Duelling Dinosaurs from Montana – Fossil up for Auction Today

The fossilised remains of two Late Cretaceous dinosaurs that are believed to have died together in mortal combat are due to be auctioned today,  The sale starts at 1pm (Eastern Standard Time), but the duelling dinosaurs, lot number 1032, is just part of an extensive sale of fossil material, everything from crinoids, turtles, fish, marine reptiles and of course dinosaurs.  A number of palaeontologists have attempted to lobby Bonhams of New York,  the auctioneers, in order to delay the sale, but today is the day when science runs the risk of losing a great deal of potentially highly significant fossil material.

Duelling Dinosaurs

The fossils represent a possible specimen of a dwarf tyrannosaur species called Nanotyrannus lancensis, related to Tyrannosaurus rex.  This specimen may represent the best chance scientists are ever going to get to establish whether Nanotyrannus is a separate genus or whether the fossil material represents a juvenile T. rex.  Preliminary investigations suggest that this fossil material is proof that living alongside the larger tyrannosaurs was a lithe and scaled down version of T. rex.  A sort of theropod equivalent of a pocket battleship.

Fossils Up for Auction – Montana’s Duelling Dinosaurs

Going under the hammer.

A Chasmosaurine Horned Dinosaur

The other fossils represent a plant-eating dinosaur, what could be a new to science genus of chasmosaurine horned dinosaur.  The way in which the fossils were found indicate that these animals died together whilst fighting each other, only the second incidence reported in the dinosaur fossil record.  The specimens, discovered in 2006 (Garfield County, Montana), are nearly complete, just about articulated and represent two of the most perfect dinosaur specimens to have been discovered in the famous Hell Creek Formation.  The auctioneers estimate that this lot could fetch in excess of £5.6 million pounds when it goes under the hammer later on today.

A Significant Discovery

The specimens have only been partially prepared, much of the material is still contained in its field jacket of burlap and plaster, but undoubtedly the fossil represent a highly significant find, one that can help scientists to understand more about life in the Late Cretaceous and about predator/prey interactions as the auction lot details goes on to state:

“One of the most valuable features of The Montana Duelling Dinosaurs is the presentation of the dinosaur specimens in preserved taphonomy.  The specimens were removed from the ground in large, plaster-jacketed sections of earth, preserving the spatial relationships in which the bones were found within each block.  This provides, quite literally, fertile ground for scientific study of the individuals, the relationship between the two species, and life during the Cretaceous Age.”

In addition:

“Because the dinosaurs are also articulated, scientists will be able to learn about the anatomy and physiology of both theropods and ceratopsians.  Also of importance is the presence of a leaf horizon directly beneath the two skeletons.”

It is also possible for stomach contents to have been preserved, giving palaeontologists a rare opportunity to examine what ceratopsians and theropods actually ate.  So sad that this auction may result in these specimens being lost to science.

The Duelling Dinosaurs – The Field Jacket can be Clearly Seen in the Photograph

Unique fossils up for auction.

Picture credit: Bonhams (New York)

A Problem with the Auction

The problem is this, if the fossil material ends up in the hands of a private buyer, albeit a very wealthy one, palaeontologists who would want to study the specimens might be denied proper access.  There is also the issue of running into some ethical quandaries, since, if access was restricted then the fossils would not be openly available for others to examine and analyse.

Professor Mike Benton, (Bristol University) explained:

“Nearly all scientific journals require that specimens studied scientifically and published must be freely available for further study by others, and this means an accessible, public collection.  This is a basic tenet of science: the need to make all published work repeatable.”

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur added:

“Peer review of published material is not enough in this instance, palaeontologists need to repeat the work, look at the foundation for any conclusions drawn by previous investigations and if necessary, pick apart any arguments made by establishing their own lines of scientific enquiry.

A Close up the Front of the Jaws of the Tyrannosaur

Science goes up for auction.

Picture credit: Bonhams (New York)

High Profile Dinosaur Auctions

This is not the first time dinosaur fossils have been put up for sale at auction, we at Everything Dinosaur have reported on a number of high profile auctions on this blog .  Clayton Phipps, the person responsible for the discovery and for organising the removal of the fossil material did offer this exhibit to a number of museums but none of them could match the sale price and so the fossils have ended up in an auction.  The activities of commercial fossil hunters are important and they can prove to be a very reliable source for new fossil discoveries.  Many of the specimens excavated by private companies and individuals would simply have eroded away to dust without intervention, museums and universities cannot afford to mount expeditions to retrieve all the potential fossil material available.

Let’s hope that this particular auction has a happy ending and that whoever does purchase the fossils, or indeed any of the many hundreds of lots in the sale, they do permit proper scientific access.

News Update:

The duelling dinosaurs lot failed to sell at the auction, this evening (GMT).  It did not reach its reserve price so the future of these fossils remains uncertain.  A spokesperson for Everything Dinosaur who had been monitoring the auction as it progressed in New York, commented that although the fossils attracted a lot of interest, the high reserve price was not exceeded so the lot remains unsold.  It is quite likely that a deal will be done over the next week or so that will see these fossils going to a new home.