Jurassic bucks

Trade in dinosaur bones pits entrepreneurs against scientists

Jim Wyatt gingerly picked his way through the thorny, dry North Texas brush, careful of the loose, sharp rocks that made the uneven terrain treacherous. With only half an hour left before sunset on a hot summer day, Wyatt strained his eyes looking for...what? He wasn't quite sure himself.

He struggled up a hill, and there, just on the other side, jutting out of the ground was what Wyatt had been patiently seeking: an enormous shoulder blade. Bending down next to it, trying hard to keep his head clear and hand steady despite his mounting excitement, Wyatt swept away the clay and gravel surrounding the bone and saw vertebrae and then ribs. He didn't know what the animal was yet, but he knew it was big, really big, and so far it looked promising.

By now night had fallen over the Wichita River basin in Archer County, where Wyatt worked. The mild-mannered amateur paleontologist and fossil dealer let out the whoops he had held back, surprising only the cows that witnessed his most important discovery: Ctenospondylus casei, the fossilized remains of a 270-million-year-old reptile in rare form--85 percent complete--that once was about 4 feet tall and 12 to 15 feet long. Only one or two others like it had been found by 1994, the time of Wyatt's discovery.

Wyatt covered his find to protect it from the elements--and the cows--and camped out for the night. At dawn the next day, he was ready to begin the tedious process of uncovering the fossil. Perched on a 5-gallon bucket, with his back to the quarry wall, he dug around the bones, throwing handfuls of clay over his shoulder.

Suddenly, a rattling unmistakable to anyone who works in the North Texas countryside interrupted his work. He turned slowly and there, less than 6 inches from his leg, was a 5-foot snake, coiled, ready to strike. He moved away slowly, taking advantage of the rattler's sluggishness in the pre-dawn chill, grabbed a shovel, scooped it up and tossed it into the undergrowth.

"It was a little upset at me for burying it in clay so early in the morning," he says quietly, grinning through his beard. Wyatt is sitting in his "lab"--the garage of his modest Garland home--surrounded by the fossils he gathers, prepares, trades, and sells. His stories of remote digs and danger give him the air of an adventurer, a sort of suburban Indiana Jones. To most, paleontology--the study of the fossil record--is the stuff of Jurassic Park and The Land Before Time. To Wyatt, it's not just an adventure. It's a job.

Five years ago, Wyatt, a medical imaging technician, decided to capitalize on his love for the fossils he had collected and studied over the years. After visiting trade shows and acquainting himself with the market, he started fossilnet.com in 1997. On the Web site, buyers with a credit card can purchase anything from a $1 fossilized sea urchin to a $17,000 triceratops skull--or a Tyrannosaurus rex in good shape, like the one Wyatt had for sale last year for a cool $10 million.

Wyatt's fossilnet.com is among a growing number of businesses seeking to cash in on public fascination with dinosaurs--a trend that troubles many academic paleontologists. They cringe at the idea that pieces of the history of life on earth can be sold to the highest bidder and end up as knickknacks on someone's mantel, out of reach to researchers and the public.

The Ctenospondylus casei, for example, sold for $35,000 to a Houston broker, but hasn't found a permanent home yet. For the past year it has been with a business on the East Coast, being mounted to look like the posed dinosaurs we are used to seeing in museums. It may end up in a museum willing to pay up for a chance to own the rare reptile, but it could just as well become the world's most expensive lawn ornament in the hands of a quirky buyer.

Big sales like this are unusual; Wyatt makes most of his money selling humbler specimens--fossilized sea urchins and clamshells so common around Texas--to retailers such as Museum Earth in the Golden Triangle mall. He's able to put food on the table and keep himself and his wife, Eva, fed, he says, but he has yet to make a profit.

Wyatt sees himself as following a long line of commercial dealers, such as Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, 19th-century arch-rivals who hired fossil hunters to dig up bones and ship them back east for sale to museums. The price asked covered their field expenses.

Back then, "most things that were found were given away, and the few commercial ventures there were would prepare the material and sell it to museums. It was all academic," Wyatt says. "When Cope and Marsh did their work, the attitude toward commercialization was, we cannot go into the field and do the legwork, so we will hire local people to do it and get the fossils back east to our museum. That was perfectly acceptable."

But that was then, when the West was wild, fossil prices were reasonable, and details such as land ownership and contextual information--where the bones were found, their layout, date and so on--were not considered important. Today, Wyatt can only prospect on private land, with the permission of the owner--and often paying a hefty fee. (Luckily for Wyatt, he did not have to pay a fee for his Archer County find.) Still, many academic paleontologists feel selling any part of the fossil record into private hands is sacrilegious. And the prices, especially of fossil superstars like that Hollywood favorite T. rex, have skyrocketed out of reach of many research and nonprofit institutions.

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