NIU teams with Burpee Museum to bring world's top dinosaur hunters to Rockford

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Northern Illinois University and Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford are gathering together some of the world’s most famous dinosaur experts to discuss one of the most enigmatic creatures ever to roam the planet, the tyrannosaurus.

The scientific symposium, the first ever on the life and times of the fiercest predatory dinosaur, will be held over the weekend of Sept. 16-18 at the Burpee Museum and Clock Tower Resort in Rockford. Presentations and discussions will be open to the public.

Dinosaur-hunting stars making the trek to Rockford will include Philip Currie, one of the world’s top experts on tyrannosaurs, as well as a leading proponent of the dinosaur-bird link; Robert Bakker, who popularized the idea that dinosaurs might have been warm-blooded animals; Gregory Erickson, an expert on the growth rate of T. rex; Mary Higby Schweitzer, whose discovery of soft tissue from a Tyrannosaurus rex made world headlines earlier this year; James Farlow, a leading authority on dinosaur footprints and mobility; and Peter Larson, who excavated the Chicago Field Museum’s famous T. rex, Sue.

In all, about 30 top scientists from across the United States, Canada, Asia and Europe are scheduled to present findings at the symposium, which will be covered by a reporter from National Geographic magazine. The proceedings will subsequently be published in book form by Northern Illinois University Press.

“We have an extraordinary lineup of experts who will be presenting the latest, cutting-edge research on Tyrannosaurus rex, the largest carnivore ever known to North America,” said Michael Parrish, NIU’s chairman of biological sciences and resident dinosaur expert.

“An adult T. rex stood 20 feet tall, measured 40 feet in length and weighed about 12,000 pounds,” Parrish added. “It’s no wonder the creature has long held the fascination of both scientists and the public alike. The dinosaur has even starred in many movies, from Jurassic Park to director Peter Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong. But as this conference highlights, there is still much to learn about tyrannosaurs, although new research is making huge strides in our understanding.”

Parrish will be among the symposium presenters, along with NIU Professor William Harrison, Burpee’s Collections Manager Scott Williams and Burpee’s Curator of Earth Sciences Michael Henderson. It was Henderson, who is working on his Ph.D. at NIU, who led the 2001 expedition to Montana that discovered Jane, the Rockford museum’s now world-famous dinosaur.

In June, Burpee Museum unveiled a $1.3 million interactive exhibit hall featuring Jane’s skeleton and for the first time announced the dinosaur’s pedigree. Some scientists argued that Jane, remarkable in its preservation and skeletal completeness, was the first nearly complete example of Nanotyrannus, a pygmy version of the T. rex. But museum officials, NIU experts and other top scientists have concluded she is indeed a juvenile T. rex, having met an early death at the approximate age of 11.

“Jane has transformed our museum and cemented our relationship with NIU, whose researchers and students were involved in the dinosaur’s discovery and classification,” said Lew Crampton, museum president. He noted that NIU’s Parrish and Reed Scherer, a professor of geology who specializes in paleo-environments, are now members of the museum’s board of trustees.

“This symposium, with scientists worldwide coming to Rockford to present the most advanced research on Jane and on T. rex, is really a validation of the success of the joint research enterprise between the Burpee and NIU,” Crampton added. “This is a relationship that certainly will continue to blossom in the future.”

While Jane is believed to be the best example on the planet of a juvenile T. rex, some debate on her pedigree remains, as will be evident during the symposium. Henderson will kick off a discussion on her classification as a juvenile T. rex, followed by Peter Larson, who will defend the view that the dinosaur might be a different genus altogether. New research findings will be presented on a variety of other topics, including diet, rate of growth, locomotion and evolutionary history of Tyrannosaurus and its close relatives.

“This symposium is a huge step for the Burpee Museum, and we are proud to co-host with Northern Illinois University,” Henderson said. “On the weekend of Sept. 16th to 18th, we will be the center of the tyrannosaur universe. Cutting-edge research regarding these most famous of predatory dinosaurs will be revealed. The proceedings will later be published in a peer-reviewed volume, by Northern Illinois University Press, which should be a valuable resource for many years to come. This will be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these noted paleontologists under one roof.”

The symposium is sponsored in part by Community Foundation of Northern Illinois, Atwood Foundation, Gannett Foundation and NIU.

Tickets for the symposium are $79, with a reduced rate of $64 for students. The cost includes admission to all talks and lunch on both Friday and Saturday, plus admission to Burpee Museum on Sunday. Additionally, a buffet mixer will held at Burpee Museum from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 16. Cost is $25 per person.

To register or learn more about the symposium, call (815) 965-3433 or visit the Burpee Museum’s Web site at

From the Sept. 14-20, 2005, issue

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