Inside the new dinosaurs wars

Fossils have become a hot new asset class — but while dino-hunters get rich, scientists are getting irate, says Tom Ward

The next smart investment may not be cryptocurrencies or supporting tech billionaires on their space adventures — but something far closer to home; far deeper in the earth. Instead of looking to the future and new technologies, a rich vein of wealth may be uncovered by turning to the past. Specifically, the Cretaceous period. It was a time when T Rex, that tyrannical lizard king, ruled the western part of North America. Some 85 million to 65 million years later, it is these same creatures that are making fossil hunters rich. Take Stan, a T Rex fossil that sold for $31.8 million at auction last October.

This boom in fossils is great news for the budding dino-hunter, but apparently not so great news for palaeontologists whom, National Geographic explained, are furiousabout the development (The fossil was priceless to paleontologists, but experts fear it may be lost to research now that it belongs to an unknown bidder,wrote Michael Greshko, reporting on Stans sale.) 

Stanwas unearthed over 30 years ago in South Dakota by an amateur palaeontologist named Stan Sacrison. Excavated in 1992 (and named after its discoverer) the fossil was housed at the private Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. That is, until Sacrison decided to sell his namesake, contacting Londons Christies to shift the bones in what would make history as the most expensive fossil auction of all time, beating a 1997 auction in which a complete T. Rex was sold for a paltry $8.36 million (or $13.5 million in todays money).

Many actual palaeontologists are wary of the amateurs, especially their methods and lack of scientific intent. They argue that fossils should be part of a public trust, not a jackpot for private citizens.

'Sue', the world's most expensive ever fossil

Speaking to National Geographic, palaeontologist Lindsay Zanno of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, called Stans $31.8 million price tagsimply staggering, while David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto told Nat Geo Thats an astronomical price that borders on absurdityIf this kind of money [were] invested properly, it could easily fund 15 permanent dinosaur research positions, or about 80 full field expeditions per year, in perpetuity.

Yet Stan is unlikely to be the last of his kind. Across the US, ranchers are turning fossil hunters as a way of supplementing their income. And prices are only rising. According to fossil broker Jared Huston (speaking to Bloomberg) a decade ago a good T. Rex tooth might have sold for $1,000 per inch (they typically come in around four inches). Today, a good T. Rex chomper might net you $4,000 per inch thats $16,000 total.

With the market hotting up, it seems this clash over titans is only just getting started.

The most famous period of dinosaur-related dispute occurred during the Bone Warsof the late 19th Century in which The Great Dinosaur Rushled to a heated rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope (of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) and Othniel Charles Marsh (of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale). As each raced to bag the best bones, they frequently resorted to theft, bribery, slander, and destruction of the others fossils. 

It was a fight as dirty as it was drawn out, but scientists mostly agree that because Marsh had more men and money at his disposal, he wonthe war by collecting the greatest number of fossils. Cope, however, did manage to discover a total of 56 new species. 

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