Meet the Museum of Natural History’s newest guest: a T. rex

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WASHINGTON | Positioned in mid-kill, the Tyrannosaurus rex towers over the prone body of its prey, a similarly huge triceratops.

Even in simulation millions of years later, it’s a moment of unmistakable savage violence and an embodiment of the meaning of the word dinosaur: Greek for terrible lizard.

The massive skeleton is the culmination of a decadeslong quest by the National Museum of Natural History to acquire a rare and coveted T. rex skeleton. Until now, the museum, part of the Smithsonian network, got by with a replica skeleton, but Kirk Johnson, the museum’s director, says that was never satisfactory.

“It’s been kind of deeply embarrassing to be the national museum and NOT have a T. rex,” he said.

The T. rex tableau is now the centerpiece of the museum’s newest exhibition, the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils — Deep Time, which opens to the public on Saturday. For Johnson, it’s almost impossible to overstate the power and appeal of these extinct giants.

“Kids love dinosaurs in an almost pathological way,” he said, standing in the shadow of the extinct apex predator.

The museum just missed out on acquiring a T. rex back in 1997, when a nearly complete skeleton went up for auction. Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History finally won a massive bidding war for a staggering $7.6 million.

Over the years, the Field Museum has turned the dinosaur, named Sue after the explorer who discovered her in South Dakota, into a local icon and a cottage industry. Curators there have essentially built the skeleton her own wing, with a dedicated Sue-themed gift shop, her own Twitter handle and a multimedia presentation of her life story.

Johnson’s staff is clearly looking to build a similar phenomenon here. Even though the exhibit won’t open for several more days, an exclusively dinosaur-themed gift shop is already open for business.

After losing out on the Sue sweepstakes, the Natural History Museum got by for years with a replica named Stan. But a new opportunity arose in the form of a skeleton on display at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. This skeleton was smaller and slightly less complete than Sue, and the museum there had chosen to display it with the bones arranged as they had been found in the ground.

The bones were owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, which owned the Montana land on which they were discovered, and in 2014, the Smithsonian negotiated a 50-year lease. After being shipped cross-country in a specially outfitted truck, the bones were shipped again to Canada, where a team of specialists assembled the bones and attached metal frames and holders throughout.

Now the fully assembled skeleton of the T. rex — which, when alive, was 38 feet long (12 meters) and at least 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms) — stands at the heart of the new exhibition hall, which contains dozens of other skeletons ranging from a gigantic mastodon to prehistoric mammals the size of house cats. The exhibition seeks to tell the evolutionary story of the planet and its wildlife through mass multiple extinction events and the steady march of evolution. About 10 feet (3 meters) from the T. rex tableau, a metal statue of Charles Darwin sits on a bench, looking thoughtful with a bird on his shoulder.

In modern times, movies like the “Jurassic Park” franchise have helped instill dinosaur mania in a new generation of young fans. But the movies also recast the T. rex as a sort of massive meathead — dangerous but also a bit dim and with tiny ridiculous-looking arms. Meanwhile, the smaller velociraptors were presented as the true menace: sleek, intelligent and vicious pack hunters. But the T. rex still holds sway in the public imagination as the ultimate predator.

Johnson said scientists are still learning new details even now about the lives and physiologies of dinosaurs. Researchers recently concluded that the Tyrannosaurus rex actually had a second set of ribs called gastralia underneath, giving it a bulkier barrel-chested appearance.

Johnson described the predator’s physique as “more like a boxer than a basketball player.”