'Duelling Dinosaurs' fossil, hidden from science for 14 years, could finally reveal its secrets

An exquisitely preserved specimen of a T. rex and Triceratops, tangled together as though they died in combat, has been acquired by a North Carolina museum after more than a decade in private hands.

Published 18 Nov 2020, 09:54 GMT
In 2006, commercial fossil hunters found this exquisite, nearly complete tyrannosaur alongside the bones of a ...

In 2006, commercial fossil hunters found this exquisite, nearly complete tyrannosaur alongside the bones of a plant-eating Triceratops. Now, a North Carolina museum has acquired the prehistoric pair, allowing scientists to begin studying the fossil for the first time.

Photograph by Matt Zeher

For more than a decade, palaeontologists have speculated about a single fossil that preserves skeletons of two of the world’s most famous dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. Not only are the bones arranged as they once were in life, but the dinosaurs are practically intertwined.

Each specimen is among the best of its kind ever found. Together, the pair—nicknamed the “Duelling Dinosaurs”—present a palaeontological mystery: Did the beasts just happen to be entombed together by chance, perhaps as carcasses caught on the same river sandbar? Or had they been locked in mortal combat? Nobody has been able to study the fossil to find out.

The Dueling Dinosaurs fossil may represent a lethal struggle between a Triceratops and a juvenile T. rex, shown here in this artist's reconstruction of prehistoric Montana.

Photograph by Illustration by Anthony Hutchings

But that’s about to change. After years of legal battles that left the fossil locked away in labs or warehouses, the famed find is headed to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS) in Raleigh. Thanks to donors including private foundations and the city, county, and state governments, the nonprofit Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is buying the Duelling Dinosaurs on the museum’s behalf for an undisclosed sum.

The fossil will be housed in a new expansion to the museum, including a state-of-the-art palaeontology lab, that will open in 2022. “The Duelling Dinosaurs are really a gem that’s been hidden away for more than a decade,” says Lindsay Zanno, a palaeontologist at North Carolina State University and the NCMNS head of palaeontology.

Palaeontologists are welcoming the news that the Duelling Dinosaurs fossil has found a permanent home. “There will literally be thousands of studies done on these fossils,” says palaeontologist Tyler Lyson of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

“It’s going to be a very iconic specimen,” adds paleontologist Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

14 years in the shadows

The story of the Duelling Dinosaurs’ discovery and long journey to the NCMNS is every bit as dramatic as the fossil itself.

As the sun bore down on Garfield County, Montana, in the summer of 2006, a fossil hunter named Clayton Phipps made the find of his life. Phipps and his team were surveying a Montana ranch owned by Lige and Mary Ann Murray when Phipps’s cousin Chad O’Connor found a trail of bone bits that led to a Triceratops pelvis eroding out of the hillside. Months of off-and-on digging eventually revealed that the chocolate-brown fossil consisted of a largely complete Triceratops—as well as a neighbouring tyrannosaur.

After Phipps’s crew protected the fossil with burlap and plaster and hauled it from the Murrays’ ranch, the fossil spent years in storage at a private lab in Fort Peck, Montana. Phipps and the Murrays tried to convince a museum to buy it, but they couldn’t find any takers. Phipps recalls some palaeontologists took issue with the way he had excavated it and cataloged the dig site.

In the U.S., fossils found on federal land must enter approved repositories, such as accredited museums. But fossils found on private land, such as the Duelling Dinosaurs, can be legally bought and sold.

In 2013, the London-based auctioneer Bonhams persuaded Phipps and the Murrays to try auctioning off the fossil. Despite mixed feelings about giving up control over the buyer’s identity, Phipps and the Murrays had significant costs to recoup, and they agreed. But the sale flopped, with bids failing to reach the £4.6 million minimum bid. The Duelling Dinosaurs left the New York City auction house and entered a storage facility on Long Island.

Years later, Zanno reached out to Phipps through his confidant Pete Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute, a South Dakota commercial palaeontology firm, to inquire about selling the Duelling Dinosaurs to the NCMNS. In February 2016, Zanno and a team of museum staff visited the Long Island warehouse, a moment she describes as awe-inspiring.

“You cannot look at these specimens without almost seeing them walk out of the block and walk right by you,” she says. “You can just see them as they were in life.”

Negotiations went smoothly, but before the Duelling Dinosaurs could go to Raleigh, they had to make it through years of gruelling U.S. court battles.

By the 2013 auction, the Murrays had caught wind that Jerry and Robert Severson, their former business partners in the ranch, were “sabre-rattling” about filing a lawsuit, Mary Ann Murray says. When the Murrays bought out the Seversons’ interest in the land in 2005, the Severson brothers retained two thirds of the land’s underlying mineral rights. The Seversons argued their mineral rights gave them a stake in the Duelling Dinosaurs—two of the best specimens ever found in Montana—and any profits resulting from their sale.

For more than a century, fossils had been collected in Montana on the assumption that they belonged to a property’s landowners, not whoever owned the mineral rights. So the Murrays preemptively went to a Montana state court seeking a judgment that fossils weren’t minerals.

The out-of-state Seversons then moved the case to a federal district court, which ruled in favour of the Murrays in 2016. The Seversons appealed. To the shock of Phipps, Larson, and the Murrays, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favour of the Seversons in 2018, giving them majority ownership of the Dueling Dinosaurs.

Palaeontologists saw the ruling as a disaster. Not only did equating fossils with minerals threaten to upend a century’s worth of fossil ownership claims, but mineral rights for a given property are often so fragmented that getting permission for future digs on private land would become next to impossible. So in an alliance of convenience, the 2,000-member Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology and a consortium of museums joined with a group of Montana landowners to file a brief on the Murrays’ behalf.

These groups don’t always see eye to eye on the U.S. trade in privately held fossils, so the rallying around the lawsuit “was a rare coming together,” says David Evans, the vertebrate palaeontology chair at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Phipps and the Murrays also urged Montana’s state legislature to pass a law confirming that fossil rights belonged to landowners. The bill passed unanimously in 2019, but the new law didn’t apply to the Duelling Dinosaurs because of the ongoing federal litigation.

In 2019, the Ninth Circuit agreed to rehear the case on appeal and asked the Montana Supreme Court to weigh in on whether fossils were minerals. In May 2020, the state court ruled that they weren’t. The Ninth Circuit agreed in June, affirming that the Murrays owned the Duelling Dinosaurs and had the right to sell them, paving the way for the NCMNS acquisition.

“I’ve been waiting, it seems like an eternity, for this,” says Phipps, who now stars in the Discovery Channel’s reality TV show Dino Hunters. “I couldn’t be happier about where they’re going.”

The controversy of private fossil sales

Not all privately held fossils like the Duelling Dinosaurs make their way into public museums. For many scientists, news of the NCMNS purchase was a welcome contrast to the October sale of Stan, a famous and scientifically important T. rex dug up by Larson and the Black Hills Institute. A court order forced the institute to auction off the fossil to buy out a company shareholder, and an anonymous buyer—in all likelihood a private collector—bought it for £24.6 million.

Palaeontologists were furious about the staggering price, concerned that scientists’ relationship with U.S. landowners would sour and global fossil poaching would increase. By contrast, Evans called the Duelling Dinosaurs announcement “truly fantastic news for palaeontology, particularly in light of what happened recently with the Stan auction.”

But not all scientists are rejoicing. Tyrannosaur expert Thomas Carr, a palaeontologist at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is a staunch advocate of banning the commercial sale of U.S. fossils. He remains concerned that the Duelling Dinosaurs’ purchase legitimises and supports what he sees as an unethical trade in irreplaceable fossils.

“It’s good that those specimens made it into a real museum and haven’t disappeared like Stan did, but on the other hand, what was the price tag?” Carr says. “That [sale] opens up the issue of whether or not scientists and museums have become handmaidens for the commercial fossil trade.”

Carr estimates that more than 40 T. rex fossils—roughly half of all known ones—are in private or commercial hands and remain outside of science’s reach.

A prehistoric duel?

Now that Zanno and her team can study the Duelling Dinosaurs, years of scientific work can begin—including a look at whether the duo really died in a fatal struggle.

Other fossils have captured both predator and prey before. In 1971, Polish and Mongolian palaeontologists found a fighting Velociraptor and Protoceratops, an early cousin of Triceratops, that had been buried after a sand dune collapsed. To tease out the Montana dinosaurs’ fate, researchers will need to work out precisely how—and when—each dinosaur was entombed, and whether each bears the unmistakable signs of injury from the other, such as tooth gouges.

Crucially, Zanno and her team have gained permission to visit the original dig site, which should help resolve how the fossil formed. “If we couldn’t go to the site where the specimens were discovered and collect that data ourselves, then the specimens would be much less valuable from a scientific perspective,” Zanno says.

Regardless of whether the dinosaurs really duelled in life, the fossil presents a unique opportunity to study spectacularly preserved specimens of each ancient beast.

The tyrannosaur, for instance, will shed light how T. rex went from hatchling to hulking predator. Most experts think the tyrannosaur is a juvenile T. rex, which would make it one of just a few fossils of its kind, and by far the most complete. By contrast, Phipps contends that the fossil is instead Nanotyrannus, a controversial pygmy tyrannosaur species that most experts think was actually young T. rex. (Learn more about the latest research into the Nanotyrannus controversy.)

“To me, the bigger underlying question is dinosaur diversity leading up to their extinction—that’s I think where it really, really matters,” says Lyson of the Denver Museum of Natural Sciences. “Is there one big tyrannosaur, or two?”

Even more secrets lie in wait within the rock surrounding the bone, which contains impressions of the dinosaurs’ skin and haloes of residue that may have formed as the animals’ soft tissues degraded. Thanks to recent advances in palaeontology, future scientists may also find stomach contents or even vestiges of the dinosaurs’ original proteins within the stone. “It’s going to be a very intricate job to expose the bones and not destroy the skin while doing that,” Johnson says.

Phipps, for one, is just relieved that scientists finally have a chance to see the fossil—and already, he cannot wait for a future trip to North Carolina.

“I want to take my grandkids there someday and say, Hey, your old grandpappy found those dinosaurs,” he says. “People are going to get to see them forever. That’s what I’ve always wanted.”

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