The remains of a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex are now on eBay, alongside 50-piece dinosaur pieces and wide-eyed T. rex action figures. The 15-foot skeleton, possibly the only one existing, can be purchased at the "buy now" price of $ 2.95 million.
Alan Detrich, the professional fossil hunter he discovered, says it's a bargain – "change of idiocy," he says – to such a rare discovery. But that's a problem, say scientists, who believe the discovery is an invaluable piece of our collective history and a key clue to understanding the prehistoric predator, reports The Washington Post.
"The fossil record is analogous to Earth's memory," said Thomas Carr, a paleontologist at Carthage College in Wisconsin. "Fossils are the only information we have about how life on this planet has evolved."
The debate over sales of fossils is old, but it's lit up now that dinosaur relics have become trophies among ultrariches and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe and Nicolas Cage. The most coveted fossils are fodder for auction houses, where they can fetch millions. Last summer, for example, an almost complete skeleton of a potentially new species of carnivorous dinosaur was sold by the Paris auction house Aguttes for $ 2.36 million. The US private buyer took over the property before the scientists had a chance to study it and identify it.
Rising prices make it more difficult for museums and public institutions to compete with wealthy collectors. And since these specimens are placed in private hands, they are more or less lost to science, experts say.
"The sale of fossils depreciates information, because it is unethical to study specimens that are not in a public fund," Carr said, because privately owned fossils impede independent analysis and verification of results.
This sale is particularly annoying, Carr said, because of the scarcity of T. rex juvenile fossils left paleontologists with gaps in understanding the lives of dinosaurs. He launches commercial fossil hunters as "time thieves."
"Absolutely every additional fossil is key to getting a picture of what a young T. rex was," Carr said.
Detrich, 71, who is not a paleontologist, discovered T. rex on private lands he rented in Jordan, Montana, in 2013. In the United States, fossils found on private lands belong to whoever digs them. Most fossil-rich countries, such as China and Mongolia, have strict laws surrounding the collection and sale of fossils. Cage notoriously had to give up a tyrannosaurus skull that he overcame DiCaprio in 2007 because it may have been illegally smuggled out of Mongolia.
Once experts helped Detrich understand what he had – the bones of a 4-year-old T. rex – he decided to lend it to the University of Kansas Natural History Museum near his Lawrence home in 2017. He said that I thought the public should see this.
But last week, without prompting the university, he listed T. rex on eBay. His first post emphasized the prominent exhibit of the fossil at school as a key selling point.
The museum was quick to clarify that it was not involved in the sale, and that the fossil was being removed and returned to Detrich. In a statement, museum director Leonard Krishtalka also said Detrich was asked to remove references to the university from listing.
The movement also attracted criticism from broader academic and scientific communities. The Vertebrate Paleontology Society wrote an open letter condemning the sale of the baby T. rex, noting that the price would likely ensure that the specimen would wipe out a private owner, robbing scientists and the public of the chance to learn more from him.
"What fossils like this are evidence of the deep past of the Earth is what makes them valuable, unlike objects of art or other items of commerce whose value comes from human creativity and talent," the letter says. "Everyone who is lost from public trust, is part of that already fragmentary story that we will never recover collectively."
But many professional fossil sellers reject the idea that specimens in private hands are lost to science. Michael Triebold, who collects fossils commercially for more than 30 years, said museums often depend on companies like him for their exhibits. He also refuted the idea that specimens should be kept in the public trust.
"Specimens are borrowed and never returned, specimens are stolen, lost through a variety of means, including laziness and incompetence," Triebold wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. "I dare to suggest that a fossil of private property of any scientific significance be treated better than one in public trust."
Detrich is annoyed by the suggestion that he is only interested in money and has no respect for history. Without it, he said, the skeleton would still be buried underground, hidden and anonymous. He said he has given scientists and the public wide access to T. rex for the past two years. Now, he claims, he deserves to be compensated.
Detrich has not yet received an offer but says he has heard of prospects around the world and that some people even asked about shipping costs. The listing has an average of 116 views per hour on eBay.
For a man whose goods are millions of years old, Detrich's visions depend on the ephemeral: "Billionaires die like the rest of us, he's going to end up in a museum someday, what if it's not for another 20 years?"