If I ever own an estate, I’m going to call it “the Badlands.” Of course, realistically, there are only two ways I am ever going to be able to afford an estate: 1) winning the lottery, or 2) finding a tyrannosaurus rex buried under my building. I don’t play the lottery and I don’t own the land underneath my building. Or the building itself, or even my apartment, for that matter. So the second option is still a work in progress for me. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t working for some people: the South Dakota Badlands is in the midst of a dinosaur boom. Think of it like a gold rush with extinct reptile bones.
It all started with a dinosaur named Sue. Sue was, at the time of its discovery in 1990, the most complete t-rex fossil ever found—more than eighty percent complete. A paleontology institute initially paid the owner of the ranch on which the fossil was discovered $5,000 to search his land for fossils. There was no written contract. When they found Sue, the rancher thought the fossil was his property and the matter went to court. The paleontologists lost, and Sue went to auction.
This was unprecedented. Until the court case and subsequent auction, fossils had been, by-and-large, considered scientific artifacts, not cash crops. With the help of Sue’s owner and the release of the first Jurassic Park film, that began to change. Sue was sold at Sotheby’s auction. It opened at $500,000 and closed at $7.6 million. Sue narrowly avoided ending up in the hands of a private collector and ultimately went to The Field Museum in Chicago.
Since this sale, tyrannosaurus rex fossils have been discovered at an astonishing clip. We now find one every six months, about ten times the rate of discovery in the pre-Sue era. Which, from a scientific standpoint, is great. That said, private corporations now dominate the industry and paleontologists are often priced out of the market. And of course, the excavations and treatment of these fossils depends on the group excavating them. This won’t surprise anyone, but scientists and corporations often have different incentive structures. All of that is to say, there is a lot potential knowledge lost in the race to get the bones and get paid.
And, as it does so well, Planet Money rushes toward its favorite pain point: where morals and money collide. (My favorite of these is still The Bottom of the Well, about the California Drought.) The Reese family owns a ranch where a t-rex fossil was discovered and later excavated by a private company, and Stacy Vanek Smith is interviewing them about their hopes for the auction.
SMITH: After doing some research and talking to the company, the Rees’s think their T. rex will probably go for between $1 million and $2 million. That would mean a couple hundred thousand dollars for the Rees’s.
Do you guys have a preference for where it ends up?
RANDY REES: It really does belong in a museum and not in a private collection where only one person gets to enjoy it.
SMITH: It may end up in a private collection.
RANDY REES: … If they pay more, I’m OK with it.
And that’s the problem: it’s really easy to take a moral stand for public knowledge and public good when you don’t have a truck-full of money staring you in the wallet. But when the truck arrives, what do you do? And I mean that literally: what do you do? It feels impossible to even conceptualize what it would be like to turn down that kind of money for the abstract sake of “the public good.” I think I could turn it down, but it’s just so hard to know.
Plus, there are a lot of t-rex out there already. Does it really matter that this one, from the Rees farm, has the most complete skull of any ever found, complete with never-before-studied eye bones and what may be horns? If it ends up on the comically-large mantle of a real estate mogul, we can just all go on not knowing about any of that.
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