Young fossil hunters discover rare teen T. rex

Scientists will publicly prepare and study this unusual find over the next year

a simulated image of a T-rex standing on a outcropping and roaring at sunrise

An imagined adult T. rex from a scene in a new documentary about unearthing a teen skeleton of this species.

Giant Screen Films

It’s not every day you stumble across a dinosaur fossil. But three kids spotted one that could help science better understand the ancient king of beasts.

Brothers Jessin and Liam Fisher, and their cousin Kaiden Madsen, discovered a rare juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. They found it while roaming around North Dakota’s famed Hell Creek formation on July 31, 2022. The young dino they spotted had likely been between 13 and 15 years old when it died.

“It’s a kid’s dream. It’s a scientist’s dream, as well, to find significant parts of a Tyrannosaurus rex,” says David Wilcots. He’s a paleontologist who volunteers at the Academy of Natural Sciences. That’s at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa.

Dr. Lyson describes the fossil to the three boys who are all sitting on the rocks looking at the fossil.
Tyler Lyson (left) visited the dig site with the three young finders (from left to right): Jessin Fisher, Liam Fisher and Kaiden Madsen. The boys were 10, 7 and 9, respectively, when they made the discovery of a lifetime — the fossil remains of a rare teenage T. rex.Giant Screen Films

“I was completely speechless,” recalls Kaiden. He was nine when he and his cousins found the fossil.

The finding could help scientists understand how T. rex matured, says Tyler Lyson. He’s a paleontologist in Colorado at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Liam, who was seven at the time, spotted the dino’s leg bone while hiking with Kaiden, Jessin and his dad. The family took pictures of the bone and sent them to Lyson. Lyson then organized an expedition to dig up the fossil in 2023, nearly a year later.

On the first day of the dig, Lyson and the boys found the dinosaur’s lower jawbone and a few teeth. Those teeth helped Lyson determine that they had uncovered a T. rex.

The team also unearthed the shin bone that the boys had first spotted. It measured 82 centimeters (32 inches). They knew it belonged to a “teen rex” because the shin on an adult T. rex is about 112 centimeters (44 inches). Along with the shin and jaw, the team has so far uncovered the skull and some tail bones.

But the work on this fossil is far from done. The expedition crew dug the remains out of the ground but kept them encased in rock. That keeps the fossils safe until museum staff can remove and preserve them.

a screencap from the film showing the unexcavated fossil
Here’s part of the unexcavated teen T. rex. From nose to tail, the teen T. rex stretched 7.6 meters (25 feet), paleontologists estimate.Giant Screen Films

Watch the fossil cleanup live

The teen T. rex fossils and surrounding rock now reside at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. There, a crew will finish removing the rock and pore over the fossils.

If you’re in Denver, you can watch as this happens. Scientists will prepare the fossils in a public exhibit inside the museum. Their “Teen Rex Prep Lab” opens this week.

Fossil preparators are actively involved in research. “Preparing the fossils in public makes paleontology feel more real,” explains Myria Perez. “To be able to display that, I think, is extremely important.” Perez is a fossil preparator at the National Museum of Natural History. That’s in Washington, D.C. She didn’t take part in the teen T. rex project.

Do you have a science question? We can help!

Submit your question here, and we might answer it an upcoming issue of Science News Explores

For a scientist, it can be fun to work in public view, Perez notes. “You can see people pointing and excited faces when you are working behind the window. So you get to have these discoveries with the public, which is really cool.”

It will likely take about a year to uncover all of the fossils from the rock, says Natalie Toth. She’s the chief fossil preparator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

As for Jessin, the discovery has only fueled his desire to become a paleontologist. “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine,” he says.

A film crew went to the dig site along with the research crew. Watch a trailer for the documentary they made about the young T. rex finding. Beginning June 21, that film will play in more than 100 museum cinemas around the world.

Beginning June 21, 2024, select museum theaters will show a documentary on the teen T. rex discovery. University of Maryland T. rex expert Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. served as a scientific advisor to create scientifically accurate models of T. rex and its ecosystem, as did eight natural history museums and award-winning visual effects artists. Jurassic Park actor Sam Neill narrates.

Skyler Ware is the 2023 AAAS Mass Media Fellow with Science News. She is a fifth-year Ph.D. student at Caltech, where she studies chemical reactions that use or create electricity. Her writing has appeared in ZME Science and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing’s New Horizons Newsroom, among other outlets.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Fossils