Tussling over “Tinker” the Tyrannosaurus

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Hollywood movies make fossil-collecting looks easy. A prospector or paleontologist finds a fossil, digs it up, and then takes it away for sale or study. Yet this is a far cry from what actually happened when the first remains of a skeleton of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus that would come to be nicknamed "Tinker" were discovered in South Dakota 11 years ago.

Things got complicated very fast. In 1998, fossil prospector Mark Eatman stumbled onto Tinker on land that either belonged to rancher Gary Gilbert or had been leased to Gilbert by South Dakota's Harding County for grazing livestock. Eatman did not want to dig up the Tyrannosaurus, though, and he quickly sold his excavation rights to a group of fossil hunters led by Texas prospector Ron Frithiof.

The doubt over whether Tinker had been found on Gilbert's land or on Harding County land lingered, though, even as Frithiof negotiated to sell the Tyrannosaurus to the Children's Museum of Indianapolis for about $8.5 million. To be on the safe side, Frithiof took out a lease from the county to collect the fossils. The legal rights for the fossils would belong to Frithiof and his crew, and 10 percent of any sale of the fossils would go back to Harding County.

At the time, however, Harding County officials did not know about Tinker or the value attached to the fossil. When they found out in 2003, they started up the legal machinery to attempt to rescind the lease and claimed that the fossil hunters had illegally removed the fossil from county property. The legal wrangling over Tinker has gone on for years, but according to the Chicago Tribune, on August 6 an appeals court upheld the rights of Frithiof and his crew to the Tyrannosaurus. The court determined that it was the county's fault for not inquiring into what had been found on the leased land, but the county will still receive 10 percent of whatever amount Tinker is eventually sold for.

Despite this latest decision, Tinker will probably remain tied up in red tape for some time yet. Some of the skeleton is still in the ground, and the parts that have been excavated are locked up in bankruptcy proceedings. A Pennsylvania preparator hired to restore Tinker's bones filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy while he was working on them. The fossils are presently under the jurisdiction of a federal bankruptcy court.

For many people fossils are big business, and the price a Tyrannosaurus skeleton can command can make straightforward proceedings turn complicated. Even worse, Tinker's bones have the potential to tell us a lot about a life stage of Tyrannosaurus we know little about, yet scientists may not get to fully examine the skeleton for years yet. Science is not served well when dinosaurs are treated as cash cows.

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