It’s showtime for T. rex.

The most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever excavated by the Museum of the Rockies is being crated up for shipment to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where it will be displayed as the centerpiece of a new $35 million dinosaur hall planned at the Museum of Natural History.

The fossil — called the Wankel T. rex after the Montana rancher who found it — will be shipped to Washington in October on a 50-year loan.

With the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History attracting more than 7 million visitors a year – twice as many as Yellowstone National Park – the skeleton is expected to be seen by more people than any T. rex in the world. The exhibit is scheduled to open in 2019.

“I think it’s great,” Jack Horner, Museum of the Rockies curator of paleontology, said Thursday. “We’ve got about a dozen T. rexes and the Smithsonian doesn’t have one. It was found on federal land and belongs to the people of the United States. It’s nice the Museum of the Rockies can share one.”

The Wankel T. rex was cast in bronze to create the “Big Mike” statue that stands outside the entry to Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies. It’s a favorite with visitors, who often pose for photos with the giant.

“We’re thrilled to welcome this extraordinary fossil to the Smithsonian,” Kirk Johnson, Sant director of the National Museum of Natural History, said in the news release announcing the agreement between the Smithsonian, Museum of the Rockies and Army Corps of Engineers.

“Only five or six museums in the country have full skeletons,” said Shelley McKamey, Museum of the Rockies director. She said the museum doesn’t own the T. rex, but is the repository for the fossil.

When the Bozeman museum became a Smithsonian affiliate in 2005, Horner promised to search for a new T. rex for Washington. Since then his crews have unearthed several partial specimens, but none quite like the Wankel T. rex, which is about 85 percent complete.

The 65-million-year-old fossil was discovered in 1988 near Fort Peck Reservoir by Kathy Wankel, whose family ranches near Angela and has a cabin at Fort Peck.

“We are thrilled that our T. rex is going to be at the Smithsonian where everyone can see it,” Wankel said in the news release.

McKamey said Wankel found some bones on an island when the water receded and brought them to the Museum of the Rockies for identification. They turned out to be the first T. rex arm bones ever discovered. Horner led the fossil’s excavation in 1989 and 1990.

For years the T. rex was displayed in the Bozeman museum’s Hall of Horns and Teeth, shown as if it were still in the ground, half-excavated by paleontologists.

Horner said the Wankel T. rex was one of the first fossils for which the animal’s age could be determined – 18 years old.

“It’s an adult. It’s not full grown but pretty close,” he said. “It’s definitely one of the largest T. rexes ever found.”

The Wankel T. rex was also the first that researchers looked inside for bio-molecules and found remnants of blood, Horner said. Mary Schweitzer, then working on her Ph.D., found heme, or the biological form of iron that makes blood red.

That led eventually to Schweitzer’s major discovery of soft tissue in the museum’s B-rex fossil and determination that B-rex had been an egg-laying female. The sex of the Wankel fossil is unknown, Horner said. It’s either a male or a female that wasn’t pregnant.

Asked if there will be a hole in the Museum of the Rockies’ exhibits with the Wankel fossil’s departure, Horner said it still has “three beautiful T. rex skulls.”

And next year the Museum of the Rockies plans to display “Peck’s rex,” a fossil that is about 80 percent complete and has a more complete skull.

“It’s one we haven’t studied too much,” Horner said. “We never know what we can learn from a new dinosaur. It’s always a surprise. It’s one of the great things about paleontology.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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