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Three kids found an unusual bone hiking. It was a huge dinosaur skeleton

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When you go on a hike, you may hope for an epic view or a wildlife sighting. But what might you find just looking down at your own feet? Maybe a dinosaur skeleton.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

That's what three kids hiking in the North Dakota badlands were doing when they stumbled across an unusual bone a couple of years ago.

JESSEN FISHER: I've seen cow bones or - and horses' bones. We have a buffalo bone in the back of our truck, and nothing was the size of that.

KELLY: That's Jessen Fisher, who was 10 at the time. He and his family spotted the bone, so his dad sent a picture of it to an old high school friend, Tyler Lyson. These days, Tyler is a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

TYLER LYSON: Based on the bones that were exposed, the femur and the tibia, it looked like it was a duckbill dinosaur.

PFEIFFER: Tyler also thought that maybe, just maybe, the bone could also have come from a Triceratops or a Tyrannosaurus rex.

KELLY: They needed a permit to excavate the bone because it was on federal property. Once they got the permit, more than a hundred people helped dig up the dino, all hacking away at the ridge.

LYSON: And then we attacked the hill with all of the vigor that we had.

PFEIFFER: As they dug and revealed more of the skeleton, they still didn't know exactly what species they were dealing with, and Tyler's excitement started to grow.

LYSON: I sent some photos to some of my colleagues at different museums and asked, am I crazy, or could this be a T. rex? They're like, oh, no, I don't think so. It looks pretty ducky to me. Right? It looks like a duckbill.

KELLY: But then they hit something, and the tone changed.

LYSON: We're digging and brushing, and we're digging and - clink - hear a noise. And out pops this tyrannosaurus tooth. And I reach down, and I pick it up. And Jessen looks up at me, and he's like, is that a claw? I just sort of whisper, T. rex tooth.

PFEIFFER: Finally, exactly what they had been searching for and, scientifically, quite a significant discovery. It was a T. rex, a small one that Tyler and his colleagues think was a juvenile, and their skeletons are more rare.

KELLY: Well, and actually, some researchers don't even think these smaller dinosaurs are T. rexes at all but an entirely different species.

LYSON: The age-old question in paleontology - Nanotyrannus versus T. rex. And it's a fiercely fought debate.

PFEIFFER: Once they'd fully excavated the skeleton, which was encased in thousands of pounds of sandstone, a helicopter lifted it into a truck, and it was hauled to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. It was a satisfying but somber moment for Jessen and his family. Before they said goodbye, they gave the dinosaur a name.

KELLY: Yeah. They call it the brother.

JESSEN: Finding the T. rex and digging it up is - it feels like a brother to us other than it's dead.

KELLY: They'll travel to Denver to see the brother again when the new exhibit for the fossil opens on June 21. The museum built an entire lab where visitors can watch the staff extract each bone from the massive mound of earth.

PFEIFFER: Jessen looks forward to getting a peek behind the scenes and learning the ropes from his role model, Tyler Lyson. One piece of advice from this future paleontologist...

JESSEN: Put your electronics down, and go hiking.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK THE DINOSAUR" )

WAS NOT WAS: (Singing) Open the door. Get on the floor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.