But a mass extinction event and several ice ages later, a new threat – silver – emerged this week to capture one of 20 known skeletons of the summit carnivore, which, like its more famous cousin, stood on two legs and had a pair of tiny arms.
On Thursday, a wealthy collector spent $6.1 million to buy the only known skeleton of a Gorgosaurus available for private ownership, according to Sotheby’s, the auction house that brokered the deal. The sale reignited a long-simmering feud in the paleontological community, which for years has denounced the growing commercialization of the estate, including the sale of fossils to private buyers.
Gregory Erickson, professor of paleobiology at Florida State University, told the BBC he fears a multimillion-dollar sale like Thursday’s “sends the message that it’s any other product you can buy for money and not for a scientific good”.
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Gorgosaurus lived in the late Cretaceous, predating T. rex by about 10 million years, Sotheby’s said in its skeletal list. Although smaller, it was “much faster and fiercer” than T. rex, which scientists say was more of a scavenger because its teeth were better suited to breaking bone.
The one that sold Thursday died about 77 million years ago in the Judith River area of what is now Chouteau County, Montana. It remained there until it was excavated in 2018 on private property, Sotheby’s said. If found on federal lands or north of the Canadian border, the skeleton would have been public property, available for scientific study and public viewing, The New York Times reported.
“I am totally disgusted, distressed and disappointed because of the enormous damage the loss of these specimens will have for science,” Thomas Carr, a vertebrate paleontologist at Carthage College who studies tyrannosauroids like Gorgosaurus, told The Times. “It is a disaster.”
This is a debate that has raged for decades. Sotheby’s first auctioned a fossilized dinosaur skeleton in 1997 when it sold a T. rex nicknamed Sue to the Field Museum in Chicago for around $8.4 million. The fossil got its nickname from Sue Hendrickson, the commercial excavator who discovered it in 1990 in South Dakota.
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In 1998, John Hoganson, paleontologist emeritus with the North Dakota Geological Survey, foreshadowed a tension that would only grow over the next 24 years between scientists like him, who want to keep fossils in the public domain for scientific study, and those involved in “a thriving international market for fossils and the resulting collection and sale of fossils by profiteers,” according to CNN.
More than a decade later, private prospecting activity was booming, according to a 2009 Smithsonian Magazine article titled “The Dinosaur Fossil Wars.” Spurred on by discoveries like Sue, amateur excavators swamped the American West and the Great Plains in what they increasingly saw as a modern-day gold rush. Their eagerness to capitalize on everything from a five-inch shark tooth to a once-in-a-lifetime score like a complete dinosaur skeleton has brought them into conflict with scientists and the federal government.
“When it comes to finding fossils, there are a lot more people” than there used to be, Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Twenty years ago, if you encountered a private or commercial fossil prospector in the field, it was one person or a few people. Now you go to good fossil locations in, say, Wyoming, and you find mining operations with maybe 20 people working and doing professional fossil excavation work.
Five years later, the researchers warned that the tension had increased and would continue to do so, posing “the greatest challenge to paleontology of the 21st century”. In a 2014 paper, researchers said new discoveries had led to a new “golden age” in the field that paleontologists could use to inspire people about their work and science in general. But the researchers warned that these scientists need to do a better job of conveying the value of the fossils to the general public.
The perception that “it is normal to sell and buy fossils” has become “deeply entrenched,” according to the 2014 article in Palaeontologia Electronica.
“The vast majority of the general population is unaware that the commercialization of fossils is even a problem,” the researchers wrote.
Erickson, the paleobiology professor, told the BBC the public fascination will continue. Multimillion-dollar sales are the result of a society plagued by “dinomania,” fueled at least in part by cultural touchstones like the Jurassic Park franchise.
But, Erickson added, it goes deeper than that. Dinosaurs – T. rex, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, Pterodactyl – are among the earliest creatures that inspire fear and excitement in children. The frenzy around their fossils, and even the chance to own one, is a way to tap into that wonder again.
“From childhood, people are in love with dinosaurs,” Erickson told the BBC, “so I can see why people buy dinosaur fossils.”