In 2006, fossil hunters unearthed the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex and a Triceratops entangled in a giant 67 million-year-old fossil, prompting paleontologists to wonder how in the world these "Dueling Dinosaurs" ended up buried together.
Scientists haven't been able to get their hands on the fossils yet, as the bones have been shut away in labs and warehouses after years of court battles, auctions and negotiations. But now, the sparring dinosaurs are going to be studied and exhibited at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh after the nonprofit Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences bought them and donated them to the museum, reports Michael Greshko for National Geographic.
Fourteen years ago, Clayton Phipps and his team of commercial fossil hunters discovered a Triceratops pelvis jutting out of a hillside on a private farm in Montana. Curious, the team dug out the whole skeleton with the approval of the landowner and revealed a near-perfectly preserved Triceratops intertwined with a T. rex, reports Laura Geggel for Live Science.
"The Dueling Dinosaurs is one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries ever made," Scott Sampson, a paleontologist and the president of Science World, a nonprofit education and research facility in Vancouver, told Smithsonian in 2017. "It is the closest thing I have ever seen to large-scale fighting dinosaurs. If it is what we think it is, it’s ancient behavior caught in the fossil record. We’ve been digging for over 100 years in the Americas, and no one’s found a specimen quite like this one."
Aware of his once-in-a-lifetime discovery, Phipps called up every American museum or institution, hoping to sell the fossil to them, he told Smithsonian. But nobody would even send an expert out to look at it, he claimed. Unable to sell the fossil to a museum, Phipps turned to the private sector and tried to auction off the fossil. The highest bid was for $5.5 million, despite it being appraised for around $9 million. Displeased with the price, Phipps locked the fossil up in storage.
In 2016, Phipps was contacted by Lindsay Zanno, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University and the head of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, who asked him about selling the fossils to the museum and scheduled a visit to the warehouse.
"You cannot look at these specimens without almost seeing them walk out of the block and walk right by you," Zanno told National Geographic. "You can just see them as they were in life."
But before the Dueling Dinosaurs could finally make it to their new home, the owners of the farm, Mary Anne and Lige Murray, were tied up in a legal battle with the farm's previous owners, brothers Jerry and Robert Severson, over who really owned the fossil, reports Live Science. The Seversons retained two-thirds of the lands' mineral rights after selling the land to the Murrays and claimed that fossils were minerals. In that were true, they could cash the profits from the sales. Finally, after years of arduous court battles, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that fossils weren't minerals, and the Murrays won their case in May 2020.
Commercial bidding wars over dinosaur bones are highly controversial in the scientific community, with many paleontologists considering the practice unethical. Recently, a T. Rex nicknamed Stan was sold for $31.8 million to an unknown buyer. Some scientists, like Tyrannosaur expert Thomas Carr, a paleontologist at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, see the purchase of the Dueling Dinosaurs by a museum from a private seller as condoning the "unethical trade in irreplaceable fossils," reports National Geographic.
“It’s good that those specimens made it into a real museum and haven’t disappeared like Stan did, but on the other hand, what was the price tag?” Carr says. “That [sale] opens up the issue of whether or not scientists and museums have become handmaidens for the commercial fossil trade.”
Now that the dinosaurs are en route to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, they'll finally be available for scientists to examine, and the public can engage with an exhibition built around the T. rex and Triceratops, according to a press release.
“It’s going to be a very iconic specimen,” paleontologist Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, tells National Geographic. The bones are still partially encased in rock, where scientists can study impressions left behind by the dinos' skin. It's possible that trace amounts of proteins from the dinosaurs themselves may one day be extracted from the rock as technology improves.
“It’s going to be a very intricate job to expose the bones and not destroy the skin while doing that,” Johnson says.
Plus, paleontologists may finally be able figure out how a pair of foes ended up spending eternity interlocked in mortal combat. Maybe they both died fighting, or perhaps their bodies were just randomly entombed next to each other, reports Live Science.
"We have not yet studied this specimen; it is a scientific frontier," Zanno says in the press release. "The preservation is phenomenal, and we plan to use every technological innovation available to reveal new information on the biology of T. rex and Triceratops. This fossil will forever change our view of the world’s two favorite dinosaurs."