The U.S. Army won’t be opening its own park filled with living dinosaurs any time soon, but it is in possession of a number of long-lost friends who first graced our planet during the Triassic period approximately 230 million years ago.
Created by George Washington during the Revolutionary War and made a permanent body within the U.S. Army in 1802, the Corps of Engineers currently manages more than 8 million acres of land across the United States. It also owns, rather unintentionally, an enormous collection of fossils, including one of the most intact Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever found.
“The U.S. Army Corps has collections that span the paleontological record,” Nancy Brighton, a supervisory archaeologist for the Corps, told Atlas Obscura. “Basically anything related to animals and the natural world before humans came onto the scene.”
Life ... uh ... finds a way.
The aforementioned collection received its first boost in 1936 — almost by mistake — when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Flood Control Act, necessitating the construction of dams, levees, and dikes across the country.
Before construction could begin, the Corps was ordered to survey each plot of land, a process that, especially in the case of dam building, often exposed ancient fossil beds.
“I would say the majority of our archaeological [and paleontological] collections have come from the construction of the hydropower and flood control projects that happened in the 50s, 60s, and 70s,” Jen Reardon, an archaeologist with the Corps, told Atlas Obscura.
But it wouldn’t be until 1988 that the Corps would come into possession of one of its greatest artifacts.
That year, on Labor Day morning, Kathy Wankel, a hiker and amateur fossil hunter, was on a trek through Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir when she caught a glimpse of what looked to be a shoulder blade protruding from the sediment.
“The light was just perfect,” Wankel recalled in a 2019 interview with the Washington Post. “I could even see the webby pattern of the bone marrow.”
Wankel, alongside her husband Tom, had stumbled upon the skeletal remains of a T. rex, one that roamed the region some 66 million years before its kind terrorized Jeff Goldblum and devoured a man who spent his final moments playing hide-and-seek on a toilet.
The discovery was one of just eight, at the time, to have been unearthed since Henry Fairfield Osborn first described the species in 1905. About 50 T. rex specimens have been found since.
After spending nearly a year figuring out who owned the final resting place of the “Wankel T. rex,” members of the Army Corps of Engineers began to dig.
Over the span of several years, the team, which included paleontologists Jack Horner and Pat Leiggi, then the chief fossil preparatory at Montana State University, methodically excavated the earth concealing a 38-foot-long skeleton that weighed nearly six tons and was almost 90 percent intact. It was the first such specimen to have been discovered with the bones of its comically small lower arm fully intact.
Since 2014 Wankel’s T. rex has called Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History home. The Army Corps of Engineers, still the legal owners of the skeleton, agreed to a 50-year loan to the Smithsonian, where an estimated seven million visitors can see it annually — during years not beset by COVID-19.
Once displayed in its original “death pose,” a 2019 renovation to the museum saw the dinosaur stand up and stretch its legs the first time in 66 million years.
Today, the T. rex can be seen biting the head of a fossilized triceratops, which some speculate may have been the strong-willed Cera of “Land Before Time” fame.
“People can think he killed it, but maybe he just found it,” Kirk Johnson, the director of the museum told the Post.
“It’s best to be clear about where your knowledge ends and speculation begins.”
Claire Barrett is associate editor for Military History Quarterly and a World War II researcher with an unparalleled affinity for Sir Winston Churchill and Michigan football.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.