A few days ago, Bonhams auction house in New York City hoped to sell a fossil specimen dubbed the “Montana Dueling Dinosaurs”. I say “hoped” because the Dueling Dinosaurs did not sell. The highest bid was $5.5 million which did not clear the reserve. Bonhams had estimated the Dueling Dinosaurs to be worth between $7 and $9 million.
The fossil specimen comes from the Hell Creek Formation of Garfield County in northeastern Montana. Clayton Phipps, a local rancher and commercial fossil collector, and a couple friends initially located the dinosaurs by finding a pelvis weathering out of sandstone. The fossil find was on deeded land belonging to Lige and Mary Ann Murray, who gave permission to excavate it. Phipps also enlisted CK Preparations, a commercial fossil collection/preparation company also located in northeastern Montana, to help with the fossil excavation. After three months of excavation, the fossil find was put into 4 plaster jacketed-blocks and moved to the CK Preparations facility.
The fossil find is potentially significant. It appears that the find contains two dinosaurs that are nearly completely articulated and are preserved such that they look as if they died while fighting. One dinosaur is a theropod (presently identified as Nanotyrannus), and the other is a herbivore (presently identified as a new ceratopsian).
As Heather Pringle noted in AAAS’s Science Insider:
Exactly how important the specimen is scientifically remains unclear because it hasn’t been fully prepared or thoroughly studied. But information provided by the auction house suggests that the carnivore resembles a specimen from Montana controversially identified by paleontologist Robert Bakker of the Houston Museum of Natural Science and others as a new species, Nanotyrannus lancensis, or pygmy tyrant. This animal looked very much like a Tyrannosaurus rex, but it was one-third the length and had more teeth. Other paleontologists strongly disputed this species, however, suggesting that the “pygmy tyrant” was simply a juvenile T. rex with extra teeth that would have been lost as it grew. The new specimen could help settle the debate. The auction house catalog also suggests that the herbivore half of the Dueling Dinosaurs could be a new Ceratopsian species, based on certain key aspects of the skull, such as a short brow horn.
As with anything potentially this scientifically significant, the Dueling Dinosaurs are controversial. The controversy is also ratcheted up several more levels because they were collected by commercial fossil hunters and then offered for sale at $7 to $9 million by an auction house.
The primary fear voiced by the scientific community is that the fossils will be sold to a private collector and the opportunity for detailed scientific study will be lost. However, the collector team and the landowners do have the legal right to sell the Dueling Dinosaurs to whomever they choose. Being a scientist, I can well understand the anguish in losing the chance for a detailed study of the fossils. However, many of us who live in Montana are not enjoying the life of the upper echelon 1%, so I also understand the need for making a living.
But it does appear that the Dueling Dinosaurs could yet end up appeasing most now involved in this endeavor. As Megan Gannon reported in Discovery News, Live Science:
“The story isn’t over,” said Thomas Lindgren, co-consulting director of the natural history department at Bonhams in Los Angeles, who put together today’s natural history auction in New York, which drew a crowd prospective buyers, curious onlookers and reporters.
“Behind the scenes, before the sale occurred today, I’ve had museums mention that they have difficulty coming up with funds this quickly, but should the lot not sell — which of course occurred — they want us to be in negotiations immediately,” Lindgren said during a press conference after the sale. “I’m very confident we’re going to find a scientific home for these dinosaurs.”
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