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Samson takes a bite out of history

OMSI's dinosaur exhibit includes a little mystery about mighty creature's life
by: L.E. BASKOW, OMSI’s Sue Wu, senior educator in science education, gets upclose and personal with the mouth of the museum’s new exhibit, a T. rex called Samson.

News flash: The Earth is old. The oldest known object is zircon crystal from about 4.4 billion years ago.

Traces of humans, contingent on one's belief in evolution and/or creation, go back a few hundred thousand years or about 3 million.

So, when one visits the new Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, it's fascinating to look at the big bone structure known as 'Samson' and its nearly intact head encased in glass and wonder what the heck happened with it - and, it's an 'it,' because paleontologists can only guess if it's a male or female.

'It's prehistoric CSI,' says Sue Wu, OMSI senior educator for Earth science.

Dinosaurs have been brought to life in books and television programs and movies, such as 'Jurassic Park.' A movie at OMSI's Omnimax, 'Dinosaurs Alive,' has been showing. A robotic exhibit, 'Walking with Dinosaurs,' will appear in Portland again, Feb. 24 to 28, at the Rose Garden. It's a good time to be a lover of dinosaurs.

Paleontologists the world over come to conclusions about dinosaurs and paint the picture - but even they know, without a time machine, it's all conjecture, which makes things fun.

Samson was discovered with its jaw sticking out of the ground in 1987 near Buffalo, S.D. - the 'Black Hills' - and unearthed entirely five years later. It was found on private land, and it has been in the hands of private owners only, with a private party purchasing it at an auction at The Venetian in Las Vegas in October.

Through a connection with the auction house, OMSI arranged for a world-premiere display of Samson for everybody to learn and wonder.

Dino-sized infection

The painted picture: Samson roamed in the late Cretaceous period of about 60 million to 70 million years ago, living near the North American inland sea before the western and eastern parts of the continent merged. T. rex bones have been found in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Colorado and parts of interior Canada, all near the prehistoric inland sea.

It was semi-tropical warm and dry (no polar ice caps existed then) with an uncertain mixture of oxygen in the air, as flowering plants and vegetation started to sprout higher and conifers dotted the land, Wu says. Samson feasted on meat, using its adequate speed - estimated at 11 to 20 mph, or up to 40 mph as some believe - to catch other animals, its massive jaw to get a grip and not let go and its finely serrated teeth to end its prey's life.

It could have squealed like a bird or roared like a lion, depending on one's imagination. Wu says because vocal chords are not fossilized, it's hard to tell.

Its skin was like a lizard's, covering its massive six-ton body and a 300- to 450-pound head.

Samson's life was not all about living free and scampering about through the vegetation. First of all, evidence from bones not on display suggests the poor fella hobbled around on a broken fibula. Bite marks are visible on its head. Several signs of bacterial infection are present on the head - on top of the muzzle with rough bone, at the point of the muzzle where two bones have fused together, at the back of the skull with rougher bone and through various pocket holes in its noggin.

A detective story

It's unknown whether the T. rex ran in packs, or just family groupings. Some bones have been found clustered together, others not.

Samson is the third largest T. rex unearthed, with 170 fossilized bones or 56.7 percent bone structure, second only to 'Sue' (73 percent) and 'Stan' (63 percent). Sue is at The Field Museum in Chicago, Stan is at the Black Hills Museum of Natural History in Hill City, S.D. Samson, as it stands at OMSI, has most of its tail intact, leg bones and feet, but other parts - hip structures, leg and torso bones -have been supplemented with cast parts. One tooth was found in its head, others scattered around it. There are estimated to be dozens of other T. rex found, but none nearly as intact as Sue, Stan and Samson.

If the bacteria infection didn't fell Samson, or change in climate and vegetation didn't put him down, maybe a big asteroid hitting the Earth did it (as scientists suggest in one theory about the extinction of dinosaurs). The two-foot longer Sue is estimated to have lived 26 to 28 years, and Samson, a mere 40 feet long, a bit more than 20.

Who knows whether Samson was the reproducing kind? 'Can't say for sure,' Wu says.

T. rex bodies came in two sizes - 'robust' with heavier bones and 'gracile' - and robust is thought to be a sign of being female. Samson is robust. Other scientists point to the presence of the 'medullary' bone in a T. rex, a bone similar to one found in breeding chickens, as a sign of being female. No sign of the bone in Samson.

So, 'it may be a male or a female not laying eggs,' Wu says.

Dinosaurs existed on all the continents, and roamed before the bodies of land split, with the earliest thought to be some of the two-legged variety on the land of South America.

'Walking with Dinosaurs' can bring the animals to life. But Samson was the living and breathing real thing.

'It's really a detective story,' Wu says, 'just trying to figure out what happened with this animal.'