UPPER TOWNSHIP — New Jersey soon could be home to one of the most popular dinosaurs of all time — Tyrannosaurus rex — and the fossils were found by a Cape May County resident.
David Parris, curator of natural history at the New Jersey State Museum, will lead an expedition to Montana in July to try to retrieve a T-Rex specimen his team began to excavate last summer.
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Upper Township resident Joseph Camburn, a state corrections officer and amateur fossil hunter, discovered the first bones in 2007 while prospecting in Montana with Parris and Parris’ son, Daniel. When the museum team returned last summer, the curator confirmed the fossils were those of the “tyrant lizard king” of dinosaurs.
“We prospect in new areas, look for small crumbs of bone eroding out. When you find that, you hope the fossils are in the early stages of eroding out,” Parris said.
Unlike some dinosaur skeletons that are found whole in the position where the animal died, the T-Rex skeleton’s bones were scattered. Parris said he is doubtful his team will be able to recover a complete skeleton, but it will try.
The fossils technically belong to the U.S. Department of the Interior but will be on loan indefinitely to the museum in Trenton.
The team found vertebrae, ribs and a shoulder. But the fossils that confirmed the identity of the dinosaur were the same ones that strike fear into vegetarian dinosaurs and schoolchildren alike — its ferocious teeth.
The state museum in Trenton displayed two of the dagger-shaped teeth this spring next to an enormous plaster reproduction of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull.
Camburn and his wife, Sandra, have made fossil-hunting trips with Parris for the last 20 years.
“David calls our home the New Jersey State Museum South,” Camburn said.
The couple’s basement is full of dinosaur bones, some still encased in plaster from their field trips. Everywhere you look, there are rocks embedded with ancient fish, prehistoric mastodon tusks and megaladon shark teeth the size of juice glasses.
The couple share a workbench, using dental drills to cut away rock from bone as they peer through matching magnifying glasses. They preserve the fossils in a solution made from Elmer’s Glue.
Land of dinosaurs
Joseph Camburn, 58, has been interested in fossils his whole life. Growing up in Commercial Township, he had few chances to explore his hobby. After the Camburns’ three children were grown, the couple started hunting fossils in central New Jersey. Soon their interest took them out west to dinosaur heaven — Montana.
Montana is where the mighty Tyrannosaurus was discovered in 1902. The state has capitalized on this claim to fame with the Montana Dinosaur Trail for tourists, featuring museums and excavation sites.
“Paleontologists come here to study the Hell Creek Formation,” said Shirley White, secretary at the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, Montana. The museum boasts one of the world’s best examples of a duck-billed dinosaur called a Hadrosaur — the state dinosaur of New Jersey.
“Dinosaurs gathered around the shores of the inland sea as it was receding. They got caught in the mud and that was their demise. We get experts from Los Angeles, South Carolina, Minnesota — you name it,” White said.
The T-rex bones recovered so far by Parris’ team were surrounded by droplets of amber — fossilized tree sap — with layers of rock embedded with the impressions of long-extinct plants. Also found nearby were the bones of an ancient turtle.
Parris said he hopes the dig will help him learn more about small mammals that lived alongside dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago.
“The oldest mammals are as old as the oldest dinosaurs but they existed in the shadows,” he said.
On July 25, 2007, the group was scouting federal land northeast of Yellowstone National Park in Carbon County, a vast area about one-quarter the size of New Jersey.
“You put your backpack on, get plenty of water because it’s 100 degrees, and start walking,” Camburn said.
His wife keeps a field journal of their finds, complete with satellite coordinates, compass readings and her own drawings of the specimens and dig site.
Camburn said when he found the shoulder bone, he turned to Parris.
“David said, ‘You know what you got there? That’s a T-Rex,’” Camburn said. He was elated.
“If I find 500 more dinosaurs, it wouldn’t be as good,” he said.
The couple has high hopes of finding a complete skeleton this summer during the dig in Montana. But the entire project could take years, he said.
The team will turn whatever fossils they find over to paleontologist Rodrigo Pellegrini, who catalogues them for the state museum. He said he is looking forward to working with the Tyrannosaur specimen, the second of his career.
“It’s very cool. T-Rex was always my favorite dinosaur,” he said. “Just thinking about it is enough to send chills up your spine.”
Pellegrini has an Indiana Jones poster in his office near a 6-foot plush dinosaur. Growing up in his native Chile, Pellegrini said the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs and movies such as “The Valley of Gwangi” inspired him.
“That movie had cowboys and dinosaurs. What’s better? The only thing it was missing was aliens,” he joked.
Exactly how Tyrannosaurus rex used those terrifying teeth is the subject of debate. Some experts think the dinosaur’s size and its sense of smell rivaling a turkey vulture suggest it was a scavenger.
Pellegrini disputes that. Crocodiles, lions and other predators routinely eat dead animals. But no large carnivore today relies entirely on scavenging scraps for its supper, he said.
More than any other dinosaur, T-Rex is a movie star, appearing in “Jurassic Park” and the original “King Kong,” among others. Despite its global popularity, only about 50 individual specimens have been found. Any new discovery is significant, Parris said.
“When you stop and think about it, it is in fact a very rare dinosaur,” he said.
Parris submitted a paper on the find to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology for consideration at its meeting this fall.
At the Field Museum in Chicago, a Tyrannosaur skeleton goes by “Sue” for Sue Hendrickson, the paleontologist who discovered the specimen in 1990. Camburn said the T-Rex they hope to bring back to New Jersey in July is named “Sandra Sue” for his and Parris’ wives.
“Yeah, I have a dinosaur named after me — and it’s a T-Rex,” Sandra Camburn said.
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