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Scientists are concerned about the million dollar auction of this dinosaur skeleton

Kristen Rogers and Yenny Sanchez, CNN

The ancient skeleton of a Gorgosaurus went up for auction for the first time today and sold for just over $6 million. Whoever bought it — which is currently unknown — now also has the unusual opportunity to name it.

About 77 million years old, the Gorgosaurus is a relative of the deadly Tyrannosaurus rex, but faster and with a stronger bite force, according to Sotheby’s, the sale organizer. Sotheby’s offered the Gorgosaurus as a highlight in its Natural History auction that began today at 10:00 a.m. ET. The rare fossil was expected to attract bids of up to $8 million, according to the auction house.

The fossil was discovered in 2018 on private land in the Judith River Formation, in Montana’s Choteau County, and has 79 bone elements, according to Sotheby’s. All other known Gorgosaurus skeletons are in museum collections, making this one the only specimen of its kind offered for private ownership — which some scientists consider problematic for scientific study.

“In my career, I have had the privilege of handling and selling many exceptional and unique objects, but few have the capacity to inspire wonder and capture imaginations quite like this unbelievable Gorgosaurus skeleton,” Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby’s global head of science and popular culture, said in a news release.

“Excavated only a few years ago, a Gorgosaurus has never before been offered at auction, and the opportunity of sharing this dinosaur with the public for the first time is an immense pleasure and a highlight of my career.”

Just over 9 feet (2.8 meters) tall and 22 feet (6.7 meters) long, the Gorgosaurus was an apex carnivore that resided in the United States and Canada during the late Cretaceous period. Like T. rex, the Gorgosaurus is a large theropod and has similar features, such as an enormous head with dozens of sharp, curved teeth and two small front limbs.

“As the master hunter of its time, in which it was believed to have hunted in packs of four, the Gorgosaurus was a dominant force and a singular predator,” according to Sotheby’s. The dinosaur’s name is derived from the Greek words for “fierce lizard.”

Fossil auctions and ethics

The sale of the Gorgosaurus is Sotheby’s second sale of a fossilized dinosaur skeleton. In 1997, the auction house sold the T. rex fossil nicknamed Sue, one of the largest and most complete dinosaur fossils ever found, to the Chicago-based Field Museum for $8.36 million. The specimen was named after collector Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the significant find. Excavated from South Dakota, Sue was the most valuable fossil to ever sell at auction at the time.

The auctioning of Sue was also controversial and, at the time, the latest example of a new challenge for the management of fossil resources: John W. Hoganson, paleontologist emeritus of the North Dakota Geological Survey, wrote in a 1998 edition of the survey’s newsletter of the potential impact on scientific advancement of “a thriving international market for fossils and the resulting collecting and selling of fossils by profiteers.”

“The professional paleontology community anxiously anticipated the T. rex auction because of uncertainty as to whether the important specimen would end up in a private collection, thereby making it unavailable for scientific study and public display, or in a public repository in this country,” he wrote. “The ultimate concern was the effect the sale would have on the science of paleontology.”

During Hoganson’s tenure, he established the North Dakota State Fossil Collection and was involved with bringing about a federal law to protect fossil resources on federal lands in the US, according to the state’s government.

Stan, the world’s most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, set a new world record in 2020 when it sold for $31.8 million at Christie’s. At the time of sale, paleontologists feared the fossil was lost to science, but in March the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism revealed plans for Stan to be a star attraction at a new museum of natural history, expected to open in 2025 in Abu Dhabi, as CNN previously reported.

As Sue remains on public display at the Field Museum, Stan awaits a permanent home, and the Gorgosaurus has been sold, some scientists aren’t happy that this trend is continuing.

“In my own opinion, there are only cons,” said P. David Polly, a professor and chair of the department of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. “While certainly there is no law in the US that supports this for fossils that come off private land, it’s easy for me as a scientist to argue that that fossil is important to all of us, and really ought to be going into a public repository where it can be studied — where the public at large can learn from it and enjoy it.”

Fossils on private lands belong to private individuals who can do what they want with them, whereas fossils on public lands are regulated by the federal government and essentially belong to the government or “the people, if you will,” Polly said. “When there is a fossil that goes up for auction like this and is predicted to make millions of dollars, one of the things that does is it says to private landholders that the fossils on their land really ought to be monetized.”

Other scientific experts, however, acknowledged that museum collecting has historically included acquisitions from commercial sources.

“It makes me sad that there’s a price tag on dinosaurs,” but “it’s not a black or white issue,” said Gregory Erickson, a professor of anatomy and vertebrate paleobiology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “There is a history of museums buying commercial specimens.”

“It’s a brave new world for our science,” said vertebrate paleontologist Steve Brusatte, professor and Personal Chair of Paleontology and Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, via email. “In a world where dinosaur skeletons fetch millions, where does that leave scientists and museums, who can’t afford such inflated prices?”

And what did Polly think would be the best-case outcome of this auction? “That whoever is selling it would listen to what I just said and have a conversion experience and donate it to a museum,” he said. “The second best would be that somebody wealthy heard this kind of message and gave a lot of money (to a museum) so that can be purchased for a museum.”

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Top image: The Gorgosaurus fossil is mounted to show how the dinosaur walked on two hind legs. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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