Dinosaur wars

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



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Some scientists have come to view the Dueling Dinosaurs, asking that their visits be kept secret. But Goodwin, like Horner, refuses to look at the fossils despite their significance. “It is hard as a scientist not to want to see the material that is in private hands,” he says ruefully, “but you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Chris Morrow at CK Preparations, expecting controversy, sought advice from Peter Larson of South Dakota’s Black Hills Institute. Larson is a degreed paleontologist who straddles the commercial and academic worlds by both selling fossils and publishing on specimens in repositories. He’s been in commercial fossil sales for decades and was one of the discoverers of “Sue.”

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  • Montana Hodges
  • Jack Horner won’t even look at a commercial find like the Dueling Dinosaurs.

His many publications are accepted within the academic community, although Horner argues they represent a conflict of interest. Larson, who is working on his doctorate at the University of Manchester, England, says he is studying overseas because opinions on commercialism are not as extreme outside the United States.

Once Larson decided that the Dueling Dinosaurs provided “definitive proof of Nanotyrannus,” the topic of his thesis, he sought to ensure that the specimens went to a recognized repository. The study of fossils is subject to policies such as those laid down by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which publishes the premier dinosaur journal, Vertebrate Paleontology. The society’s code of ethics stipulates that specimens on which papers are published must be held in a recognized repository; they cannot be located in private collections where their future is uncertain. The rules are meant to ensure a specimen’s availability so that scientific conclusions can be verified. However, a lengthy approval process is needed before museums are considered repositories, and not all museums meet the requirements. The state of Montana has only one government-approved repository, the Museum of the Rockies.

Even Larson was surprised at the fossils’ bitter reception from museums. He had hoped to interest his alma mater, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Because he knew the school’s museum could not afford the dinosaurs, Larson offered to connect the institution with a philanthropist who could donate them. The response was peremptory. “SDSMT is not interested in obtaining the specimens by purchase or donation,” wrote then-President Robert Wharton to Larson, in a letter dated Dec. 16, 2011. (Wharton, who declined to comment on the correspondence, died in fall 2012.) Larson was shocked that the school would refuse a multimillion-dollar donation of groundbreaking specimens. “It’s almost like a religious belief,” Larson says. “It has nothing to do with reality or morality or anything else. How can you divorce yourself from private commerce? It drives the world.”

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