An artist's model of the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs based on the geographic placement of the fossils.

Selling an amazing dinosaur fossil could be bad news for science

By Riley Black

An artist’s model of the dueling dinosaur

CK preparations. Courtesy Bonhams

The dueling dinosaurs are exactly the remains fossil fans dream of. The dark bones of two dinosaurs that were buried together more than 66 million years ago are enclosed in huge clumps of light brown sandstone.

One of the fossils is a well-known triceratops with three horns. The other is a young tyrannosaurus, a likely cousin of T. rex, a rare representative of what the “tyrant king” was like in his lanky, clumsy years. There is no evidence that these two dinosaurs died fighting, but they have been the subject of paleontological gossip for a decade.

Now enough money has finally been used up to give the bones a home. Instead of a private bidder, a museum paid – probably millions – for the petrified duo. While paleontologists should be able to study the fossils, buying bones is a dangerous game, and it is not clear that museums should ever look for such specimens.


Commercial fossil hunter Clayton Phipps and his colleagues found the skeletons on a private ranch in Montana in 2006 and undertook the excavations themselves with a view to selling them in the future. Years earlier, a near-complete Tyrannosaurus Rex, nicknamed Sue, had been bought at auction for more than $ 8 million, sparking a commercial fossil boom that drove up the market value for dinosaurs.

The craze for the dueling dinosaurs began in 2011. Experts said the owners of the fossils were aiming for a sale to a national museum for more than $ 9 million. Not a bit yet. For example, the Duel Dinosaurs were auctioned off at Bonhams’ auction house in 2013, but could not reach the reserve price. It seemed as if the bones were floating – invisible to science because they weren’t in a museum, but far too expensive for an institution to afford.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has now announced that it has bought the fossils, although it did not say how much it spent. We don’t yet know what the dueling dinosaur fossil can tell about Cretaceous life, but I’m concerned that when combined with the record-breaking auction of Stan, a T. rex, earlier this year for 31.8 million US dollar sold we may see a price boom that will ultimately harm science.

The US does not treat fossils found on private land as part of its natural history heritage like many other places. A landowner is free to turn away academic paleontologists in favor of commercial fossil hunters who promise large payouts.

Paleontology often works on a tight budget. The millions spent on individual copies could finance research departments, doctoral students, and field expeditions for decades. A single department could find a lot more fossils and do a lot more research with the same fundraiser, but as of today, star specimens are more likely to attract both dollars and attention.

The problem doesn’t just affect the US. The burgeoning commercial market for price fossils is inadvertently driving black market sales, be it tyrannosaurs illegally exported from Mongolia or “blood amber” being sold in Chinese markets fueling the genocidal conflict in Myanmar.

Change can only occur slowly. Comprehensive legislation similar to the Historical Resources Act of Alberta, Canada, requiring finds to be documented and assessed by experts after discovery, could help. Right now, experts face the devil of either buying ethically questionable fossils or watching them disappear into inaccessible private collections. In the open fossil market, scientific desires often outweigh ethics. The glow of a tyrannosaur’s teeth is beautiful, but the petrified smile should say “buyers, watch out”.

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