Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Speaking of Science: A $2 million bone to pick

Speaking of Science
Sarah Kaplan and Ben Guarino on Science

The skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur on display at the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

One hundred fifty million years ago, a 30-foot-long carnivorous dinosaur died in what is now private land in Wyoming. And that's where the trouble started.

In 2013, the skeleton was discovered and dug up. More recently, the bones went to Paris, where, at the base of the Eiffel tower, they were auctioned this week. Reuters, reporting from the city, said the winning bid was over $2.3 million. Auctioneer Claude Aguttes told Reuters that the buyer plans to present the skeleton publicly.

Because the dino was found on private lands, the sale violated no laws. Yet paleontologists aren't happy. Not only does $2.3 million stretch beyond the typical paleontology grant, the dinosaur might be a new species. A large, two-legged predator, it looks somewhat similar to well-studied dinosaurs called Allosaurus. But the auction catalogue cites Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science researcher Pascal Godefroit, who said the skeleton might belong to "a new, still unnamed" group of predators.

That claim wasn't supposed to be a marketing point, he said. Godefroit told Science Magazine he offered to examine the skeleton in 2016 but had no idea it was going to auction. In fact, he said, it could be a jumble of two different animals kludged into one skeleton. Which gets to the heart of the paleontological problem, critics say: Science is designed to be reported in a peer reviewed journal, not in the glossy pages of an auctioneer's catalogue. To settle the question, they're now dependent on the word of the buyer that this specimen will be available to the public.

There's a mixed record of private owners donating unusual dinosaur skeletons to museums. Perhaps the most infamous example, the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs — a toothy predator and horned prey that apparently died while battling — remain in a vault, having failed to sell at auction in 2013.


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