What's new with Sue?

Yak on the Road

Just for kids

April 26, 1999|By Patricia Chargot

What was Sue thinking? That's what the Yak asked when he visited Chicago's Field Museum recently to see the famous Tyrannosaurus rex.

The museum bought the world's largest, most complete T-rex fossil for $8.4 million in 1997. Workers are now cleaning and repairing Sue's bones, getting her ready to go on display in March 2000.

The hot news is that museum paleontologists, or fossil scientists, have a 3D image of Sue's brain.

The real brain decomposed 67 million years ago, of course, along with the rest of Sue's soft tissue. But the scientists were able to create a computer model using CT scans, or X-rays of vertical slices, of Sue's massive skull. When they put the scans together, they got a 3D image of the now-empty space where Sue's brain once fit.

What did the brain look like? A strange root vegetable -- a misshapen potato or a gnarly carrot.

"It was about the size of a tennis ball tube, but not the shape," said Bill Simpson, a museum paleontologist.

"It was smaller than we expected, but shape is way more important than size when it comes to intelligence."

Eight fossil preparators -- people who repair old bones -- continue to work on Sue. A fossil lab is like a dino dentist's office. Various tools are used to remove as much rock as possible. Then the bone is blasted with pressurized air and baking soda, removing the last rock bits. (Orthodontists use a similar method to clean the teeth of kids with braces.) Cracks are filled with a putty-like substance.

The preparators are also puzzle experts; they have to figure out how all Sue's 300-plus bones fit together. Incredibly, very few are missing -- only one arm and hand, a foot, a chest section and the last 18 inches of tail.

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