Dinosaur wars

One-of-a-kind fossils are unearthed in Montana–and shunned by scientists



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He says there is evidence that the dinosaurs dueled to the death in a fight so violent that the carnivore’s teeth were cracked out of its jaws. The fossils contain the “smoking tooth” of dinosaur behavior, demonstrating the way two species interacted, he says, and should be studied. “It is bizarre that strong opinions would be expressed by people who haven’t seen it,” says Bakker. “I went and I saw it. I didn’t believe that they were dueling. I didn’t believe that one had killed the other until I spent five hours with the specimens. And oh, yeah, they killed each other.”

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  • Montana Hodges
  • Robert Bakker is one of the few academics who supports the work of commercial fossil hunters like Phipps.

Horner and Bakker have been charismatic leaders in dinosaur paleontology for decades; each inspired a character in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movies. They also have a history of bickering over the prehistoric meal selections of T. rex (Horner sees it as a scavenger) and the identification of Nanotyrannus (which Horner thinks is a juvenile T. rex). But their perspectives on the Dueling Dinosaurs represent just a fraction of the larger, fiery debate about commercial paleontology.

Fossil sales fueled paleontology for over 100 years, beginning with “The Great Dinosaur Rush.” During those 19th century Bone Wars, two rival paleontologists—Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh—raced to find the greatest number of dinosaurs in the West, uncovering fossils themselves and also purchasing them from commercial fossil hunters. Today, if you visit the nation’s largest museums, you are likely gazing upon bones that were dug up by fossil hunters and then bought by legendary philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and George Peabody. But the rivalry between Cope and Marsh may have also helped taint the reputation of bone prospecting. In their haste to outdo each other, the two made mistakes—for example, Marsh put the wrong skull on an Apatosaurus and designated it a new species, Brontosaurus—and they were so protective of their digging sites that they’d hurriedly bury them afterwards, sometimes destroying other fossils in the process.

Some paleontologists believe commercialism still has an important scientific role to play, though, because digs are notoriously time-consuming, expensive and require significant manpower. Fossils need to be found and excavated at the rate they are being exposed to the elements so that they’re not lost, says Mike Triebold of the Colorado-based dealer Triebold Paleontology Inc., which often supplies museums.

It’s in the best interest of commercial companies to be stringent data collectors so they can sell to quality museums, Triebold says. He believes data collection by commercial operations can be superior to that done by academic institutions strapped by budgets and bureaucracy. “People that have those extreme views are preventing a spectacular pair of fabulous dinosaurs with a tremendous amount of science attached to them from going to a proper repository,” he says.

But a growing academic circle has increasingly shunned any fossil sales, says Bakker. “The attitude toward independent, and I like to call them independent collectors, changed. Now they were considered pirates, brigands and buyers.”

The change is often attributed to the much-publicized 1997 auction of “Sue,” a South Dakota T. rex that highlighted the monetary value of fossils. After 10 minutes on the Sotheby’s auction block, Sue sold for $8.4 million to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. The museum was able to acquire Sue only through the financial support of big corporations, including McDonald’s and Disney.

The legal fight preceding Sue’s auction included a federal court ruling establishing that fossils on private land were property that could be bought and sold. This exasperates scientists such as UC Berkeley paleontologist Mark Goodwin, who says fossils represent Earth’s natural history and therefore belong to everyone. “In the United States, there are still some things you can’t own,” Goodwin says. “You can’t own navigable waterways, you can’t buy and sell body parts, but we are (one of) the only developed countr(ies) on the planet that doesn’t have any regulation in regards to our fossil heritage on private lands.”

Shortly after Sue’s sale, Goodwin says, UC Berkeley got a bitter taste of what fossil greed can lead to when a T. rex jaw was stolen from its collection. FBI agents traced the jaw to Germany, a long journey that began after a student smuggled it into commercial hands. “At the same time that the commercial market is driving theft and the dotcom boom is going on, you have eastern Montana, where some of these ranchers are barely making a living and all they see are dollar signs,” he says. He’s dismayed by the asking price of the Dueling Dinosaurs, given that the National Science Foundation’s average annual budget for dinosaur research grants is about a half-million dollars. “I don’t have $9 million. And for anyone who does, it is just preposterous and obscene to ask for that much money.”

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