The Dinosaur Fossil Wars- page 1 | Science | Smithsonian
Fossil prospector Ron Frithiof (with a mosasaur from his collections) was sued over a T. rex that he uncovered. "This whole experience," he says, "has been a disaster." (Aaron Huey)

The Dinosaur Fossil Wars

Across the American West, legal battles over dinosaur fossils are on the rise as amateur prospectors make major finds

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Editor’s note: On August 6, 2009, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling that Ron Frithiof did not engage in fraud and that he and his team can retain ownership rights of Tinker the Tyrannosaurus . For more on this story and other dinosaur-related news, read our Dinosaur Tracking blog.

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Buried beneath a barren stretch of South Dakota badland, the deceased appeared small for its species. As Ron Frithiof, an Austin, Texas, real-estate developer turned dinosaur prospector, dug cautiously around it in a rugged expanse of backcountry, he was growing increasingly confident that he and his partners were uncovering a once-in-a-lifetime find.

Ever since he had heard about a private collection going up for sale in the mid-1990s, Frithiof, now 61, had been hunting dinosaurs. "I'd thought fossils were things you could see only in museums," he says. "When I learned you could go out and find stuff like that, to keep or even to sell, it just lit a fire in my imagination. I studied every book I could, learned techniques of extraction. Fossils inspire a powerful curiosity."

Frithiof was keenly aware that the skeleton of a mature Tyrannosaurus rex ( "Sue," named in honor of prospector Sue Hendrickson, who made the find in western South Dakota in 1990) had been auctioned off—at Sotheby's in New York City in 1997—for more than $8 million. The specimen that Frithiof and his fellow excavators began unearthing in 1998, in a painstaking, inch-by-inch dig was about four feet tall, less than half Sue's height. With unfused vertebrae and scrawny shin and ankle bones, the skeleton was almost certainly that of a juvenile. If so, it would likely be the most complete young T. rex ever discovered. A find of this magnitude, Frithiof knew, would create a sensation. Its value would be, as he put it, "anyone's guess." $9 million? $10 million? This was uncharted territory.

For nearly three years, the excavators—including longtime fossil hunter Kim Hollrah, who had first investigated the site—continued their meticulous work. Whenever Frithiof, Hollrah and their companions could coordinate time off from work, they would drive 24 hours straight, from Texas to the dig site, north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota, which Frithiof had leased from a local rancher in 1998. "Most years, we'd spend about a month working," he recalls. "Thirty or 40 days a summer, before the weather would drive us off."

Braving blistering 100-degree temperatures, the crew took every precaution to keep the specimen intact. At the same time, they were attempting to wrest it from the ground before South Dakota's brutal winter set in. "That's one of the paradoxes of fossil collecting," says Frithiof. "Once a specimen is exposed to the elements, it's a race to get it out in as responsible a way as possible, to protect it from wind and rain and weathering. It's like a slow-motion race."

Paleontological excavation is nothing if not grueling. "We worked inch by inch, brushing bits of rock and soil away, taking a pin to strip away just that next little bit of rock and earth [to reveal the rough contours]," Frithiof told me. On a good day, an experienced fossil excavator might uncover only a few inches of skeleton. Frithiof and the others gingerly pried out each section, still enclosed in the crumbly chunk of rock matrix that had originally surrounded it. In preparation for transport, the prospectors then wrapped the sections in layers of tissue paper, aluminum foil and plaster.

As the dig moved forward, Frithiof's colleagues, with a nod to "Sue" (today a centerpiece attraction at Chicago's Field Museum), decided the new T. rex needed a name. The one they came up with honored Frithiof's role as the project's financial backer. "I don't know why my parents started calling me Tinker," says Frithiof. "Somehow, it stuck."

In 2001, as the excavation of Tinker headed toward completion, the team made another remarkable discovery: evidence of two additional T. rex skeletons on the site. By that point, a children's museum in the Midwest had indicated its willingness to pay up to $8.5 million for Tinker. During the prospective purchaser's pre-transaction research, however, a massive legal hiccup was uncovered—one that Frithiof and his lawyers would later insist had been an honest mistake.

Tinker, as it turned out, had been found not from local rancher Gary Gilbert's land but from adjacent property owned by Harding County, South Dakota. In November 2000, Frithiof, he says, with an eye to future excavations, had leased the parcel from the county; the agreement stipulated that the county would get 10 percent of the sale price for any fossils uncovered there. Now, in August 2004, Harding County filed a civil lawsuit in Federal District Court against Frithiof and his partners alleging fraud, trespass and conspiracy.

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