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70-million-year old fossil unveiled at exhibit
Paleontology teacher says find is 'unprecedented'
Brooke Forrester, back, and daughter Brianna Sanchez, 11, a sixth-grader, look at fossils of Tinker, a juvenile T-Rex, Thursday inside the “Footprints in Time” exhibit at the Museum of Inspired Learning at DaVinci Academy. The Tyrannosaurus rex fossils, and other fossil collections, are on loan from Steve Nicklas. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Tinker, the 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex now housed at DaVinci Academy's Museum of Inspired Learning, comes to Hall County with plenty of skeletons in its closet.

Tinker was found in 1998 in the Hell's Creek formation of western South Dakota. The skeleton, which is about 70 percent complete, is roughly two-thirds the size of an adult's body, but only one-fourth the weight, according to a news release from the Hall County School Board.

Tinker was found by amateurs, not by academics, said Steve Nicklas, an assistant professor of anthropology at Gainesville State College. This, he said, put the skeleton in a unique position for excavation.

Though Nicklas is an archaeologist, he dabbles in paleontology as well. About 15 years ago, he began taking people on commercial fossil-collecting trips. Through these trips he met Ron Frithiof, an avid fossil collector.

It was such a trip that brought Tinker to light after its discoverer saw an unusual area in a ridgeline of land.

"The guy who found it, Mark Eatman, had a permit to prospect on county land, so in case they found a fossil they would be OK," Nicklas said.

And then the county discovered the skeleton was that of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

"The county reneged on the permit ... they considered throwing everyone (on the dig) in jail," Nicklas said.

What then ensued was a yearslong legal battle where the county pursued criminal, then civil charges, against Frithiof - who bought the skeleton - and Eatman.

The two prevailed in the end, but paleontologists were wary of continuing the dig to find the rest of the bones.

"Because of the legal pedigree, no academic paleontologist would touch this," Nicklas said. "Half of it is still in the ground."

The way around that was for Nicklas, an archaeologist by profession, to take up the slack.

With the help of other amateurs, including some Gainesville State students in his classes, the rest of Tinker is being excavated.

Tinker is also important because of the evolutionary connotations.

Nicklas said the academic community is split on juvenile T-Rex development. He said some paleontologists believe that a dinosaur called the nanotyrannus is a juvenile T-Rex, but Nicklas believes differently.

"Even the bones and the teeth are different. The jaws of a nanotyrannus are very thin and the teeth like knives," he said. "With Tinker, we have a juvenile. I would have been able to publish it, but it hasn't been accepted because I'm not a paleontologist."

Tinker's skeleton was sealed for the last eight years because of the legal battles. It's a big deal for them to be unveiled at DaVinci, Nicklas said.

It's also yet another controversy, as some believe fossils should not be on display for the public — one reason why many "fossils" in museums are actually casts and not the real thing, he said.

Nicklas teaches a paleontology class at DaVinci, which is how Tinker came to be there.

The skeleton DaVinci visitors will see is not complete, as many of the bones still need to be cleaned and prepared for display.

"For one person to do a vertebra could take two weeks," Nicklas said. "You're talking years, especially if there's no funding."

Nicklas said the bones on display are "the coolest ones," which include ribs, vertebrae, 30 to 50 percent of the skull, claws, a tibia, a fibula, the humerus, scapula and parts of the pelvis.

"I think that it's unprecedented," he said. "We're years away from a mounted museum display. But it's the specimen itself that's incredibly important. You'll have world-famous scientists going to DaVinci to look at the bones."

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