Actor, former wrestler and sports commentator Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson caused a brief stir in the scientific community after appearing virtually on ESPN's ManningCast on Monday night. Peeking out from behind his left shoulder was the skull of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
"I got a T. rex skull, yes," Johnson said during the show to show hosts Peyton and Eli Manning. "That's 'Stan.' So as a matter of fact 'Stan' is the most complete T. rex skull ever found by a paleontologist—a young paleontologist—and his name was Stan, so this T. rex head was named after him. Pretty cool and badass, isn't it?"
When Johnson referred to the T. rex as "Stan," dinosaur enthusiasts and internet sleuths were left confused. In 2020, a private buyer anonymously purchased a near-complete T. rex skeleton nicknamed Stan for $31.8 million at an auction, report Will Martin and Barnaby Lane for Insider. The sale was considered highly controversial among paleontologists. For a moment, some folks wondered: Is Stan's mystery buyer The Rock?
Johnson has since debunked rumors, announcing in an Instagram post that his T. rex skull was actually just a cast. The replica he bought was made by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research and Paleontological Excavations (BHI), which is privately owned. The post included a photo of the replica and another image of the team who made the cast.
"My love, respect, fascination, and curiosity for paleontological & archeological science runs deep - and if I was the proud owner of the real STAN, I sure as hell wouldn't keep him in my office. I'd keep him in a museum, so the world could enjoy, study and learn from him," the Jumanji actor explains in the post.
Paleontologist Peter Larson, the president and founder of the BHI, confirmed to Live Science's Laura Geggel in an email that the specimen in Johnson's home is, in fact, a cast.
"The Rock purchased from Black Hills Institute a cast of Stan's skull toward the end of 2021," Larson tells Live Science. "We were very excited that he was going to get one. He's one of our heroes. He seems to be a really genuine human being who plays pretty cool parts in movies."
BHI owned and housed Stan's real skeleton before sending it to auction in 2020. The T. rex was discovered in 1987 by fossil hunter Stan Sacrison in South Dakota's Badlands. Soon after its discovery, BHI spent 300,000 hours excavating and preparing the skeleton, which toured museums worldwide in the 1990s, per Live Science.
While Stan was on display at the Black Hills Institute Museum in Hill City, scientists were free to use the bones for research, National Geographic's Michael Greshko reported in 2020. Larson estimates the bones have been analyzed in at least 100 studies.
"The skeleton of Stan is without doubt one of the very best Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever found, and it's been published in the scientific literature many times," David Evans, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, said to National Geographic at the time of the sale. "Stan is one of the keystone specimens for understanding T. rex."
Stan's controversial purchase raised concerns about the loss of scientific knowledge. Many experts fear private sales create the perception that dinosaur fossils hold more inherent monetary value than the potential discoveries lying within the bones. Privately-held fossils are rarely studied because buyers can deny access to the specimen or resell it, making it difficult for researchers to conduct long-term analysis or verify previous research.
Currently, Stan is the most expensive fossil ever sold at auction. By comparison, Sue—on display at Chicago's Field Museum and the most complete T. rex specimen ever found to date—sold for $8.36 million in 1997, which would be equivalent to $13.5 million today with inflation.
Although the real Stan specimen is privately owned, the Black Hills Institute still retains the rights to make and sell casts of Stan's bones, according to National Geographic. A replica of Stan's skull costs $11,500.