‘Titus’ the T. rex is coming to the UK this summer. Here's why it's a big deal

Nottingham's Wollaton Hall is set to host the first 'real' Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton exhibited in England for over a century. Here's what we know about it.

Few creatures have a silhouette so instantly recognisable as Tyrannosaurus rex – a remarkable feat given everything we know about the infamous dinosaur has been pieced together from ancient bones. One such specimen will be unveiled in Nottingham this summer.

Photograph by Freer Law / Alamy
Published 12 May 2021, 00:16 BST, Updated 27 May 2021, 14:09 BST

WHEN palaeontologist Craig Pfister unearthed a broken tibia amongst the ancient sediments of Montana's Hell Creek Formation in 2014 he knew immediately what he'd found. 

In the channel sands and deposits of these badlands – the erosion-scarred remnants of what was once an ancient coastal plain – Pfister had uncovered a piece of the most infamous predatory animal that has ever lived. One of a presumably few creatures that can be instantly named by any four year-old, or ninety year-old, by their full latin name. Impressive, for something no human has seen for real in an even vaguely lifelike state.  

(Related: this dinosaur is the most exquisitely preserved of its type.)

But to a trained eye, such drawbacks are no barrier to recognition. “I knew right away that I had discovered a Tyrannosaurus rex bone,” says Pfister, a commercial palaeontologist based in Wisconsin. “The broken tibia was easily identifiable. But I didn't know if it was just a random bone.” 

Pfister would be waylaid from further investigation with the discovery of another dinosaur on the same site – a triceratops, which would turn out to be one of the most complete and exquisitely preserved of its type. But three years later in August 2018, he returned his attention to determining whether something toothier might lie beneath. 

After carrying out a surface collection and drawing up a map of the site, he started to dig deeper. “I began probing, and soon discovered a part of the lower jaw called an angular. This is a very uncommon and rather fragile bone,” Pfister told National Geographic UK in an email. “With its discovery I felt more confident that I was excavating a legitimate specimen.” 

Images released by the exhibition team show bones such as this metatarsal bone (top) in situ at the excavation site in Montana's Hell Creek formation. A prepared bone with tooth in place (bottom) gives an indication of the dark colour of the skeleton.  

Photograph by Craig Pfister (top); Steven Dey, ThinkSee3D Ltd (bottom)

It was a tough dig. “All dinosaur excavations have their own set of unique challenges,” says Pfister. This one “was on a peninsula of very hard rock located in low and often wet area, that occasionally produced swarms of extremely tenacious mosquitos. The other downside was that the area had very little natural shade or protection so by the end of the excavation I was very weather beaten and perhaps a bit anaemic.” 

Evidently, the tenacity was worth it. The specimen was excavated, conserved – and bought. And this July, the Tyrannosaurus rex Pfister unearthed, christened ‘Titus,’ goes on display for the first time at Nottingham's Wollaton Hall. 

Keeping it real

According to the museum, Titus will be the first real T. rex skeleton to be exhibited in England in over a century. 

That's not to say there aren't a number of notable stand-ins and illustrious fragments. Many of the dinosaurs on display in museums are plaster or resin reproductions, including 'Dippy' – London's Natural History Museum's once iconically installed, now touring diplodocus. The University of Manchester Museum has a cast of 'Stan', taken from a 65% complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen discovered in South Dakota in 1987. However accurate and intimidating, neither exhibit is fortified with the bones of the original animal.

As far as real T. rex fossils in the U.K. go, Glasgow's Kelvin Hall was briefly visited by a particularly complete specimen known as ‘Trix’ in 2019. And perhaps unexpectedly, the bones of the very first specimen of the ‘tyrant lizard king’ – discovered in Wyoming by American palaeontologist Barnum Brown in 1900 – lurk in the collection of London's Natural History Museum

A fragment of the lower jaw of the first T. rex discovered, in 1900 by Barnum Brown. At the time it was classified as Dynamosaurus imperiosus; with the holotype Tyrannosaurus rex discovered and named soon afterwards, it would be later be determined as the same species. This fossil is today on display at London's Natural History Museum. 

Photograph by Album / Alamy

“We purchased it from the American Museum of Natural History in the 1960s,” says Professor Paul Barrett, Merit Researcher at the Natural History Museum. “Since then, various parts of it have been on either permanent or temporary display in a variety of museum galleries and other exhibitions.”

The part of the lower jaw of this specimen can be seen in the museum's dinosaur gallery, with partial restoration. “The rest of this skeleton is currently behind the scenes in our collections and comprises the other lower jaw, various vertebrae, ribs and fragments of the limbs,” adds Barrett. “It's not particularly complete  – about 15% of the skeleton – but it's historically important as it was actually the first T. rex to have been found anywhere.” 

Ironically given Pfister's trajectory with Titus, Brown had been looking for a triceratops when he found his T. rex – but in the case of the latter species, Brown's ship kept coming in. A second specimen from Montana followed in 1902, which became the species holotype. Soon after, the dinosaur was given its tyrannical name, and in 1908 Brown discovered an estimated 45% complete T. rex – AMNH 5027 – which today stands in the American Museum of Natural History.  

As for what constitutes a ‘real’ skeleton, the numbers can be deceiving as far as aesthetics go, as many of the bones that build the percentage are tiny. There is also the added complication that because a 'complete' T. rex has never definitively been described, nobody knows for sure how many bones it had; based on Chicago's famously resplendent ‘Sue’, estimates are around 380. Of the notable T. rex specimens, Sue is estimated at around 85%, Canada's 'Scotty' at 70%, and Brown's venerable holotype – currently in Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum – at a mere 10%. 

The dramatic 'Black Beauty' T. rex, housed in the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Canada. Discovered in 1980 in Alberta, and named for its dark bones – which Titus is also said to exhibit – despite appearances, this skeleton is only estimated at 28% complete.

Photograph by All Canada Photos / Alamy

The 'Duelling Dinosaurs' fossil – which preserved a small tyrannosaurus locked in combat with a triceratops – became the subject of protracted legal proceedings when the land on which it was owned became a divided estate amidst complex prospecting contracts. An attempted sale at Bonham's in New York in 2013 (pictured) saw the fossil unsold, reaching $5.5 million – well below its reserve. The tyrannosaurus is believed to be the most complete skeleton yet found, but the fossil has thus far remained unavailable for study. 

Photograph by Sipa US / Alamy

The now infamous, legally-beleaguered 'duelling dinosaurs' fossil – which reputedly shows a small T. rex entwined with a triceratops, as if in mortal combat – is believed to be the most complete specimen of the animal discovered. It has so far evaded detailed study due to failed sales, and protracted wrangling over its ownership.  

(Related: Duelling dinosaurs fossil could finally be examined by scientists.)  

Titus's secrets

Concerning Titus, as a privately-owned specimen that has never been exhibited before, his details remain under wraps until he is unveiled to the public this July. Here's what we do know. 

A pathology report on Titus by Dr David Burnham from the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum concluded that, once fully conserved, Titus will be near to 20% complete. The bones, and therefore the wider reconstruction are, according to Rachael Evans – Museums Development Manager of Nottingham City Museums and Galleries – obsidian black. Titus could therefore be aesthetically similar to a T. rex fossil named 'Black Beauty,' discovered in Alberta in 1980, which owes its glassy dark colour to mineral conditions in the surrounding rock.   

The skeleton heading for Wollaton Hall will span 11 metres from skull to tail, and also displays what is becoming a recurring motif in T. rex specimens: battle scars. The bones show, says Evans, “intriguing palaeopathological details recording traumatic events incurred during his life – including that of a bitten and healed tail.” These dinosaurs, perhaps unsurprisingly, were evidently scrappers: Stan the T. rex showed evidence of a broken and healed neck, as well as scars on its skull and damaged ribs, with Sue displaying fracture damage near the shoulder.

David Hone, palaeontologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, is part of the Wollaton exhibition team and told National Geographic that “the preservation of the bones we do have is mostly very good, and several of them are pretty much pristine and in absolutely superb condition.”

The excavator himself, Craig Pfister – who has found four T. rex specimens – considers the find one of his more significant. “I feel very privileged and fortunate to have made a number of world class discoveries,” he said in an email. “The Tyrannosaurus rex Tristan Otto, the Melbourne triceratops, and my first T. rex specimen which was later named King Kong are a few. Titus I consider to be one of my top five.” 

Privatised palaeontology

Opportunities to see fossils of T. rex calibre could become harder. Real skeletons of iconic dinosaurs have become big business – something which doesn't always sit comfortably alongside science. The western United States is blessed with abundant, ever-eroding outcrops from the right slice of time to yield dinosaur fossils – and the 2009 Palaeontological Resources Preservation Act states fossils found on Federal land require state-issued permits to excavate. Fossils found on private land, however, belong to the landowner. This opens up an array of opportunities, with ranchers keen to discover from what might be buried on their patch, commercial excavators keen to dig it up – and both keen to turn a profit. 

Montana badlands such as this, with heavily eroding, arid sedimentary deposits dating from the Cretaceous, are perfect prospects for dinosaur hunters. This image was taken in Makoshika State Park, which is federally owned – but many fossil discoveries are made on private lands, making the finds commercially lucrative for both landowner and excavator.

Photograph by agefotostock / Alamy

This is catalysed by an increasing (and increasingly lucrative) market, with the sums changing hands for dinosaur remains becoming ever-giddier. Stan, from whose skeleton The University of Manchester's cast was taken, recently caused uproar in palaeontology circles when the original fossil was sold to a private collector for $30 million. (Read: A T. rex just sold at auction – and scientists are furious.

Where commercial palaeontology becomes problematic for scientists is when fossils are whisked away into private hands before researchers can get a good look. The fact that these dinosaurs can move around the world, be on look-but-don't touch public display only – or simply disappear – means academic palaeontologists can lose the ability to keep accessing scientifically insightful specimens as technology and knowledge progress. It's another reason detailed casts of original specimens are grabbed at every opportunity, as well as 3-D scans of the bones. (This 130 million year old dinosaur just went digital. Here's how.)

The University of Manchester Museum's cast of 'Stan,' a T.rex found by excavator Stan Sacrison in South Dakota. The original fossil was recently sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for over £20 million.

 

Photograph by John B Hewitt / Alamy

“I have mixed views on the commercial fossil trade,” says Paul Barrett. “Conflicts occur where important specimens end up in private collections, never to be seen by the public or studied by scientists. For rare, important fossils, like T. rex... you could argue that if it weren't for these collectors, the fossils wouldn't have been found at all. But as prices often go well beyond museum budgets, and as different private collectors have varied outlooks on issues like research access, it can also lead to critical fossils disappearing from view.”  

Pfister, as a commercial palaeontologist who digs and prepares fossils for sale under agreement with the private landowner, walks a tightrope across this very issue. His website states that landowners receive a percentage of the sale, meaning relations between landowner and excavator are critical – which have on occasion turned sour when lucrative finds are involved. Pfister notes happily that the owners of the ranch where Titus was found are “some of the nicest and most genuine people he has ever met – making a good site even better.”

“With any scientifically significant specimen I try to find a buyer who will loan or donate the specimen to a museum for exhibit and-or study.” he says. “In this way all parties benefit.” 

In these instances, 'all parties' includes the public. As London-based collector Niels Nielsen, who owns the Pfister-excavated T. rex Tristan Otto, told National Geographic in 2019, “I like to work with museums... it allows them to put some spectacular fossils on display that they couldn't acquire on their own.”   

The power to inspire

As for Titus, his owner remains anonymous. And while it's not known amongst the wider scientific community how much it will be allowed to learn from the specimen, early signs are promising. The remains will be exhibited alongside 3-D scanned replicas and data about the bones and the excavation, which will remain a permanent part of the collection at the Nottingham Museums after Titus's 13-month residency is up. 

For maximum insight, scientists will likely want to also know the minutiae of the stratigraphy, specific location and orientation of the bones, and the context of the find. The organisers of the Wollaton Hall exhibition claim it will feature “a display that showcases all of the intricate details of the excavation itself” – but the specifics remain to be seen.

“So far it's not clear if there are plans for any related research on the specimen or more general scientific access,” says Paul Barrett. ”Hopefully more information on these issues will come to light once the exhibition opens.”

In any case, the opportunity to be in physical proximity to the creature that casts arguably the longest, scariest shadow in history – a painstakingly-built jigsaw-puzzle of a monster, made with genuine 67 million year-old pieces – will ensure specimens like Titus will always hold a power. Particularly when one estimate puts between 40% and 50% of T. rex specimens currently in private hands. 

All of which means the team curating the Nottingham exhibit are probably right to be confident. “There are only 17 T.rex available to view across the world that have been accessioned into museum collections,” says Rachael Evans. “Two key specimens recently available to the public have now been sold to private buyers – so for Wollaton Hall, being able to share this rare specimen with the public is incredibly important.”

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