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Dinosaur Wars

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

 

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."

Outside the small lackluster towns that dot eastern Montana lies rolling prairie occasionally broken by abandoned houses, wind-whipped sagebrush ridges and eerie patches of badlands. Thousands of these parched acres are required to support a family in the primary local occupations of ranching or farming. Garfield County, home to both Phipps and the Dueling Dinosaurs, has around 1,200 residents sprinkled over 5,000 square miles. Average household incomes are 30 percent below the national average, and people have been moving away for the last century. The population has decreased by almost 50 percent during Phipps' lifetime.

To a paleontologist, however, the badlands are a treasure trove. "Montana is the richest state, by virtue of having the highest number of different formations that are potentially dinosaur-bearing," says David Trexler, president of the nonprofit Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum, Mont.

Trexler grew up in the unincorporated hamlet of 31 people, and he and his family have spent their lives in the region. He left long enough to get a degree in paleontology, and his mother, an amateur fossil hunter, was the first to discover baby dinosaurs in Montana.

Eastern Montana contains wide swaths of the intensively studied Hell Creek Formation, a fossil-rich deposit of sediments laid down during the end of the dinosaurs' heyday, the late Cretaceous Period. Bones from the formation are constantly surfacing and eroding away, says Trexler, and there aren't enough academically trained paleontologists to keep up with them.

That's where the non-degreed fossil hunters come in.

Clayton Phipps has bright blue eyes and wears a Gene Autry-style neckerchief and black cowboy hat. The 40-year-old was raised on a sprawling ranch not far from the Dueling Dinosaur discovery. He always wanted to be a cowboy, although he never expected to become the Dinosaur Cowboy.

With his wife and three kids, Phipps lives in a partially remodeled home tucked away down a dirt road near a rare stand of pine trees. It is the home he knew as a child and the place he wants to raise his family. Their 1,100 acres might seem a kingdom to those outside Montana, but in this dry and rugged environment, the property is simply "a little too big to starve to death on," says Phipps.

Ranching proved unprofitable, so Phipps often worked as a ranch hand. He was introduced to the fossil business more than a decade ago during a chance encounter with a prospector who was working with a local rancher. Phipps knew the land well and saw an opportunity. "I had to supplement my income somehow," he says. "From the beginning, it has been my idea to propose to the landowners that value is there and they should be compensated for it."

The dinosaur fossil market ranges from unidentified bone chunks sold in souvenir shops, to identified teeth and claws, to complete skeletons offered by commercial middlemen, to carefully prepared museum specimens.  Buyers range from impulsive one-time customers to serious collectors and investors who think the value will rise over time. Phipps is a self-taught bone hunter, relying on books and the advice of other amateurs. As a child, he combed his backyard for arrowheads and other treasures. Now he focuses on fossils, scanning the ranches of the region, sometimes with partners, then splitting profits 50-50 with landowners. Although many ranchers tend to regard fossil hunters warily, Phipps has earned their trust as "the local neighbor boy."

"The (professional) bone hunters don't have a really good reputation around here, because a lot of the academics haven't done much for our community," Phipps says. "They've come in and said, 'Oh, yeah, we are going to study this,' then no one hears anything about it after they leave."

With proceeds from his first fossil sale, Phipps bought some cows. Then, in 2003, he discovered the world's most complete skull of Stygimoloch, a type of tall dome-headed dinosaur. That brought him the equivalent of a year's salary -- enough money to tend to his own ranch. His success inspired him to continue seeking fossils, often in the company of a friend, Mark Eatman, and later his cousin, Chad O'Connor.

It was Eatman who first glimpsed the Dueling Dinosaurs on the 2006 prospecting trip. Eatman had other dramatic finds in his past, including "Tinker," a Montana T. rex discovered in 1998. Still, the earnings from his carpentry job in Billings weren't enough to pay for excavating Tinker, and he sold the fossil to a commercial company while it was still in the ground.

O'Connor is a tall, strong-looking man with a limited range of motion due to cerebral palsy. During conversations, Phipps translates his cousin's slurred words. O'Connor says he went out dinosaur hunting for the very first time that fateful day, hoping to "find something that could change my life."

As the trio examined the bones they'd found, Phipps spotted cattle nearby and realized he wasn't on his brother's land, as he'd thought. The cattle carried the brand of Mary Ann and Lige Murray's 25,000-acre ranch; luckily, he had permission to prospect on their land.

Phipps told the Murrays about the find and they planned to meet once hay-cutting season was over. When they finally did so later in June, it didn't take long for the group to agree to start digging that day. Phipps was so excited, he says, that when it came time to break for lunch, he opted to stay with the dinosaur instead. By the time the others returned, Phipps had exposed nearly half a skeleton, using small hand tools. A couple weeks later, they had uncovered a complete ceratopsian.

As Phipps began excavating a perimeter around the ceratopsian block with a backhoe, he dumped his bucket and a large, sharp claw fell out. Ceratopsians didn't have claws. "Man, my hat went in the air," says Phipps. "Things were just going through my head like crazy, because here is this meat-eater in with this plant-eater, and obviously they weren't friends."

The claw led him to a complete theropod, one of a group of big-footed bipeds popularized in Hollywood movies (think Jurassic Park's velociraptors). This particular specimen turned out to be a tyrannosaurid that Bakker and others believe to be the controversial Nanotyrannus. "A theropod is something every fossil hunter dreams of finding," Phipps says. "It's the wolf of the Cretaceous."

Realizing the significance of his find, Phipps sought help from CK Preparations, a nearby commercial company run by preparator Chris Morrow and paleoartist Katie Busch. The CK team became stakeholders, and eventually the multi-ton blocks containing the fossils, jacketed in plaster, were moved to its facility.

"The matrix in the jackets is pure sand," Morrow says, "which is really rare for skeletons. This layer is about 17 feet thick of nothing but sand, with no vegetation in it. So a massive pile of sand was dumped all around these graves." Perhaps the animals sank in quicksand; perhaps they were buried by collapsing cliffs. It's up to the scientists to decipher the story -- provided they get the chance.

To find predator and prey fossilized together is rare. The Dueling Dinosaurs are also preserved in three dimensions, not flattened by burial like so many skeletons. Fossil preparation has exposed about 30 percent of the specimens, enough to display interesting details. They are interwoven, with the elephant-sized ceratopsian in a near-standing position and the polar bear-sized tyrannosaurid underfoot. Both dinosaurs are articulated, meaning their bones are connected, from nose to tail-tip. They are so well preserved that some soft tissue patterns, like skin, are visible to the naked eye. Other sections expose shiny licorice-black bone.

The tyrannosaurid appears to be missing 22 teeth; 14 teeth have been found embedded in what were the ceratopsian's fleshy areas and one in its neck vertebrae. Tyrannosaurids shed teeth like sharks, and replaced them just as quickly. In this case, though, some teeth are broken in half, which Morrow believes indicates an aggressive fight. And the tyrannosaurid may have gotten the worst of it –– a crushed skull and cracked-open ribcage.

Despite the find's rarity, some paleontologists, like Horner, a once-casual Montana fossil hunter who now has honorary doctorates, say a serious study of the fossils would be pointless because they were excavated by amateurs.

Fossil excavation is a long, complicated process when done properly: It's common to remove specimens in plaster jackets, for example, including blocks of the rock "matrix" surrounding the bones. Just enough bone is exposed to reveal the dimensions of the creature, and then the surrounding rock is carefully cut to free the block. This can preserve sediments containing essential scientific evidence about the burial environment and the bones' original in situ position. Some scientists painstakingly document the exposure of each find, using time-lapse photography, laser mapping and soil samples taken every few centimeters.

Because the Dueling Dinosaurs were excavated with less sophisticated methods and without an academically trained eye to oversee the site, Horner and other critics say the bones have lost their scientific potential. Burial reconstruction -- analysis of the surrounding material and the position of the bones to determine the circumstances of the dinosaur's death -- is impossible, he says, since the dinosaurs were removed from the surrounding stratigraphy, the layers of rock above and below them. Because the overlying layers have already been excavated away, any scientist who wants to do a burial reconstruction would have to access the private land and use photographs to infer where the dinosaurs were located in the layers of rock.

"I have seen some information on the Dueling Dinosaurs," says Horner, "but it lacked the data that would allow the specimen to be described in rigorous scientific detail. Unless (such a) study had been accomplished at the site prior to it having been excavated, it is not possible to say anything about their behaviors prior to death." Although he is a leading researcher of tyrannosaurid bone structure, he has no desire to even see the specimen that may settle the Nanotyrannus debate.

Horner strongly opposes commercialism and believes scientists ought to avoid any association with it. "Commercial collectors say all sorts of things about the fossils they are trying to sell," he says. "The more extraordinary they can make it sound, the more money they think they can get. It is simply a sales pitch."

Bakker, Horner's longtime colleague from Houston, says the excavation and documentation of the Dueling Dinosaurs are excellent and that criticism of the find is simply bias against commercial collectors. He has looked over the photos and sketches the group collected during excavation, and says the burial site can be revisited for more information if needed. Most importantly, he says, the dinosaurs are still in the blocks they were excavated in, so that they retain their original positions and the sediments surrounding them.

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."

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."

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 T. rex "Sue."

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

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."

Finding the Dueling Dinosaurs felt like winning the lottery to everyone involved, especially the landowners. Mary Ann and Lige Murray came to Montana in 1971, fresh out of college and chasing the cowboy dream. They worked their way up from ranch hands to owners but haven't yet paid off the land they bought 30 years ago. With the discovery of the dinosaurs came hope. "If you found an oil well on your land, would you be willing to just donate it or give it away?" asks Murray. "It is an investment we made when we bought the land. It's no different than finding minerals on your place."

Phipps and his partners initially considered an auction, but their desire to have the dinosaurs available for science has kept them off the block -- until now. After consultations with commercial appraisers, they priced the Dueling Dinosaurs at $9.8 million. "That's what people don't understand, and I don't think our country does, because it is just three or four times in the world they have found two together. And these are the biggest and most complete," says Murray. "Lige and I can certainly use the money, but (Clayton and his partners) can, too, and Chad is disabled. It's a win-win for everybody."

Despite the big price tag, the Dinosaur Cowboy contends that his requests remain simple. He's put his family's money, along with hundreds of hours of time, into the collection and preparation of the dinosaurs, and he wants to make enough to remain on his land and pay some bills.

He and his partners have watched other dinosaurs pass through the market in recent years, mostly at the drop of a gavel. Two years ago, the "Fighting Dinosaurs," a Stegosaurus and Allosaurus found near each other in a Wyoming quarry, fetched $2.75 million from an undisclosed buyer overseas. Offers have been made on the Dueling Dinosaurs by unnamed parties, but nothing has come to fruition.

Soon the blocks will be shipped to Bonhams New York City auction house, where they'll be offered in a Nov. 19 sale along with other fossils and collectibles. Bonhams expects the bones to fetch between $6 million and $9 million. Until then, the bones are gathering dust at CK Preparations, lingering in the hopes that Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse or an anonymous Samaritan will save the day. Morrow and Busch live in a trailer next to the facility they bought to house the dinosaurs. Larson's Nanotyrannus thesis is on hold.

Bakker says all the paleontological infighting has obscured the real –– and important –– story of these fossils, one that could change our understanding of dinosaur behavior: a duel to the death during the last days of the dinosaurs. "That comes from a sense of elitism I really dislike," he says. "I call it the priestly caste."

For his part, Phipps wants the Dueling Dinosaurs to be publicly displayed. He'd also like to have a replica donated to the local museum in Jordan. Replicas are just fine, he says, because the town museum can't afford to keep the heat on and icy air is bad for fossils. "I'm hoping someday I can take my grandchildren to go see them," Phipps says, "and tell them, 'Your ol' granddaddy found those dinosaurs.' "

Montana Hodges is a freelance writer and author of five books. She received her MA in science journalism from the University of Montana, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in paleontology.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

To see video interviews with several of the individuals who appear in this story, go here.