CASPER — Next to the Tate Geological Museum at Casper College, there’s an unassuming garage. Inside, there’s a 66-million-year old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton named Lee Rex parked in the middle of the room. It’s the only T. rex skeleton found in Wyoming that’ll be staying here for good.
But even Lee hasn’t found his final resting place yet.
“Wyoming has a long history of being a T. rex exporting state,” museum educator Russell Hawley says. “So we’re trying to reverse that trend.”
The first T. rex skeleton found in Wyoming lives in the British Museum, about 4,500 miles from its original habitat.
But Lee’s skeleton, found outside of Lusk, is staying in the same place he spent the Cretaceous Period roaming as a predator. Lee Rex has lived at Casper College since 2011, first in an unused truck bay in the career services building before getting his very own garage-like annex next to the Tate in 2016.
When visitors are in the museum, Hawley says he’ll walk in and offer to take anyone who’s interested to see the skeleton.
It’s predictably popular with kids, but a chalkboard crammed with signatures of people who’ve visited the tyrannosaurus shows the skeleton draws people from all ages and from all over. Everyone seems impressed by Lee Rex, Hawley said, but especially visitors from places like the East Coast, who are used to being separated from skeletons and museum displays by ropes, glass or strict security.
At the Tate, you still have to keep your hands to yourself (mostly — you can touch Lee’s knee with Hawley’s OK) but visitors can get up close and personal with the 66-million-year-old dino.
Free admission to the museum lets you see for yourself the hole in the skeleton that Hawley says is likely from a triceratops’ horn ramming into the T. rex. You can spot the orange tape marking where crocodile teeth were found with the skeleton, suggesting the carcass was at one time a buffet for other wildlife. You can count the dinosaur’s ribs and see the growth on its tailbones, which Hawley explains could be a sign of healing from a mating injury — which might suggest Lee is actually female.
The skeleton isn’t complete — only one T. rex has been found with a full set of bones — and Hawley says the missing pieces “could be in the Gulf of Mexico” for all we know.
His hands, feet and head would have to be constructed out of plaster and guesswork to make Lee whole. Because of that, Lee Rex won’t be getting the same kind of stand-up display that the museum’s towering Dee the Mammoth skeleton enjoys.
“Also, we want it to be in this position, because it’s very instructive for visitors to be able to see how the bones were found when it was discovered and dug up,” Hawley says.
The skeleton is too big to fit in the door of the museum in its current layout, and even if it did, Hawley says it might be too heavy for the floor.
“It’s actually a thin layer of concrete and a hollow space underneath,” he says. “We’re not 100-percent sure that it could support it.”
He hopes an extension to the Tate, or maybe a Tate-Werner Wildlife Museum collaboration down the line, could eventually give Lee Rex a permanent home.
That won’t happen for a while, but Lee is still available for visitors to see in his personal annex just outside.
Before the skeleton gets its final display, wherever that may be, Hawley says he’d like to see parts of the casing cleaned up and the rock polished down to make it easier to distinguish which parts are actually bone.
But for now, Lee Rex is in the care of a dedicated team of museum workers and volunteers, many of them retired, who offer their time to preserve and study the skeleton.
The museum and Lee have seen fewer visitors in the last year, thanks to the pandemic, but Hawley said traffic is starting to pick back up.
“I make the kids promise to be gentle,” Hawley says, “but then I let them touch it, then they can tell their classmates they touched a T. rex. They don’t let you do that at the Smithsonian.”
The first bone in his skeleton was spotted in 2005 by museum field operations specialist J.P. Cavigelli, when he went looking for a place to relieve himself during a dig (there’s a photo of Cavigelli reenacting the fortuitous bathroom break in the annex).
The vertebra bone was assumed to belong to a hadrosaur, an herbivore and one of the most common dinosaur skeletons found in the Mountain West’s fossil-rich Lance Formation.
In Wyoming, Hawley said, you find about 30 herbivores for every carnivore, and T. rexes are even more rare.
It took five weeks, a team of volunteers and a custom-built mount provided by Pepper Tank and Contracting to lift the skeleton out of the ground and transport it to Casper College.
Lee Rex’s casing still lays on top of that mount in his annexed home, where he waits for a resting place made just for him.