Deep within the earth, Philip Currie found the 70-million-year-old clue that has helped him begin to unlock some of the mysteries surrounding the Tyrannosaurus rex - not in the canyons of the West, but in a rat-infested basement in New York.
What Mr. Currie found in the bowels of the American Museum of Natural History has led to the rediscovery of an important cache of dinosaur bones uncovered almost a century ago - and then lost.
Two weeks ago, Currie, head of the research program at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, announced that he had found the missing bones in the museum basement and had rediscovered the excavation site in Alberta. The seminal discovery has already shed new light on the way T-rexes lived and interacted, and it will doubtless give rise to debate on the meaning of the findings. But the story behind how Currie found the bones has gained almost as much attention as the bones themselves.
There had long been rumors that the American paleontologist Barnum Brown, working for the American Museum of Natural History, had discovered an important cache of the rarely found Tyrannosaurus rex near here in 1910. At least half of the museum's collection came from the remote area around Drumheller - considered the world's most concentrated source of fossil deposits - but no written record of the site's exact location existed.
Several months ago, when Currie was rummaging through the museum's archives - more than 2,300 miles away in New York - he came upon a key clue in the rediscovery of the long-lost bone site. There, in a specimen drawer, he found the bones for the complete foot of an Albertosaur - the massive older cousin of the T-rex. Realizing that he had found the fossils unearthed by Brown in Alberta 87 years earlier, he searched for a further clue, something to help him locate the site.
He found it in the museum's photo archives. A black-and-white panoramic photograph of the site was labeled "Albertosaur Quarry," and in it, Currie noticed a land formation that looked familiar.
In August, Currie and a team of researchers began their search. Three days later, they found it and were not disappointed by what they found. Since then, the paleontologists have unearthed at least nine dinosaurs.
"Chances of finding a full skeleton are not that great - let alone in groups," says Currie. "And because it's rare to find them, you tend to think of them as solitary animals. But now there is evidence that they may have traveled in herds."
The massive animals were as much as 24 feet long and stood 12 feet high. The composition of the bone bed suggests that the remains are almost exclusively from the T-rex family.
"All the animals are in the same state of decomposition," Currie says. "It tells you that these animals had to be there at the same time and also that they were buried at the same time. The implication is that they died together."
"By moving in packs, this shows there was social interaction between the animals," he adds.
Indeed, the discovery has generated led Currie and other scientists to new conclusions about how the animals behaved.
Because the dinosaurs discovered at the site were of varying sizes, evidence suggests that they may have hunted like lion prides. In other words, the youngest and fastest within a pack of dinosaurs might have culled old or young prey out of herds and driven them towards the older dinosaurs, which could do the killing.
The actual location of the site is being kept secret to prevent its disruption, although the remoteness of the area makes it unlikely anyone would come across it. Next summer, Currie will lead a team to carry out further excavation. A portion of the site will remain untouched for future paleontologists.