Sue Hendrickson is a self-taught fossil hunter. As a kid, Sue Hendrickson often walked with her head down. "People said, 'Look up. Smile!'" she says. "Now, I realize I was born to look for things and just didn't know it."
Sue Hendrickson does more than look — as a paleontologist and marine archaeologist, she finds valuable things: Shipwrecks with treasure, ancient sunken cities, and in 1990, she found Sue, the world's largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex. Is Hendrickson lucky? Well, maybe. But she also knows how to look.
Hendrickson starts with research. "I narrow down the area where I'm going to look," she says. No one knew the location of the sunken ship San Diego in the Philippines. For a year, researchers searched archives — papers, diaries, and ships' logs. "The testimony of the ship's sailors and cook led us to the wreck," she says. The team also used a magnetometer, a sensor that responds to metal. This tool found the San Diego's cannons and anchors.
All the work paid off: The 400-year-old ship was complete, with valuable Chinese ceramics, gold and silver coins, and even sailors'chess sets. "It was like a time capsule," Hendrickson says.
Big Bad Sue
To find the dinosaur she calls "the biggest, baddest carnivorous beast that ever walked on earth," Hendrickson started with maps made by geologists searching for oil. She identified areas of rock from the late Cretaceous period, when T. rex lived. Walking along those rocks, Hendrickson reminded herself how fossils are made. "To be preserved, an animal has to be sealed off from oxygen before it's eaten or decomposes," she says. "So I look for thin layers of rock, because thin layers were laid down quickly." Hendrickson's trained eye can pick out differences in the rocks. One dark-brown rock was the bone from a 67-million-year-old T. rex!
What Hendrickson found was the largest and most complete T. rex found to date. The T. rex is 42 feet long, with 200 bones preserved, including the longest T. rex tooth ever found — it's a foot long! Because the skeleton is so complete, scientists have been able to learn new things about the Tyrannosaurus Rex. For example, one of the bones discovered was Sue's furcula, or wishbone, which is similar to a bird. This supports the theory that modern birds evolved or are related to dinosaurs. This was one of the theories that was presented in the movie Jurassic Park. Other scientists were able to conclude that Sue walked at about 6 miles per hour and did not run faster than 15 miles an hour. Before Sue was discovered, they thought T. rexes were much faster. To learn more about T. rex Sue, check out the Field Museum in Chicago.
There's plenty left to be found, Hendrickson says, including answers to mysteries such as how T. rex lived. "I tell kids that they need to grow up and figure it out because all of us old fogies haven't yet!"
More About Hendrickson
To learn more about Sue Hendrickson, read her autobiography, called Hunt for the Past: My Life as an Explorer.