Sue “tromping through their world, encountering other animals and occasionally letting loose an intimidating growl,” museum staffers said.
But amid the multimedia light and sound displays, the new science and copious educational context, Sue still reigns. Just being in her presence is humbling.
“Paleontology is one of the great sciences to get people excited about all the other sciences,” Morris said as my 8-year-old son admired Sue’s “belly bones,” which were thought to help the animal breathe — and which weren’t even there in her last visit. “For something as old Sue, it’s remarkable how our ideas about dinosaurs are changing all the time.”
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