Friday, November 27, 2020


Approximately four out of 10 Tyrannosaurus rex fossils are in private or commercial hands, making them unavailable to science. The problems don't go away if museums pay top dollar for them, because their money helps to keep the commercial trade afloat.

The purchase of the dueling dinosaurs that was announced last week (Nov. 17, 2020) by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences  wasn’t the first time a museum has shelled out for an eye-catching tyrannosaur; ahead of that transaction was Sue (Field Museum), Bucky (The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis), Wyrex (Houston Museum of Natural Science), and Trix (Naturalis Museum), totaling five specimens. I argue here that when museums pay the ransom for a dinosaur fossil to the commercial trade, it hurts the science and shouldn’t be done.

Context is everything—Importantly, the context of those five purchases aren’t the same: in the case of Sue the monies from the auction went to the landowner, in the other four the sale satisfied one or more commercial interests. In the case of the dueling dinosaurs, the monies were, presumably, split between the landowners and the two commercial players (Pantuso, 2019). In other words, Sue was not bought off the shelf, whereas the others were.

It should matter to us scientists where the money goes – and if it goes back to the companies who trade in fossils, that fact should give us pause: we become the problem when we give them our money for fossils. It helps to keep them afloat to continue collecting scientifically important fossils, and holding them for ransom from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars until a museum blinks or a private collector pays out.

Resist. Resist or perish—The monies paid to commercial companies helps to keep them in business. Those companies, at least in the case of T. rex, has deprived science of half the sample size.

An updated comparison of the number of Tyrannosaurus rex fossils collected by commercial interests, in contrast to public trusts. The number of commercially collected T. rex is almost certainly an underestimate, since the trade often keeps its wares in secrecy. Ergo, approximately half of the sample size of T. rex is kept from science.

Half of the specimens of T. rex are inaccessible to science, purely because of the fossil market. This circumstance is simply bizarre, but it is the very one in which I find myself. It is like living in a parallel universe, especially when many of my colleagues don't regard this situation with as much concern as me. In many cases, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they work on species that have higher sample sizes or their work is at a meta-level where high numbers of individuals are not required. But what if they woke up tomorrow morning to discover that half of the fossils they expected to see were gone, and the fossils were held for a ransom of millions of dollars? I don't know how bad the situation is for other dinosaurs and extinct reptiles, but I have noticed that Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Triceratops, and Maiasaura do regularly appear on the auction block.

A colleague has said to me that what they pay for fossils "is only a drop in the bucket" compared with the total annual income of a large commercial outfit. That may be so, but why help keep an exploitative company afloat that sells fossils out of science's hands? Why actively support the commodification of dinosaur fossils? Why play their game? The mean price of a T. rex is 12.4 million USD; this is certainly at the high end for most dinosaurs, but I fail to see how hundreds of thousands of dollars, let alone millions, are trivial sums in a niche (and, in my opinion, illegitimate) market.

Comparison of the monies paid for Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons, which is doled out in the millions of dollars. I do not know the prices paid for Wyrex and Bucky, but I expect that they were sold in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The sources of prices for Samson, Trix, Sue, and Stan are in my previous post, "Tyrannosaurus rex: 115 years old and royally f***ed." The source for the price of the dueling dinosaurs is from Shaffer (2020).

The problem is increased when museums give the fossil trade a free pass and loads of money to continue as it has, pretending there’s no issue with the trade itself. The public is not alerted to the problem when, with fanfare, museums buy tyrannosaurs.

Don’t be fooled by the hype - the purchase of the dueling dinosaurs does not change the fact that roughly half the sample size of T. rex is still inaccessible to science. Less than 20% of commercially-obtained T. rex eventually wind up in museums. The instance of a T. rex making its way from commercial hands into a public trust is the exception, not the rule.

The proportion of commercially-obtained Tyrannosaurus rex fossils that have made it into a valid museum is less than 20%.

Museums: please don’t pay the ransom—The commercial trade in dinosaur fossils has to be shut down; there are many models across the world for the US to follow in terms of managing these nonrenewable resources without a persistent and exploitative commercial trade, such as Alberta, Italy, and so on. In the meantime, museums should just stop buying spectacular specimens, period. And, if any can, they should instead encourage the donation of the fossils to their collections. That would be a great deal less destructive upon science than giving the trade the extra shot in the arm it needs to make the next field season.

Coda—In light of this ongoing mess I can't help but wonder: should fossils bought off the shelf by public trusts be studied at all? The ethics of that stance needs further rumination, but I can already hear the braying of my trolls and their shills: "He can't admit he's wrong about Nanotyrannus!" Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sources Cited

Pantuso, P. 2019. Perhaps the best dinosaur fossil ever discovered. So why has hardly anyone seen it? The Guardian, Wed. July 17.

Shaffer, J. 2020. 'Dueling dinosaurs': world's most complete Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, Raleigh bound. The Charlotte Observer, Tues. Nov. 17.