Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Who is "Big Mike?" October 12, 2011 by Jean Conover • Published 10/12/11

Around the Montana State University campus and its Museum of the Rockies, there is often buzz about "Big Mike." Have you wondered who Big Mike is and how he came to his name?

Big Mike is the name of the bronze T. rex outside the Museum of the Rockies. He is now a Bozeman landmark. His story began in 1988 when Kathy Wankel of Angela, Mont., discovered MOR 555, a Tyrannosaurus rex, while her husband, Tom, was fishing on Fort Peck Reservoir in McCone County. On the side of a small knob that would have been an island when the lake was full, Kathy found three bones that she was not able to identify. She brought the specimens back to the Museum of the Rockies, where Jack Horner and staff identified them as parts of a T. rex arm. They were the first lower arm bones that had ever been found.

During the summer of 1989, a Museum of the Rockies crew went out to search for more bones of Wankel's T. rex, but wasn't able to confirm that the skeleton was preserved in the small hill. The following summer, a second team dug a few test pits, and found the skeleton. The specimen was excavated by a 12-member team from the Museum of the Rockies' paleontology crew and Horner, its curator, over the course of one month. The excavation was recorded by a great many media organizations, including NOVA, Time magazine and many newspapers. It came into possession of the paleontology collections as MOR 555.

When the Wankel T. rex was excavated in 1990, it was the largest and most complete T. rex specimen ever found. A slightly larger and more complete specimen, nicknamed "Sue" would be found later in western South Dakota. An adult T. rex would have been about 12 feet tall at the head, and weighed about 12,000 pounds.

Using a mold created directly from the bones, the skeleton was cast in bronze by Research Casting International of Ontario, Canada, in 2001, becoming the first life-size bronze T. rex in the world. The cast measures 38 feet in length, stands 15 feet tall and weighs 10,000 pounds. On Oct. 3, 2001, the bronze skeleton was dedicated to the memory of the late Michael P. Malone, MSU's 10th president serving from 1991 to his death in 1999. "Big Mike" was a gift to the Museum of the Rockies from its national advisory board and friends. ■