Writing down the bones

by Jodi Peterson

This issue features a story that was more than two years in the writing -- and at least 60 million in the making. In 2011, Montana Hodges was studying fossil management on public lands as part of her master's thesis in journalism at the University of Montana. "Originally," she says, "I was going to do my thesis on whether you can copyright fossil molds and replicas." She spoke to paleontologist Peter Larson about a case involving an $8.2 million lawsuit over the copyright on a replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex jaw. And then, she says, they wandered off-topic "and started talking about dinosaur specimens, about how many are not complete skeletons but just 10 to 15 percent of a skeleton."

Larson told her about a unique pair of dinosaur skeletons that were complete. Discovered six years earlier in eastern Montana, the bones were articulated from nose to tail. Even more startling, Larson said, was the fact that the two appeared to have killed each other. "I drove to Fort Peck the next day," Montana says, "and asked to see the dinosaurs at CK Preparations," the commercial fossil preparator housing the pair. "I'd never seen anything like it. I could not believe they were just sitting in a storage shed." She abandoned her copyright project and began trying to figure out why no one had purchased the jaw-dropping fossils, priced at nearly $9 million, and why no paleontologists had published papers on them. "I interviewed paleontologists in six different states. I thought maybe the bones were just overpriced, but it turned out that the story was deeper than that." She spent the next eight months digging into it and then writing about her discoveries, which went to the heart of a long-standing controversy between commercial fossil hunters and academics.

This summer, Montana is working with paleontologists in Alaska's Denali National Park, where evidence of dinosaurs was discovered in 2005. Duck-billed hadrosaurs, meat-eating theropods and others traveled across a big mudflat, she says, leaving hundreds of footprints, clawmarks and skin impressions -- but so far, not a single bone. Paleontologist Anthony Fiorillo and other scientists think that finding bones may be just a matter of time, though.

"It's so hard to access (new fossil sites)," says Montana. "We backpack in, knee-deep in muskeg and mosquitos, and it takes three hours to go a mile." She's helping advise the park on how to protect and manage its paleontological resources. "The public wants to see the tracks," she says, "but the backcountry rangers want to keep the impact low, and researchers want to keep people away so they can study it."

In 2012, Montana published her thesis on the scientific struggle over the "Dueling Dinosaurs." Now, High Country News has the privilege of bringing you an updated version of the amazing story she unearthed.

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