But a mass extinction event and several ice ages later, a new threat — money — emerged this week to capture one of 20 known skeletons of the apex carnivore, which, like its more famous cousin, stood on two legs and had a pair of tiny arms.
On Thursday, a wealthy collector spent $6.1 million to buy the only known skeleton of a Gorgosaurus that’s available for private ownership, according to Sotheby’s, the auction house that brokered the deal. The sale has resurrected a long-simmering feud in the paleontology community, which for years has decried the increasing commercialization of the field, including the sale of fossils to private buyers.
Gregory Erickson, a professor of paleobiology at Florida State University, told the BBC he fears a multimillion-dollar sale like the one on Thursday “sends a message that it’s just any other commodity that you can buy for money and not for scientific good.”
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The Gorgosaurus lived in the late Cretaceous Period, predating the T. rex for about 10 million years, Sotheby’s said in its listing of the skeleton. While smaller, it was “much faster and fiercer” than the T. rex, which scientists believe was more of a scavenger because its teeth were better suited for cracking bones.
The one that sold Thursday died around 77 million years ago in the Judith River area in what’s now Chouteau County, Mont. It remained there until it was excavated in 2018 on private property, Sotheby’s said. Had it been found on federal land or north of the Canadian border, the skeleton would have been publicly owned, available for scientific study and public viewing, the New York Times reported.
“I’m totally disgusted, distressed and disappointed because of the far-reaching damage the loss of these specimens will have for science,” Thomas Carr, a vertebrate paleontologist at Carthage College who studies tyrannosauroids like Gorgosaurus, told the Times. “This is a disaster.”
It’s a debate that’s been raging for decades. Sotheby’s first auctioned off a fossilized dinosaur skeleton in 1997 when it sold a T. rex nicknamed Sue to the Chicago-based Field Museum for about $8.4 million. The fossil got its nickname from Sue Hendrickson, the commercial excavator who discovered it in 1990 in South Dakota.
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In 1998, John Hoganson, paleontologist emeritus of the North Dakota Geological Survey, foreshadowed a tension that would only grow over the next 24 years between scientists like himself, who want to keep fossils in the public domain for scientific study, and those involved in “ a thriving international market for fossils and the resulting collecting and selling of fossils by profiteers,” according to CNN.
More than a decade later, the business of private prospecting was booming, according to a 2009 Smithsonian Magazine article titled “The Dinosaur Fossil Wars.” Spurred by finds like Sue, amateur excavators swamped the American West and Great Plains in what they increasingly saw as a modern-day gold rush. Their eagerness to capitalize on everything from a five-inch shark tooth to a once-in-a-lifetime score like a full dinosaur skeleton has put them in conflict with scientists and the federal government.
“In terms of digging for fossils, there are a lot more people” than there used to be, Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosauria at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Twenty years ago, if you ran into a private or commercial fossil prospector in the field, it was one person or a couple of people. Now, you go to good fossil locations in, say, Wyoming, and you find quarrying operations with maybe 20 people working, and doing a professional job of excavating fossils.”
Five years later, researchers warned that the tension had grown and would continue to do so, posing “the greatest challenge to paleontology of the 21st century.” In a 2014 paper, the researchers said that new discoveries had led to a new “Golden Age” in the field that paleontologists could use to inspire people about their work and science generally. But the researchers warned that those scientists needed to do a better job of conveying the value of fossils to the general public.
The perception that “it’s okay to sell and buy fossils” has become “deeply entrenched,” according to the 2014 article in Palaeontologia Electronica.
“The vast majority of the general population are unaware that the commercialization of fossils is even a problem,” the researchers wrote.
Erickson, the paleobiology professor, told the BBC that the public’s fascination will continue. Multimillion-dollar sales are the result of a society gripped by “dinomania,” fueled at least in part by cultural touchstones like the Jurassic Park franchise.
But, Erickson added, it goes deeper than that. Dinosaurs — T. rex, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, Pterodactyl — are some of the first creatures that inspire awe and excitement in children. The frenzy around their fossils, and even a chance to own one, is a way to tap into that wonder again.
“Right from childhood people are enamored of dinosaurs,” Erickson told the BBC, “so I can see why people buy dinosaur fossils.”