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Expert sees no scientific value at this point for fossils found in Montana

An international auction house is expecting to fetch up to $9 million for a unique pair of dinosaur skeletons discovered in eastern Montana, but a well-known paleontologist said interest surrounding the auction could be mostly hype.

Ceratopsian foot
Ceratopsian foot. Courtesy of Bonhams.

An international auction house is expecting to fetch up to $9 million for a unique pair of dinosaur skeletons discovered in eastern Montana, but a well-known paleontologist said interest surrounding the auction could be mostly hype.

Discovered near Jordan, Mont., in 2006, a fossilized pair of skeletal remains, referred to as the "Dueling Dinosaurs" because the prehistoric creatures appear to be locked in battle, is likely to garner anywhere from $7 million to $9 million at an auction Nov. 19 in New York City.

The remains were unearthed within the Hell Creek Formation, a vast and intensely studied area that spans portions of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Dueling Dinos represents the two most complete dinosaurs that have ever been found in the Hell Creek Formation and probably the most complete dinosaurs ever found in North America," said Thomas Lindgren, Bonhams auction house natural history co-consulting director. "They're both nearly 100 percent complete. It's difficult until they've been completely prepared, but it appears that these dinosaurs were in a death battle about 3 million years before the end of the age of the dinosaurs."

Discovered on a private ranch in Garfield County by commercial prospectors, the two dinosaurs -- one thought to be a Tyrannosaurus rex-like Nanotyrannus lancensis and one a Triceratops-like Chamosaurine ceratopsian -- represent an exciting find, but have also sparked an age-old debate: scientific research and preservation for the masses versus commercial exploitation.


Museum of the Rockies Curator of Paleontology Jack Horner -- the man who helped inspire the fictional character of Dr. Alan Grant of the "Jurassic Park" franchise and served as an adviser on the films -- said it could already be too late to retrieve meaningful scientific information from the unusually well-preserved remains.

"There's absolutely no way to know if it has any importance at all," Horner said. "As far as I'm concerned, it has none because it was collected by people who make money. Scientific research, the kind of information we would normally take, is overhead to them. When (the specimen) is being excavated to make money, it's not being excavated for its scientific worth, it's being excavated for its monetary worth, and those two do not go hand in hand."

Lindgren said the parties taking the specimen to auction -- including the rancher -- had tried to get $15 million for the find and have reached out to well-known museums and other potential buyers. Lindgren said the decision was made to take Dueling Dinosaurs to auction in large part because of the expensive nature of the now seven-year process after the find.

In the United States, dinosaur remains found on private land are considered part of the landowner's real estate, something Horner and Museum of the Rockies Director Shelley McKamey don't dispute at all.

"A private landowner can do whatever they want with what they find on their private land," McKamey said. "When we collect, we get permits from federal or state agencies on whose land we're going to work. We are able to get those permits because we guarantee that the fossils are going to be available for the public and are not going into private collections or going to be sold."

Horner said it doesn't bother him that a landowner would want to cash in on a unique find on his or her property.

"I'm all for people owning the specimen that's on their land," Horner said. "It would have been great if the people had the wherewithal to allow scientists to come in and take it, but we don't buy or sell fossils. The private landowners who allow us to collect on their land, those are pretty cool guys because they don't expect us to pay them. They expect us to save science."

Though the Dueling Dinosaurs specimen has generated worldwide attention and media interest -- not to mention a catchy moniker -- Horner said he is not convinced the two dinosaurs were actually fighting.


"That's all media hype coming from people who are trying to make money," Horner said. "It could be just two skeletons washed together in a river. Nobody has demonstrated that that's not what it was, but they're going to try to sell it as Dueling Dinosaurs because they're going to get more money from it."

Though Horner insisted he knew of no scientific evidence to prove that the two dinosaurs were actually dueling in a death match at the time of their demise, he did say it would be "pretty cool" if that were the case. Horner added that the skeletons lost much of their research value immediately following excavation.

Despite the chances that the Dueling Dinosaurs could eventually end up in a collector's private cache, Lindgren said he expects the specimen to end up in a museum.

"Every museum in the world is being contacted or has been contacted and sent a perspective," Lindgren said. "The preference is that we want them to go to a museum. There's so much scientific information still locked up in these plaster jackets that contain these dinosaurs, it needs to be studied. Our fondest wish is to find a benefactor or museum of some sort that can come up with the money, but we're not limiting the sale to just a museum because we know that many specimens that have been bought privately end up in museums one way or another over a period of time."

Lindgren added that he "absolutely" believes the Dueling Dinosaurs specimen -- which he said include "soft tissue" remains -- will find its way to a museum for public display.

Though Lindgren said the remains could reap somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million on the auction block in New York City, Horner said the spectacle of the Dueling Dinosaurs isn't worth much of anything in his eyes.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's scientifically useless," Horner said. "To me, it doesn't matter where it goes. Someone will buy it and it will probably go in a museum somewhere and be pretty. Since we collect dinosaurs for research purposes, as far as I'm concerned, it's worthless."

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