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A Mysterious Dinosaur Skeleton Was Auctioned Off to a Private Buyer

And paleontologists are not happy about it

(Aguttes)
smithsonian.com

The auction was certainly not short on dramatic flourishes. The event took place on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower and the star attraction, an as-yet unclassified dinosaur skeleton, was displayed with its mouth agape and its fearsome set of teeth on view. As Reuters reports, an anonymous buyer purchased the skeleton for $2.3 million on Monday—and some paleontologists are concerned that the private sale will limit scientists’ ability to study the specimen.

The skeleton was found in Wyoming in 2013 and dates to between 151 million and 156 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. It measures 28.5 feet long and is approximately 70 percent complete. According to Colin Barras of Science, the dinosaur is likely a close relative of the Allosaurus fragilis, a Late Jurassic carnivore. In a catalogue promoting the recent sale, the French auction house Aguttes states that the specimen is the “sole representative of what is likely a new species of Allosaurid, or even a new genus altogether.”

Some experts, however, aren’t so sure. Kenneth Carpenter, a paleontologist at Utah State University in Price, tells Barras that the dinosaur’s unique skeletal features could come from another animal that was fossilized at the same time.

Many other questions surround the dinosaur’s discovery and its recent sale. The excavation of the skeleton was reportedly legal, but the paleontologists who found it have remained anonymous. The buyer is an “unnamed French art collector,” according to the Agence France-Presse, and the seller has only been identified as a British businessman.

Auctioneer Claude Aguttes tells Reuters that the buyer plans to lend the specimen to a museum. “Everyone will be able to see it, it will soon be lent to a museum, it will be studied by scientists, everything is perfect,” he says.

But the sale has sparked concerns among the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), which wrote a letter to Aguttes last month urging the auction house to halt the sale. Chief among the organizations’ concerns is that keeping the skeleton in private hands will impede future scientific study—even if the owner allows researchers to access the remains.

“Scientific practice demands that conclusions drawn from the fossils should be verifiable: scientists must be able to reexamine, re-measure, and reinterpret them (such reexamination can happen decades or even centuries after their discovery),” the SVP explains in its letter. “Fossil specimens that are sold into private hands are lost to science. Even if made accessible to scientists, information contained within privately owned specimens cannot be included in the scientific literature because the availability of the fossil material to other scientists cannot be guaranteed, and therefore verification of scientific claims (the essence of scientific progress) cannot be performed.”

The organization also took issue with Aguttes’ claim that the new buyer might be able to name the skeleton. “This assertion is misleading because the naming of new species is governed by the rules of the International Code of Nomenclature, which award priority to the first validly published name, not to the owner of the specimen that formed the basis of the name,” the SVP writes.

The sale went ahead in spite of the SVP’s concerns. According to Reuters, some proceeds from the auction will be donated to two charities that work with endangered species. But that is not likely to appease experts who worry about how private sales of dinosaur bones are affecting paleontological study.

“Selling fossils at high prices like this tends to create the perception that they have a commercial value,” SVP President David Polly tells Barras of Science. “Over the last 25 years it’s become increasingly hard for paleontologists to work on private land because landowners think there is money to be made and they want to charge for access.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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