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."