Kids Discover Extremely Rare T. Rex Fossil

12:07 minutes

On the far left, an adult man wearing a sun hat. On the right, three young boys. They are all standing in front of a large rock wall outdoors.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Curator of Paleontology Dr. Tyler Lyson and the trio of young fossil finders, Liam Fisher, Jessin Fisher, and Kaiden Madsen, who discovered the remains of a juvenile T. rex skeleton while out looking for fossils with their dad Sam Fisher in North Dakota’s badlands in 2023. Credit: Rick Wicker, Denver Museum of Nature & Science

For one family, a summer hike in the badlands of North Dakota turned into the discovery of a lifetime when they spotted a fossil jutting out of a rock. Two brothers, their dad, and a cousin found the fossil, and with the help of some dinosaur experts, they eventually learned it was a T. rex.

The fossil wasn’t just of any T. rex, but a teenage one. These fossils are incredibly rare—there are only a handful of them in the world.

Guest host Annie Minoff discusses this dino discovery and what it means for science with 12-year-old Jessin Fisher, a budding paleontologist and one of the brothers who discovered the fossil, as well as Dr. Tyler Lyson, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado who helped excavate the fossil.

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Segment Guests

Jessin Fisher

Jessin Fisher is a 12-year-old student from North Dakota.

Tyler Lyson

Dr. Tyler Lyson is Curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, Colorado.

Segment Transcript

ANNIE MINOFF: This is Science Friday. I’m Annie Minoff, filling in for Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, some people believe it’s only a matter of time before humans and machines merge. But is the singularity getting any closer? And ’tis the season for ticks and knowing how to check for them.

But first, for one family, a summer hike turned into the discovery of a lifetime. Two brothers, their dad and a cousin, were out for a walk in the Badlands of North Dakota, when they found a fossil jutting out of a rock. With the help of some dinosaur experts, they would eventually learn that it was a T. rex and not just any T. rex, but a teenage T. rex, an incredibly rare find. There are only a handful of these fossils in the world.

Here to discuss this dino discovery and what it means for science is Jessin Fisher, one of the brothers who discovered that fossil. He’s a 12-year-old budding paleontologist in North Dakota. It is so great to have you with us, Jessin.

JESSIN FISHER: Yeah, you, too.

ANNIE MINOFF: And Dr. Tyler Lyson is also with us. He’s curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, in Colorado. Welcome.

TYLER LYSON: Good to be here.

JESSIN FISHER: I’m going to start with you, Jessin. Can you tell me about that day when your family discovered this fossil? What happened?

JESSIN FISHER: So we went on a hike because my dad wanted to. He likes hiking. He and my brother were going to go up on top of the hill and just look up there. So I heard Dad call our names.

So I went up there and my cousin followed. The second I got up there, he asked me, what is this? And I said, that looks like a leg bone of a dinosaur.

ANNIE MINOFF: Wow. So can you describe what you were looking at? What were they showing you?

JESSIN FISHER: They were showing me this leg bone. It was about four foot long, and it was flaking at the top with some other bones here and there. But that’s all you could see. We took some pictures and sent them to Tyler.

TYLER LYSON: So Jessin’s dad, Sam Fisher, and I went to high school together. And several years ago, he started sending me pictures of he and his boys and his nephew out looking for fossils. And he’d send me pictures of them holding petrified wood and rocks and other things. And then in July of 2022, he sends me this picture of his youngest boy lying down next to the leg of this dinosaur, which was just awesome. I mean, what a remarkable find for Jessin and Liam and their cousin Cayden.

And many of the articles I’ve seen about this story say they stumbled on it. And that’s just not at all true here, because they were out looking for a dinosaur. And that’s what they found. And Jessin was able to identify it and then send pictures to me. And so that’s how I got involved.

ANNIE MINOFF: And so from this photo that you received, Tyler, did you know it was a T. rex just from the photo? Yeah, based on the photos, I could tell that it was a dinosaur, just like Jessin, just like he knew. And I could tell it was a large dinosaur. So really, the only dinosaurs that big from this part of the world are T. rex, triceratops, or the duck-billed dinosaur edmontosaurus.

And based on the knee joint, where the femur and the tibia were articulated, it looked more like a duck-billed dinosaur to me. And I sent the photos to a few colleagues to consult with them, and they agreed. And it wasn’t until we got on the site and when I actually saw the bones and the way in which it was flaking and breaking up into sheets of glass almost– that’s pretty characteristic of meat-eating dinosaurs. So I then started to have a hunch that it might belong to a T. rex.

ANNIE MINOFF: So take me to that moment where you had the aha, this is a T. rex. What was going through your head?

TYLER LYSON: Yeah, well, so we were out there, and we had a giant screen films with us. And so they were out doing a documentary on T. rex. So it was just a remarkable thing, the way everything aligned.

ANNIE MINOFF: All caught on camera.

TYLER LYSON: Yeah, it was all caught on camera. So Jessin and the boys, they lead us out to the locality. And then the film crew, they set some establishing shots. And so then Jessin and I are like, are you guys ready? We’re going to start digging now. And everybody’s like, yep, OK, go for it.

And so then he and I go to a certain spot and start digging. And we were digging in an area where I thought we’d find some of the neck bones, some of the cervical vertebrae, just the way in which the skeleton was laying in the ground. And so he and I were digging in this little hole, and we’re digging with awls, and we’re brushing. We’re digging and brushing, and then we hear a clink, and I brush.

And Justin gasps. And you can hear this on camera. And he’s like, what’s that? Is that a claw? And I’m like, I go, shh. And I brush a little bit more. And then we see three teeth staring back at us. And he and I like lock eyes. And I just whisper T. rex. And we both exclaim, we found a T. rex!

And it was an awesome moment because we had– we had a bunch of people out on the outcrop, 15 interns. Of course, the family was out there. Danielle, the mom here, she starts crying. I mean, it was just an emotional, emotional moment and just so much raw excitement. And what’s great is all of that was captured on camera. So it’s part of this documentary called T. Rex.

ANNIE MINOFF: Jessin, when you talk to kids at school and you say, I discovered a T. rex, do they believe you? Some did. Some did not. Most of them did not.

ANNIE MINOFF: They thought you were pulling their leg?

JESSIN FISHER: Yeah. They’ve already seen the trailer, though, so most of them believe me. Some still don’t.

ANNIE MINOFF: And, Tyler, why was finding a younger T. rex, in particular, so exciting to you?

TYLER LYSON: Yeah, there’s about over 100 T. rex specimens known. But most of those are just based on a handful of bones. That’s what makes up most of those animals. And there’s only maybe 30 that are relatively complete and by that, by 20% or 30% complete. And then of those, there’s only five or six that are juveniles, that are held and publicly available in various institutions.

And so they’re quite rare. They’re very rare to find a small tyrannosaur. And so while it would be really cool to have the biggest T. rex, scientifically it’s much more important to have a juvenile because it’s another data point to help determine whether or not there’s one tyrannosaur in this area during this interval of time or whether there’s two nanotyrannus and T. rex. So there’s a whole taxonomic debate there that this will shed some light on. And then also, if we want to understand how T. rex grew from a chick-sized animal into the around 8,000-pound beast that it eventually became, we need to, of course, have smaller individuals to see– you look at rates of growth, skeletal maturity, and other interesting questions like that.

ANNIE MINOFF: And what do we know exactly about the life of a teen T. rex? I assume they were angsty and preferred not to be seen with their parents.

TYLER LYSON: I think that is almost a guarantee. [LAUGHS] Yeah, I mean, they were sort of long-legged animals, these, again, awkward-looking creatures almost. They looked very different than an adult. An adult was very, very bulky. But the juveniles, the teenagers, would have had really long legs, much more gracile, likely ate slightly different things than the adults did and undoubtedly, like you said, were angsty and did not want to be seen with their parents.

ANNIE MINOFF: So, Jessin, I heard that you helped name this dinosaur that you found. What did you name it?

JESSIN FISHER: We named it The Brother because me and Liam are brothers, which makes up half the equation. And our cousin is such a close cousin that we consider him a brother. So finding this dinosaur is like adding another brother to the family, basically.

ANNIE MINOFF: I love that. And Dad wasn’t sore about losing out here?

JESSIN FISHER: No, he was not.

ANNIE MINOFF: Tyler, how did you excavate this fossil? And where is it now?

TYLER LYSON: Yeah, so the boys and I, we excavated the dinosaur. So they were there for the entirety of the dig. And so we first use picks and shovels and a 70-pound jackhammer to remove the overlying overburden, the rock on top of the dinosaur. And then we traded in those big tools for smaller awls and brushes.

And we carefully outlined the skeleton on the sandbar. Because this animal was buried in this ancient river system. And the bones that we have are washed up onto a sandbar. So we outlined what we were starting to refer to as the bone bar.

And then we just dug around it, dug around it, and then started to dig underneath of it. And then we encased it in burlap soaked in plaster, several thousand pound– or at least 1,000 pounds of a plaster to provide a protective casing called a plaster jacket. And we rolled this 6,000-pound jacket into a helicopter net.


TYLER LYSON: Yeah. So a little bit of a logistical nightmare or some logistical challenges– and so this was a very nerve-wracking day for me and my crew and maybe for Jessin and the family.

ANNIE MINOFF: So what was it like working with these kids for you, Tyler?

TYLER LYSON: Yeah, for me, this is one of the most special finds and excavations that I’ve got to be a part of, simply because it reminds me a lot of my childhood. And I roamed the same Badlands that Jessin and his family roamed. We grew up in the same town, a tiny town called Marmarth, North Dakota.

And I had really great mentors, growing up, that really pushed me to go into paleontology. And I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them. So I’m really, really happy that there’s other kids in the area, Jessin particularly, who’s interested in paleontology, and where I can help be a paleontological mentor. So I don’t know. For me, it’s the full circle of mentorship and particularly special.

ANNIE MINOFF: So, Jessin, do you think you’re going to be a paleontologist when you grow up? Or are you thinking more accounting? What are you thinking?

JESSIN FISHER: I’m most definitely going to be a paleontologist because it’s been a lifelong dream of mine.

ANNIE MINOFF: Is there a dinosaur that you’d love to find, now that you’ve found T. rex? Is there another one on your bucket list?

JESSIN FISHER: A bigger T. rex.

ANNIE MINOFF: A bigger T. rex.


And, Tyler, if someone wants to watch this documentary that was made about this discovery, where could they do that?

TYLER LYSON: Yeah, so this film is going out for international distribution. It’ll go out on over 100 cities worldwide on June 21st. And so it’ll be airing at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on June 21st. And on that same day, we’re opening up a new experience here at the Denver Museum that features Jessin’s find. So we’ve brought the dinosaur back, and we’ve built a whole lab around it. And guests of the museum will be able to come in and interact with the scientists and watch as they uncover more and more of the skeleton.

ANNIE MINOFF: Well, this is just an incredible story. And, Jessin, I want to wish you all the best on your future finds. Thank you, both, so much for joining me.

TYLER LYSON: Thanks for having us.

JESSIN FISHER: Yeah, thanks for having us.

ANNIE MINOFF: Jessin Fisher is a budding paleontologist in North Dakota. Dr. Tyler Lyson is a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado.

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