The Man Who Assembles T. rexes for Museums 

Thursday, Feb 10 2011

It's a scene that would have played out 66 million years ago ... maybe. Three tyrannosaurs — a teenager, a juvenile and a baby — circle hungrily around a duck-billed dinosaur. You can practically hear the dinner bell clanging: Feeding time. Dig in.

Actually, you have to squint to see the duck-bill because it isn't on the scene yet. Instead there's just an empty spot where its carcass will go, since this diorama, the centerpiece of the Natural History Museum's brand-new dinosaur experience, isn't quite finished.

When it's done, it will be a huge deal. No one else in the world has a baby T. rex, much less a "growth series" depicting the infamous carnivore at three stages of life. To get the scene right, the museum called in Phil Fraley, the go-to guy for dinosaur articulation.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Dr. Luis Chiappe

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Dinosaur what?

Fraley gets asked that a lot.

Let's say you have a couple of tyrannosaurs lying around. Maybe you've had them since the 1960s, taking up space in storage, as the NHM did. Maybe, again like the NHM, your paleontologists recently unearthed another one, a teenager (Thomas) in Montana. When you've finally got them cleaned and ready for people to see, someone has to physically set up the bones. Someone has to determine the poses, create the massive metal armatures that cradle each bone, fabricate the mounts, make sure the entire structure is seismically sound — Los Angeles is earthquake territory, after all — relate it to the gallery's architecture and otherwise deal with the myriad problems of showcasing these ancient creatures in a modern public forum. Enter the articulator.

"One of my favorite views is right here," Fraley says, a few months before the exhibit is to open. He walks around the display and peers out from between the biggest T. rex's legs. From this angle, the juvenile and baby appear to snap at each other. "See the drama there?" he asks, then walks a few more feet. "Then see the three skulls?"

Theoretically he could have put them in practically any arrangement — sleeping, playing, mating, fighting, doing whatever it is that dinosaurs do and maybe even some things they don't (tyrannosaurs watching television, anyone?). It begs the question: What do dinosaurs do?

For the NHM, "It was always gonna be them eating something," Fraley says.

But there was a time in the field of dinosaur articulation when people were in the habit of making the specimens stand side by side by side, in a way they almost certainly never would have been found in nature. "They used to be mounted in static poses because the animals were so new," Fraley explains. "It made it easier for scientists to study them."

Now they're presented in a way that stimulates the imagination. Now it's about creating a sense of drama. "They are presented in such a way that suggests they existed this way, here, in the United States, even in Los Angeles County, for God's sake," he continues.

Or, not. At least not T. rex.

"Los Angeles was largely underwater when this animal was alive," says Luis Chiappe, director of the museum's Dinosaur Institute. Chiappe was hired by the NHM a decade ago to revamp its dino program. He gazes up at the three tyrannosaurs like a proud papa. To this day he remembers the awe he felt crouching over the dig site in Montana, seeing Thomas' teeth nestled inside the skull. Some of the teeth were more than a foot long.

Fraley has reason to be proud, too. He articulated Sue in Chicago's Field Museum, for starters. Sue is generally regarded as the world's No. 1 most complete T. rex. Personally, Chiappe doesn't believe in numerical rankings — who is first, second, third. How do you measure? By percentage of real bone to fake bone?

If you had to assign rankings, though, the dinosaurs at the Field, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh would be on the short list. Fraley articulated them all.

"People ask me which is my favorite. I say, 'My next one.' "

Judgments of how dinosaurs should be displayed are scientific, but they're also aesthetic. It's not as if we can nip out into the bush to check. There is a lot of room for interpretation.

Take the baby, for instance. Only a portion of its snout is true fossilized bone. The rest of the skeleton was sculpted by an artist based on interpolations of what a baby T. rex would look like given a growth-rate graph plotting all the known T. rex skeletons in the world.

Or consider dinosaur posture. T. rexes used to be shown standing upright, like Godzilla, their tiny arms waggling in the air. Now they're shown horizontally to reflect our most current understanding of their hunting behavior.

Dinosaur dioramas are "an interpretation of what science knows," Fraley says. "It's not, we're right, or we're wrong. It's the best human beings can offer in this moment in time."

The most successful displays elicit from the public the questions scientists want to answer. Was T. rex a scavenger or a hunter? Were they solitary creatures, traveling by themselves? How do they relate as a family unit? Did the juvenile find the duck-billed carcass, or did he stalk and kill it? Will the juvenile allow the baby access to the food? Or chase it away?

"We don't know," Fraley says. "These are speculations."

Careful observers will note that Thomas' ribs are bent and misshapen, and that the ball of his right femur is broken away. Rather than fill it in, Chiappe and Fraley left it as is. If Chiappe is like a dino dad, then Fraley is dino mom, cherishing even their imperfections. To Fraley, the distortions that occurred over millennia are what give the bones their beauty and authenticity.

"See how straight the scapula is?" he asks, pointing, a soft look in his eyes. "That's because of the compression of the Earth."

In his 30 years of building museum exhibits, Fraley has done stegosaurs and allosaurs and the apatosaurus and alligatoresque rutiodons and cute little icarosaurus. And that's only the dinosaurs. He's also modeled mastodons, schools of dolphin swimming through cross-sections of fake ocean, and Cretaceous fish leaping out of water to catch dragonflies in tropical rain forests. As with the NHM's T. rexes, Fraley's mounts are precise and arresting, and all seem to have, well, a great deal of personality. Yes, the dodo he modeled at a Singapore museum is generally regarded as the most accurate dodo model in the world. But the real draw is the way he nailed the extinct creature's essential sadness: doomed, ineffable, with just a hint of humor.

His baby T. rex and juvenile don't have nicknames yet, but they will soon.

Someday Fraley would love to articulate a herd of sauropods. He imagines capturing the epic drama of scores of the giant herbivores migrating across vast tracts of land. "The idea is very soothing to me," he says. "But you'd need a huge space to do it."

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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