Dueling dinosaur fossil sale may be bad news for science

Through Riley Black

An artist model of dinosaurs in duel

CK preparations. Courtesy of Bonhams

Dueling dinosaurs are just the kind of leftovers fossil fans crave. The dark bones of two dinosaurs that were buried together over 66 million years ago are encased in huge pieces of brownstone.

One of the fossils is a familiar with three horns Triceratops. The other is a young Tyrannosaure, a probable cousin of T. rex, a rare representative of what the “Tyrant King” was during his lean and awkward years. There is no evidence that these two dinosaurs died in battle, but they have still been the subject of paleontological gossip for a decade.

Enough money was finally set aside to give the bones a home. Rather than a private bidder, a museum paid – probably millions – for the fossilized duo. Although paleontologists should be able to examine fossils, buying bones is a dangerous game, and it’s not clear that museums should ever shell out specimens like this.

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Commercial fossil hunter Clayton Phipps and his colleagues found the skeletons in 2006 at a private Montana ranch and undertook the excavations themselves for a future sale. Years ago, a Tyrannosaure rex Nicknamed “Sue” had been purchased for over $ 8 million at auction, starting a fossil trade boom that began to increase the market value of dinosaurs.

The buzz around the dueling dinosaurs started to kick in in 2011. Experts say the owners of the fossils were looking to sell to a national museum for more than $ 9 million. Yet not at all. The Dueling Dinosaurs therefore went to auction at Bonhams auction house in 2013, but did not reach the reserve price. It seemed the bones were in limbo – invisible to science not to be in a museum, but far too expensive for an institution.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has now announced that it purchased the fossils, but did not say how much it spent. We don’t yet know what the Dueling Dinosaurs fossil will tell us about Cretaceous life, but I’m afraid this combined with the record-breaking “Stan” auction, a T. rex sold for $ 31.8 million earlier this year, we could see a price spike that hurts science.

The United States does not treat fossils found on private land as part of its natural history heritage, as many other places do. A landowner is free to turn away academic paleontologists in favor of commercial fossil hunters who promise big payoffs.

Paleontology often operates on a tight budget. The millions spent on unique specimens could finance research departments, graduate students and field trips for decades. A single department could find a lot more fossils and generate a lot more research with the same fundraising effort, but, as it stands, star specimens are more likely to attract dollars and attention. .

The problem is not just for the United States. The burgeoning commercial market for precious fossils is inadvertently fueling black market sales, whether it is tyrannosaurs illegally exported from Mongolia or the “blood amber” sold in Chinese markets that is fueling the genocidal conflict in the United States. Myanmar.

Change can be slow in coming. Radical legislation similar to the Historic Resources Act of Alberta in Canada that requires finds to be documented and appraised by experts after discovery could help. For now, experts face a devil’s bargain of either buying ethically questionable fossils or seeing them disappear into inaccessible private collections. In the open market for fossils, scientific desirability often trumps ethics. The glow of a tyrannosaur’s teeth is magnificent, but the petrified smile should say “buyer beware”.

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