In October 2020, an anonymous buyer purchased a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, known as Stan, for $31.8 million, the most expensive fossil ever purchased at auction. For two years, the bones disappeared from the public eye, leaving paleontologists concerned about the potential loss to science—until now.
For National Geographic, reporter Michael Greshko has revealed the dinosaur will be housed in a new natural history museum in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
"Natural history has a new home in Abu Dhabi," Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, the chairman of Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism, said in a statement to National Geographic. "A new museum which tells the story of our universe through some of the most incredible natural wonders known to mankind. These are awe-inspiring gifts from nature that we are proud to share with the world — unlocking millions of years of knowledge to not only advance scientific discovery but to inspire our children to protect our planet's future."
National Geographic's Greshko, who broke the story on Stan's new home, found Stan using United States' shipping and trade records. He identified a shipment worth $31,847,500—Stan's exact sale price—that was exported from New York to the UAE in May 2021.
On March 23, 2022, Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism confirmed Stan's new home would be in the new Natural History Museum of Abu Dhabi, which is currently under construction and slated to open in 2025, per National Geographic.
"Because Stan is such a high-value item and this is such a niche commodity, Stan casts a long financial shadow on these data sets," Greshko tells ABC New's Evan McMurry. "I was very confident it had been exported to the United Arab Emirates, and then the U.A.E. happened to reach out to me about this museum project ... and everything fell into place from there."
The museum will span 377,000 square feet on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island, reports Laura Zornosa for New York Times. In a statement, the museum plans on building and staffing a research facility that will focus on zoology, paleontology, marine biology, earth sciences, and molecular research.
Abu Dhabi's Natural History Museum will be built close to one of the richest fossil deposits in the Arabian Peninsula. Known as the Baynunah Formation, the area has rocks from the late Miocene period that preserved an ecosystem filled with ancestors of hippos and giraffes, National Geographic reports.
However, these rocks are not the right age or type for preserving dinosaurs fossils. So, the museum sourced the bones from abroad.
Stan's presence in the museum can potentially spark interest for dinosaurs in a part of the world that has potential for more fossil discoveries, David Evans, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, told National Geographic in an email. The Middle East has few natural history museums and even fewer facilities dedicated to paleontology—despite the many regional researchers who work to preserve rare fossils.
A fragment of the Murchison meteorite, a carbon-rich space object that fell above Australia, will also be on display in the museum, which aims to tell the 13.8-billion-year-long story of the universe. The meteorite contains stardust compounds and seven-billion-year-old presolar grains that formed before the sun, reports Maya Yang for the Guardian.
When it was confirmed this week that Stan the T. Rex will be on public display, the paleontology world breathed a sigh of relief. News of the initial purchase sent researchers into a frenzy because many speculated that the dinosaur was obtained by a private buyer. Some were concerned the near-complete specimen would become inaccessible to scientists for further research.
At one point, viewers of ESPN's ManningCast suspected that actor and former professional wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson may have purchased Stan after a T. rex skull peeked out from behind him during a virtual call on the show. However, the skull was a cast made from the real fossil sold by Stan's original owners, the private Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota. Stan sent two decades in South Dakota, where it was found on private land in the state in the 1990s. The bones were first put up for sale following a legal dispute between the institute's shareholders.
"If Stan can inspire a new generation to protect the past and lean into conserving our planet's biodiversity in the future, that's what I call a happy ending," Lindsay Zanno, a paleontologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, told National Geographic.
However, ramifications of Stan's hefty price tag are yet to be seen. Some paleontologists fear that because Stan was sold for so much, it may create the perception that dinosaur fossils hold more monetary value than the scientific discoveries hidden in the bones, which could prevent smaller institutions from gaining access to critical finds.
"It remains to be seen how Stan's record-breaking price will affect the global legal and illegal trade in fossils," Greshko tells ABC News. "I know that academic paleontologists around the world are watching that very closely."
Editor's note, April 26, 2022: A sentence incorrectly stating that Saadiyat Island was a separate emirate of the UAE has been deleted. The island is part of Abu Dhabi.