One of the most exciting dinosaur discoveries in recent years may not make it to a museum. The find of two dinosaur fossils "locked in mortal combat" will instead hit the auction block in New York, and the set is expected to bring in a $7 to $9 million haul — which would make it one of the most expensive dinosaur fossils ever.
Dubbed the "Montana Dueling Dinosaurs," the fossils were found in 2006 by commercial prospectors on private land. According to The New York Times, dinosaur fossils discovered on private property in the US belong to the landowner and aren't controlled as they are in many other countries. That's disappointing many scientists who hope to get their hands on the find, which is notable not only because it appears that the two dinosaurs were attacking each other when they died, but also because the fossils may reveal two new kinds of dinosaur.
"This lines their pockets but hurts science."
According to a report from the Black Hills Institute's Peter Larson, who was involved with the find, the two dinosaurs are a Nanotyrannus lancensis — which looks like a small Tyrannosaurus rex — and a Triceratops-like Chasmosaurine ceratopsian. The first fossil may help clear up a controversy over whether the Nanotyrannus lancensis was a separate genus or merely a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, as the skeleton is complete and it's only the third specimen found to-date. Larson's analysis suggests that the fossil demonstrates that the dinosaur was not merely a small T. rex. The herbivore Ceratopsian found at the site is also the most complete skeleton available and it may also be part of a new genus and species. The fossils have been so well preserved over the millions of years, according to Larson's report, that skin fragments — and possibly proteins — remain intact.
Larson's analysis of the find also suggests that the two dinosaurs may have killed each other in battle and died together. Two Nanotyrannus teeth were found in the body of the Ceratopsian at the site, suggesting it may have attacked the herbivore. It appears that the herbivore may have retaliated and kicked in the Nanotyrannus' chest and broken its skull, possibly revealing new details in dinosaur behavior.
Final, conclusive analysis could remain elusive if the fossils never make it to a museum, however. "This lines their pockets but hurts science," Dinosaur Discovery Museum senior scientific adviser Thomas Carr told The New York Times, when speaking about the sellers. The paper reports that the sellers did offer the fossils to The Smithsonian for roughly $15 million, and both the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Chicago received offers, all of which were rejected. The Museum of Natural History's paleontology division chairman explained to The New York Times that it typically only displays fossils it finds on its own, though he admitted that "It is the kind of thing that makes curators like myself salivate."
It's still possible that a museum could buy the fossils, or a philanthropist could donate them to such an institution. A private buyer could also give scientists access to the fossils before putting them on display. Unfortunately, the fate of the fossils will all come down to the auction.
A website set up for the "Montana Dueling Dinosaurs" features many pictures of the discovery site and the fossils. Image above depicts a 3D model of the find.