T-rex skeletons Barbara and Peter attract more than a million visitors in New Zealand

Unprecedented numbers make Auckland museum exhibition one of the most successful dinosaur displays of all time

The remains of Barbara and Peter are on display until December 10. Photo: Auckland Museum
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About 1.5 million people have already visited the Auckland War Memorial Museum for a rare sighting of Barbara and Peter, adult male and female Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons. That's more than a quarter of the total population of New Zealand.

Visitors from the UAE and other parts of the world can still check out the show – touted as the most successful dinosaur exhibition of all time – which runs until next Sunday. “Not only have we seen visitor numbers equivalent to almost the whole of Auckland's population of 1.6 million come through the doors, but Barbara and Peter have provided a once-in-a-lifetime, educational experience for many, many thousands of schoolchildren,” said David Reeves, the museum's chief executive.

T-rex fossils are rare, with only about 20 on display in museums worldwide. The Auckland exhibition is even more notable because of Barbara, as hers is one of only three pregnant T-rex remains ever discovered. Believed to be 66 million years old, her skeleton is 44.7 per cent complete, and measures 11.7 metres in length and 3.4 metres in height. A pathologic study shows that she was almost certainly carrying eggs when she died.

Peter is considered one of the most complete T-rex fossils ever found, with 47 per cent of the skeleton intact. The hind limbs and entire pelvic girdle are fossilised, and the remains are believed to be between 66 and 67 million years old. It is also thought Peter was killed by another adult T-rex during a fight.

The dinosaur exhibition started last April, when an anonymous lender offered the Auckland museum the opportunity to borrow Peter's skeleton. The fossil was discovered in Wyoming in the US in 2018, and the Auckland exhibition is its world debut.

Barbara's skeleton came a bit later, joining Peter's last November, also given to the museum by the same mystery lender. This is the first exhibition to show a male and female T-rex at the same time.

The exhibition allows visitors to learn more about the specimens and the Cretaceous period. Both free and ticketed events have been organised to honour the dinosaur pair, including themed birthday parties for children, as well as augmented-reality scavenger hunts through the museum.

To further improve visitor experience, the museum has made public the preliminary scientific research on the specimens, undertaken by Dr David Burnham of the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum and Dr John Nudds of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester. Both experts studied the fossils in their university laboratories for months.

Reeves said there is “typically very limited data” supplied by museums to support such exhibitions, and that research is crucial for visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the mysteries surrounding the T-rex, providing insights into their origins, lives and even the process of finding and mounting fossil specimens.

The research, although not yet peer-reviewed, shows that each specimen has unique pathologies, such as an injury to Barbara's leg and marks on Peter's leg. Experts said that deductions can be made from these initial insights about the lifestyle of dinosaurs.

For example, how was Barbara able to live for a long period after her injury when she relied on walking or running on two legs as her primary method of locomotion? In the report, the experts write that if Barbara were totally immobile, “the only way to gain nourishment would require feed from a cohort”, which might provide some credibility to the idea of tyrannosaur group hunting. However, they also note that direct evidence of such behaviour has not yet been proven, so it is likely that Barbara scavenged for food on her own until her death.

“These reports are designed to encourage children and young people to learn about the extraordinary world of theropods,” said Dr Nudds.

On its website, the museum notes it is “not standard practice to share this much information when a specimen is being exhibited for the first time”, but adds that the team are keen to enhance the learning experience. The preliminary scientific report will be a “continuing process and most likely span decades, rather than years”.

Meanwhile, residents in Abu Dhabi were given a taste of a T-rex exhibition last year when the skeleton of a dinosaur named Stan was on display at Manarat Al Saadiyat.

The event was a teaser for the much-anticipated opening of the The Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi, set to be Stan’s permanent home, in 2025.

The 67-million-year-old, 11.6-metre specimen made headlines in 2020 when it fetched a whopping $31.8 million at a Christie’s auction. The fossil is 70 per cent complete and has one of the best-preserved T-rex skulls ever found.

Updated: December 12, 2023, 6:07 AM