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Paleobiologist and Burke Curator Greg Wilson Digs the Past

“I wasn’t one of those kids who at three or four knew all the dinosaurs.” 

By James Ross Gardner December 23, 2019 Published in the January/February 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Greg Wilson with a mammoth femur, part of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture's vertebrate collection.

Image: Taylor Castle

In the summer of 2016, Greg Wilson was pickaxing in northeastern Montana, just as he has nearly every summer since the 1990s. This time, though, he led a team about to experience a first in human history. A look at a complete Tyrannosaurus rex skull in the wild. The most pristine ever found. Named Tufts-Love—after the two amateur dino hunters who first spotted one of its bones sticking out of the pale Montana dirt—the ancient carnivore now bares its serrated chompers at Burke Museum guests. Wilson joined the University of Washington faculty in 2007 and later accepted the role of curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke. His own research focuses on the small mammals that lived during and immediately after the age of the dinosaurs. But he’s always up for jawing about that T. rex. —JRG

I wasn't one of those kids who at three or four knew all the dinosaurs. I was much more into soccer. So my dream was to be in the World Cup, not to be a dinosaur hunter or paleontologist or anything like that.

But I was always interested in animals. I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and collected tree frogs and butterflies. My mother is Colombian and so we would go to the Colombian island of San Andrés in the Caribbean, where my grandfather had a big farm and [my older brother and I] collected lizards and crabs, things like that.

I liked mysteries a lot. Books like Encyclopedia Brown, where you try to solve the mystery.

Before grad school, I joined my brother and his University of Chicago professor, an Indiana Jones–type character who led these four-month expeditions to the Sahara Desert, to Niger.

I remember the smells and everything about it. The desert being like an ocean of dunes and [the heat] up to 120 degrees. Campfires at night. Warm beer. Figuring problems out in the field. Like, how do you get a dinosaur bone with a plaster jacket around it that weighs two thousand pounds into the back of a truck bed?

Flying into Seattle [for the job interview at the University of Washington] I looked out the window. Saw all the green. I was saying to myself, Just don’t screw this up, don’t screw this up. Because it was clear this was the place I wanted to be.

The first T. rex ever discovered was discovered in Garfield County [Montana] and the second one was in McCone County. These two adjacent counties have produced probably 80 to 90 percent of all T. rex ever found in the world.

That part of Montana just gets into your blood. Like the people out there, the ranchers.

You sit down and have some iced tea with them, discuss what you’re up to and how you’re not going to sell the fossils and make a bunch of money off it. They know every summer to expect a flood of what they call “bone diggers” to come into their town. Some summers I bring up to a hundred people.

The T. rex skull we’ve collected, we know precisely where it falls in the geological formation. So we can tell you that about 66.3 million years ago it lived and died.

I study the first one million to two million years after the mass extinction event that wiped out 75 percent of all life. That in itself is important for understanding how we came to be. But it’s also important to look to the past to understand what’s coming.

The oldest [T. rex ever found was] about maybe 30 to 40 years old. And this one seems to be about 19 to 21. So maybe it died doing something stupid.

Image: Taylor Castle

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