Dinosaur Wars

Startling, one-of-a-kind fossils are unearthed in Montana – and shunned by scientists.

  • Artist's conception of the "Dueling Dinosaurs" found in Montana.

    Eric Baker
  • A dog pauses at an eroded bone in the Montana badlands, where paleontologists say it's impossible to keep up with the finds.

    Montana Hodges
  • At the CK Preparations facility where the Dueling Dinosaurs are stored, Chris Morrow holds a tooth he and his partners believe broke off the meat-eating dinosaur in its death match with a larger herbivore.

    Montana Hodges
  • "Dinosaur Cowboy" Clayton Phipps, whose team discovered, then excavated, the Dueling Dinosaurs.

    Montana Hodges
  • Katie Busch uses her foot for scale next to the Ceratopsian foot, seen in its plaster cast and field jacket at the CK Preparations facilities, where the Dueling Dinosaurs are awaiting auction.

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

    Montana Hodges
  • Jack Horner, a paleontologist who won't even look at a commercial find like the Dueling Dinosaurs.

    Montana Hodges
  • Mary Ann Murray holds a triceratops horn that Katie Busch and Chris Morrow of CK Preparations turned up on her property, where the Dueling Dinosaurs also were found. Busch and Morrow are relying on small-scale prospecting on private land to supplement their income until the Dueling Dinosaurs sell.

    Montana Hodges

Clayton Phipps often spends his weekends rambling around the badlands of eastern Montana on foot and horseback. The landscape is littered with dinosaur fossils, and Phipps is seeking bones to sell. Mostly he finds fragments – a claw here, a tooth there, a skull if he's lucky. But on a bright summer day in 2006, near Jordan, Mont., one of his companions spotted a huge, chalky-brown pelvis weathering out of a sandstone canyon. Individual dinosaur bones are not uncommon, so Phipps finished his lunch before wandering over for a closer look. It was only when he saw a massive femur sticking out of the ground next to the pelvis that he began to suspect they'd stumbled onto something exceptional – perhaps an entire dinosaur.

As it turns out, that wasn't even half the story.

Eventually, Phipps, a rancher known as the "Dinosaur Cowboy," and his partners would uncover not just a single complete dinosaur, but two of them – carnivore and herbivore. Even more unusual, the two skeletons had been buried together, entwined in what looked like a death match. A find with great potential for paleontological study and education, the "Dueling Dinosaurs" became one of the highest-priced fossils ever offered for sale: $9.8 million.

Then the trouble began. Museums refused to host the fossils; scientists didn't publish papers about them. The dinosaurs haven't even been named, although it's traditional for fossil discoverers to do so. Seven years after their discovery, the dinosaurs are still stuck in stone blocks, clutching each other in a cold storage shed, waiting to tell a story that reaches back 66 million years to the Cretaceous Period. But though the bones are silent, another drama is unfolding – a story of ranchers struggling during economic recession, of warring principles and scientific feuds.

Robert Bakker, the Harvard-educated curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Science, believes the Dueling Dinosaurs hold one of the most important scientific stories yet to be told. Bakker, who is easily recognizable by his white cowboy hat and unruly beard, believes the carnivorous dinosaur will help resolve a longstanding controversy over whether the proposed species Nanotyrannus lancensis, a "pygmy" version of Tyrannosaurus rex, is merely a juvenile T. rex. He also believes its herbivore partner is a new ceratopsian species, a cousin of the iconic Triceratops, one of a group of robust dinosaurs with frilled skulls and horns.

Even more exciting, Bakker says, is the fact that the dinosaurs apparently died in gruesome combat. "It's a CSI story," Bakker says, "Cretaceous Crime Scene Investigation." The fossils could provide much-needed evidence about dinosaur behavior. And a museum exhibit of them could spark scientific interest in everyone, especially children – if the fossils ever enter a museum.

But because the dinosaurs were excavated by commercial fossil hunters rather than academic paleontologists, some researchers worry that they were collected without sufficient care or documentation and thus don't belong in a museum. Others think that even if the fossils merit serious study, it is in the best interest of science to avoid buying specimens. "Big museums like to have (fossils) they collected themselves so that they know what scientific information was found (with the specimen)," says Jack Horner, curator of Montana's biggest dinosaur collection, Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies.

No one has stepped forward to buy the bones, so this fall they're headed for the auction block. Auctioned dinosaurs sometimes find museum homes, but more commonly disappear into the lairs of wealthy collectors and investors, never to be studied. Only a special type of philanthropist would fork over millions for fossils and donate them to a scientific repository, so they can be described and discussed in peer-reviewed journals.

"If you like dinosaurs, and I do, and if you like fossils, and I do, and if you think that the reality of the Dueling Dinosaurs belongs to every fourth-grader in the world," says Bakker, "then you have to share my concern that they go to a good proper museum."

Mary McBee
Mary McBee Subscriber
Aug 22, 2013 12:41 PM
In reading this article, I puzzled about whether these fossil hunters can legally claim fossils they found on 'ranch lands' that are simply claimed re. grazing leases by the rancher, or whether the rancher actually owns all that land. After living in the west for over 30 years, it became obvious to me that when a rancher would say his ranch was '5000 acres or 20,000 acres, etc.'... often in reality, he just 'owned' the homesteaded far smaller acreage (usually around a water source)and then only had temporary grazing rights on the rest. If so, I'd think fossils found on those leased lands... regardless of found by whom... would still legally belong to the public.? Perhaps the author could respond?
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
Aug 29, 2013 09:26 AM
Hi Mary, here's a reply from author Montana Hodges: "Excellent question from the reader. They are correct, most ranchers lease land and may only own a portion. To answer the question, the fossils belong to the landowner of the deeded acres, the person who would have title to the real estate and not to the person leasing the land. The Murray Ranch does have a variety of leases but the dinosaurs were excavated from a deeded portion of their ranch. Hope that helps!"
James Kirkland
James Kirkland
Feb 27, 2014 09:23 AM
First off; I have been following this discovery for some years and think it is an important discovery. Additionally, I "think" that everything a scientist needs to properly conduct a repeatable scientific study, including visiting the site and significant levels of documentation of the excavation, would be available to an institution acquiring the specimens. However, the money involved is many times what I have spent (including salaries; when I got paid) aver my entire 40 year career hunting dinosaurs and I've had named 20 dinosaurs.

Only the largest institutions, are not in a constant fund raising battle to keep their doors open, let alone have a qualified staff paleontologist. In Montana, the big institution is Museum of the Rockies (thanks to bringing on Jack Horner). States like Wyoming, Idaho, and Arizona do not even have that. Utah has only had stable Museum-based paleontology programs for the past 20 years. I'm in a state research institution and my first job is not doing paleontology, but trying to raise money to do paleontology and to facilitate for our smaller museums. We have more dinosaur species and the most complete evolutionary record of dinosaurs in the nation and, sans China, the world. If the money used to buy their dinosaurs was donated to my program, I could excavate at least 25 new dinosaur species over the next 10 years, if not 50 new species!

Just to get across the difficulty in raising money to conduct exciting paleontology research; we have been trying to get the funds for a few years now to hire or donation of a heavy lift helicopter to lift a dozen plus Utahraptor skeletons (min. one adult, 3 juveniles, and one baby on edge of 7 ton block) off a high Mesa.
Basically, we have a pack or family of Utahraptors trapped in quicksand; with "Jurassic Park 4" coming out in a couple of years, what is sexier than that!

If you want to put up this kind of money; do you not want to get the most bang for your buck. I'll name a few dinosaurs after you and your friends!