But a mass extinction event and several ice ages later, a new threat emerged this week – money – to capture one of 20 known skeletons of the apex carnivore, which, like its better-known cousin, stood on two legs and had two small weapons.
On Thursday, a wealthy collector spent $6.1 million to buy the only known privately owned Gorgosaurus skeleton, according to Sotheby’s, the auction house that brokered the deal. The sale reignited a long-simmering feud in the paleontology community, which for years has denounced the field’s increasing commercialization, including the sale of fossils to private buyers.
Gregory Erickson, a professor of paleobiology at Florida State University, told the BBC he feared a multimillion-dollar sale like Thursday’s “sends a message that it’s just any other commodity that can be bought for money and… cannot buy for scientific purposes”.
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The Gorgosaurus lived in the Late Cretaceous and predated the T. rex by about 10 million years, Sotheby’s said in its listing of the skeleton. Despite being smaller, it was “much faster and fierce” than the T. rex, which scientists believe was more of a scavenger because its teeth were better suited to cracking bones.
The one sold Thursday died about 77 million years ago in the Judith River area of what is now Chouteau County, Mont. It remained there until it was excavated on private property in 2018, Sotheby’s said. Had it been found on state land or north of the Canadian border, the skeleton would have been in the public domain and available for scientific study and public viewing, the New York Times reported.
“I am absolutely disgusted, distraught and disappointed by the far-reaching damage that the loss of these specimens will do to science,” Thomas Carr, a vertebrate paleontologist at Carthage College who studies tyrannosaurids like Gorgosaurus, told the Times. “This is a disaster.”
It’s a debate that has raged for decades. Sotheby’s first auctioned off a fossilized dinosaur skeleton in 1997, when it sold a T. rex, nicknamed Sue, to Chicago’s Field Museum for about $8.4 million. The fossil got its nickname from Sue Hendrickson, the commercial digger who discovered it in South Dakota in 1990.
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In 1998, John Hoganson, paleontologist emeritus for the North Dakota Geological Survey, announced a tension that would only increase over the next 24 years, between scientists like himself who want to keep fossils publicly available for scientific study, and those interested 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 private prospecting business was booming, according to a 2009 Smithsonian Magazine article titled “The Dinosaur Fossil Wars.” Spurred on by finds like Sue, amateur dredgers swept across the American West and Great Plains in what they increasingly came to regard as a modern-day gold rush. Their eagerness to capitalize on anything from a 5-inch shark tooth to a one-off score like a complete dinosaur skeleton has put them at odds with scientists and the federal government.
“There are a lot more people digging for fossils than there used to be,” Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Twenty years ago, if you met a private or commercial fossil hunter, it was one person or a few people. Now you go to good fossil sites in, say, Wyoming and you find quarries with maybe 20 workers professionally digging up fossils.”
Five years later, researchers warned that tension was growing and will continue to grow in what constitutes “the greatest challenge facing 21st-century paleontology.” In a 2014 paper, the researchers said that new discoveries have ushered in a new “golden age” in the field, one that paleontologists could use to inspire people for their work and science in general. However, the researchers cautioned that these scientists needed to do a better job of communicating the value of fossils to the general public.
The perception that “it’s okay to sell and buy fossils” has become “deep-rooted,” according to the 2014 article in Palaeontologia Electronica.
“The vast majority of the general public is unaware that the commercialization of fossils is even a problem,” the researchers write.
Erickson, the paleobiology professor, told the BBC the public’s fascination will continue. Multi-million dollar sales are the result of a Dinomania-swept society 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 to inspire awe and excitement in children. Excitement about their fossils, and even the chance to own one, is a way of harnessing this wonder again.
“People have been in love with dinosaurs since childhood,” Erickson told the BBC, “so I can understand why people buy dinosaur fossils.”