But a mass extinction and several ice ages later, a new threat – money – emerged this week to capture one of the 20 known skeletons of carnivores, which, like its more famous cousin, stood on two legs and had two small pairs. arms.
A wealthy collector on Thursday spent $6.1 million to purchase the only known skeleton of Gorgosaurus available for private ownership, according to Sotheby’s, which brokered the deal. The sale revived a long-running feud in the paleontology community, which over the years has criticized the field’s increasing commercial exploitation, including selling fossils to private buyers.
Gregory Erickson, professor of paleobiology at Florida State University, told the BBC he feared a multimillion-dollar sale like Thursday’s “sends the message that it’s just any other good you can buy for money and not for scientific benefit”.
Scientists discover the ‘Holy Grail of Dinosaurs’ in Africa
In its account of the skeleton, Sotheby’s said that Gorgosaurus lived in the late Cretaceous period, about 10 million years before Tyrannosaurus rex. Although smaller, it was “much faster and more ferocious” than T. rex, which scientists believe was more of a scavenger because its teeth were better suited to crushing bone.
The one that was sold on Thursday died about 77 million years ago in the Judith River region in what is now Choto County, Mont. Sotheby’s said it remained there until it was excavated in 2018 on private property. The New York Times reported that had it been found on federal land or north of the Canadian border, the skeleton would have been publicly owned, available for scientific study and public viewing.
“I am completely disgusted, sad and disappointed by the far-reaching damage that losing these specimens will to science,” Thomas Carr, a vertebrate paleontologist at Carthage College who studies tyrannosaurs like Gorgosaurus, told The Times. “this is a disaster.”
It’s a debate that’s been going on for decades. Sotheby’s auctioned its first fossilized dinosaur skeleton in 1997 when it sold a T. rex nicknamed Sue to Chicago’s Field Museum for $8.4 million. The fossil got its nickname from Sue Hendrickson, the commercial excavator who discovered it in 1990 in South Dakota.
Discoveries shed light on the day the dinosaurs died
In 1998, John Hoganson, a palaeontologist emeritus of the North Dakota State Geological Survey, predicted a tension that would only grow over the next 24 years between scientists like him, who wanted to keep fossils in the public domain for scientific study, and those involved in the “market”. A thriving international paleontology and the resulting collection and sale of fossils by exploiters,” according to CNN.
More than a decade later, private excavation business is booming, according to a 2009 Smithsonian magazine article titled “The Dinosaur Fossil Wars.” Motivated by discoveries like Sue, amateur rigs flooded the American West and the Great Plains in what they considered to be the modern-day gold rush. Their eagerness to tap into everything from a shark’s five-inch teeth to a once-in-a-lifetime outcome like an entire dinosaur skeleton has put them in conflict with scientists and the federal government.
“In terms of fossil digging, there are a lot more people out there” than there used to be, Matthew Carano, curator of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Twenty years ago, if you came across a private or commercial fossil digger, it was one or two people. Now, you go to good fossil sites in, say, Wyoming, and you find quarries with maybe 20 people working, doing work Professional in excavating fossils.
Five years later, researchers warn that tension has increased and will continue to do so, posing “the greatest challenge to palaeontology in the twenty-first century.” In a 2014 paper, researchers said the new discoveries led to a new “golden age” in the field that paleontologists could use to inspire people about their work and their sciences in general. But the researchers were warned that these scientists need to do a better job of relaying the value of fossils to the general public.
The perception that “it’s okay to buy and sell fossils” has become “deeply entrenched,” according to a 2014 article in Palaeontologia Electronica.
“The vast majority of the general public are unaware that the marketing of fossils is a problem,” the researchers wrote.
Erickson, professor of paleobiology, told the BBC that the public’s fascination would continue. Millions of dollars in sales are the result of a society dominated by “dynomania”, fueled at least in part by cultural stations such as the Jurassic Park concession.
But Ericsson added that it goes deeper than that. Dinosaurs – T. rex, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, Pterodactyl – are some of the first creatures to inspire children with awe and excitement. The frenzy over their fossils, and even the chance of owning one, is a way to cash in on this wonder once again.
“Since childhood, people have been fond of dinosaurs, so I can see why people buy dinosaur fossils,” Erickson told the BBC.