Fossil Hunting


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Why has fossil hunting gotten so many scientists so bent out of shape over the years? Maybe because these are really bones, profoundly old and rare, with vivid, larger-than-current-life backstories. 

Shipped the remains of an “extinct monster” from Kansas in the late 1860s, the young paleontologist Edward D. Cope excitedly identified the fossilized bones as belonging to a new family of plesiosaur, larger than any then known. He displayed his discovery at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences and showed it off to colleagues, including Othniel Marsh–who retorted that the head of his so-called elasmosaurus was firmly affixed to its tail. 

So, supposedly, began the Bone Wars, a 20-year struggle between two independently wealthy adventurers to dominate the field of paleontology by digging up the most dinosaurs. Between them they named 130 species, doubling the number known to science, though many were so hastily identified, and based on so few bones, that they turned out to be duplicates (such as the massive herbivore apatosaurus, a.k.a brontosaurus) or mix-ups (such as the three-horned triceratops, which Marsh swore was “one of the largest of American bovines”). 

The science of paleontology has moved far beyond those bellicose, backward days, but dinosaur hunting has retained its old-time competitive drive. Unlike astronomy or particle physics, paleontology is still a vigorous mixture of acquisitiveness, showmanship, speculation, and polemic. And with prices on prized specimens entering seven figures, extinct monsters now belong to the marketplace as much as to science. 

“People have a real affinity for dinosaurs, whether as part of a natural history collection or even as interior decor,” says Thomas Lindgren, co-consulting director of the natural history department at Bonhams. He ought to know. In 2009 he privately sold a Tyrannosaurus rex named “Samson” to an anonymous collector for approximately $5 million. Another anonymous buyer acquired an allosaurus–an earlier top predator–from Sotheby’s in 2010 for $1.8 million. Individual dino claws and teeth sometimes realize $10,000 apiece. Even a choice pile of fossilized dinosaur excrement can sell (and recently did, at Heritage Auctions) for more than $5,000. 

The insatiable public appetite for dinosaurs dates back to the first discoveries, fed by the scientists themselves. Most prominent was the British paleontologist, biologist, and comparative anatomist Richard Owen, who coined the term dinosauria (Greek for “great lizards”), and in 1853 opened a Dinosaur Court in London’s Crystal Palace, holding a banquet in the belly of an ersatz iguanodon. There was plenty of space to accommodate guests, for his plaster model was based on so few bones and teeth that Owen believed the beast resembled a massive, scaly hippopotamus. 

Yet neither banquets nor bone wars could match the 1902 discovery of T. rex in terms of hype and hyperbole. The first meager fossils were found in Montana by dinosaur hunter Barnum Brown, who shipped them back to the American Museum of Natural History, where the new species was promptly dubbed Tyrannosaurus rex–“king of the tyrant lizards”–by museum president Henry Fairfield Osborn. In case its name wasn’t sufficiently melodramatic, Osborn speculatively described the creature as “the most superb carnivorous mechanism among the terrestrial Vertebrata,” praising its “raptorial destructive power.” Ever since, the Tyrannosaurus has been the ultimate trophy for hunters, museums, and private collectors alike, burnished by celebrity, bolstered by top-of-the-food-chain rarity. It has become a pop icon, part King Kong, part Fantasia. 

To find any dinosaur fossil at all is a challenge. Only a vanishingly small fraction of prehistoric animals died in the perfect conditions–including a swift cover of sediment–necessary to fossilize bones in the first place. Their underground metamorphosis is slow and depends on minerals in the silt seeping into the skeletal structure, where they gradually solidify. Over millions of years, rock replaces bone. Eventually, geological processes force some ancient sedimentary layers to the surface, briefly revealing embedded fossils but also exposing them to the elements, ensuring that unnoticed relics are rapidly eroded. Even hunters fortunate enough to find fossils must dig them from hard ground, often at a cost of more than $100,000 per large skeleton if scientific protocols of preservation and documentation are followed. Even then all can be lost due to the shifting legal terrain underlying fossil collection, as in the famous case of “Sue,” the rock star of T. rex skeletons. 

Sue was found in 1990 in South Dakota by the seasoned fossil hunter Peter Larson and his then companion Susan Hendrickson (for whom Sue was named) on private land belonging to a farmer named Maurice Williams. Williams accepted $5,000 from Larson for what the latter says he believed was the dinosaur, but the Feds questioned the transaction because Williams’ land happened to be held in trust by the government. Sue was seized by the National Guard and the FBI, a trial was held, and by a logic that can only be described as prehistoric, the confiscated bones were given back to Williams, free of charge. Seven years after the original find he sent the T. rex to Sotheby’s–the fossilized bones still in their plaster field jackets–where Sue was given the seemingly outrageous estimate of $1 million. The publicity stunt attracted worldwide press. Five different museums rallied their trustees and sponsors, including the Field Museum in Chicago, which secured the backing of Walt Disney World Resort and McDonald’s, among others, to purchase Sue for $8.36 million. 

That sale was the spawning ground for “rex disease” according to Richard Polsky, author of Boneheads, a new book about the fossil market. In the presence of a Tyrannosaurus, people lose their sense, as in the case of the original owner of Samson (then known as Z. rex), who insisted it was worth $30 million because it was rarer than a fighter jet. Nathan Myhrvold, the polymath ex-Microsoft executive, went hunting for T. rex remains with a bankroll and a passion (see ForbesLife, March 2011), adding nine specimens to the world’s previous total of 18.  

The mania has carried over into the market for other top carnivores. “I think the public imagination plays a major part in the collecting genre,” notes Bonhams’ Lindgren. “The more terrifying and monsterlike, the more desirable dinosaurs are.” There’s also a premium placed on how lifelike they look, often with $150,000 or more spent prepping the bones and setting them in a custom frame. “They’re being mounted in more aggressive poses than they were 50 years ago,” he explains. “Just having a dinosaur is one thing, but having one professionally mounted in an artistic manner makes it transcend the fossil world and become part of the art world.” 

Still, nobody wants to get caught sticking the head on the wrong end of the creature, even if–as with Cope’s long-necked plesiosaur–it looks as if it belongs there. Heritage’s director of natural history auctions, David Herskowitz, says that the mounting is more scientific than it has been in the past, “based on the study of bones and joints.” He also insists on the importance of setting the bones in clamps instead of drilling them, as was once done, lest scientific information be lost. “A fossil is valuable not only for what it is,” he says, “but also for the information it contains.” 

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology categorically opposes the private ownership of fossils, and many museums shun collectors’ specimens, yet scientifically valuable information is regularly uncovered by private companies. Peter and Neal Larson’s Black Hills Institute of Geological Research is one example. Another is Dinosauria International, which has returned to the Wyoming territory where the Bone Wars were mostly fought, in order to explore a Jurassic mud trap known as the Dana Quarry. In 2007, Dinosauria’s paleontologists uncovered an unusually complete allosaurus in the Dana Quarry, which proved even more unusual in the laboratory: As the head was chipped from the matrix, a stegosaurus leg bone was found with it. Deeper digging recovered the remainder of the stegosaur, perforated with what probably are allosaur bite marks on the neck plate. 

In these fossilized bones is preserved the first tangible evidence that these two prehistoric species coexisted (if not especially harmoniously), rather than evolving in separate time periods. Pegged with Herskowitz’s attention-getting $3 million estimate, they’ll go together onto the Heritage auction block this June, mounted separately in mid-battle. “Nothing like this has ever been seen before,” says Herskowitz. Except perhaps the bone-rattling feud between Othniel Marsh and Edward D. Cope. 

Dinosaurs now rule the fossil market, as they once did the earth, commanding prices out of most people’s reach. Needless to say, dinosaurs are also difficult to fit in the typical Manhattan duplex. But dinosaurs were not the only prehistoric creatures to become fossilized. There are also whole oceans of fossil fish, and spiral-shelled ammonites (above and below) as well as marine arthropods known as trilobites. 

“These fossils are cheap,” says David Herskowitz, of Heritage Auctions. “Although people have been collecting them for thousands of years, there’s been a slow rise in popularity over the past 20 years.” 

Bonhams expert Thomas Lindgren emphasizes the appeal of trilobites to collectors. “Certainly some trilobites can bring $10,000,” he says, “but the typical trilobite is going to sell for $100 to $1,000, and there are literally tens of thousands of species, so most people will never complete a collection.” Trilobites are prized for their delicate spines, and command premium prices when specimens are expertly prepared under a microscope. Extracting one from the matrix in which it was fossilized can take hundreds of hours, and although a perfect preparation is exceedingly rare, the smallest slip can slash the value by as much as two thirds. Conversely, trilobites prepared by acknowledged masters can command two to three times those extracted by less exalted hands. “These people are true artists,” says Lindgren. Herskowitz concurs, and singles out Jeff Hammer. Last year Heritage sold one of Hammer’s whiskered spiny trilobites for $1,300, and examples of several less intricate species for $500 to $700. 

Fossil fish present an equally good value, according to Herskowitz. “You can get a fossil fish that’s 55 million years old and looks like it’s still swimming for a couple hundred dollars,” he says. Even the most desirable examples are surprisingly affordable. Last year Bonhams sold an entire underwater scene with a stingray and a dozen perch preserved in a layer of sediment for $4,300. And Heritage sold a rare “aspiration”–the technical term for a fish fossilized while eating another fish–for $14,300. “The fish died because the other fish got caught in its throat,” Herskowitz explains. “Now, that’s an action shot.” 

Author: Jonathon Keats | Source: ForbesLife Magazine [May 04, 2011]



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