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.

"Paleontology has moved forward with some commercial dealing in the past," says Tony Firillo, curator of paleontology at the Dallas Museum of Natural History. "Today it is an entirely different game. We have one tool for studying the history of life on this planet, and that is the fossil record. If specimens get sold into private hands and we never see them again, we can't use them; we can't unravel this history of life."

With a pop-culture landscape teeming with dinosaurs varying from saccharine Barney to Jurassic Park's killer velociraptors, it is no wonder the market for the real thing is growing. Ten years ago, there were 20 commercial dealers; today, the American Association of Paleontological Suppliers lists more than 120, and the fossil trade totals between $3 million and $5 million a year. In a good year, however (or a bad one, depending on your viewpoint), a single sale can generate much more than that.

In 1990, Peter Larson, a commercial dealer prospecting in South Dakota's Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, excavated a nearly complete T. rex skeleton, which he named Sue after his girlfriend. He had paid the ranch owner handsomely to dig on his land, and the bones were shipped back to the Black Hills Institute of Geological Science, Larson's commercial fossil supply house. As soon as the word was out, tourists started streaming in and along with them, a surprise: 30 FBI agents. Alleging the reservation had been placed in trust to the U.S. government and could not be dug for commercial purposes, they carted the bones away, giving rise to the headline "FBI Seizes Dinosaur."

A long lawsuit later, Larson landed in jail for failing to fill out the correct forms, and Sue was sent to New York's Sotheby's. In October 1997, with controversy, Hollywood glamour, and the high-dollar auction house lending the old bones a glimmer of star status, Sue sold for an unprecedented $8.36 million. Larson, however, did not see any of the money. It went to the ranch owner. Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History outbid competitors with the help of Disney and McDonald's, which received replicas to help sell hamburgers and movie tickets.

No fossil had broken the million-dollar mark before. Paleontologists attending the sale worried about the consequences of such a high-profile--and high-dollar--event.

"The amount of money Sue was sold for makes it hard for [nonprofit and research institutions]," says Jason Head, a doctoral candidate in vertebrate paleontology at SMU. "There were academics who had great agreements made with private land owners, but once fossils started becoming a profitable market, they were kicked off." Head refuses even to look at material prepared by commercial dealers.

Firillo adds that there are people out there now who think they can make their retirement through one big find. He fears that may lead to destructive behavior, such as digging up fossils hastily, in the middle of the night, or without expert advice.

Frederick Nuss is first in line among those hoping to make it big. The commercial fossil dealer from Kansas and a partner own "Z. Rex," one of the world's best-preserved tyrannosauruses. They had been trying to sell it for five years before Sue came along. Asking price? $10 million.

Now, with the hype and the burgeoning Internet market for just about anything, their time had come. They contacted Wyatt, and he agreed to be their broker.

Wyatt didn't close on any sales, though he came close, he says. But the aftershock of Sue's sale can still be felt. This year, Wyatt thinks another three or four T. rexes will come up for sale. Meanwhile, august nonprofits such as the Smithsonian are doomed to remain tyrannosaurus-less.

In the midst of this controversy, the only issue that private dealers and academics agree on is the need for better regulation of the field. Commercial collectors are not allowed to prospect on public land, unlike museums and research institutions, and the collectors don't like that.

"There are a lot of fossils out there on public lands that are being exposed to the weather and destroyed. Why not issue permits to commercial collectors as well as museums to go out there and collect them?" Wyatt asks.

Many academics, however, want rules that pull the other way, toward a more tightly guarded field.

"The laws we have now are few and far between," Head says. "The Bureau of Land Management has one or two officers per million acres, so how are they going to watch over what goes on?"

Head sides with the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in condemning fossil sales, but he emphasizes that most academics are thankful for help received from fossil enthusiasts who make important finds and notify them.

"I just wrote a paper on the world's most primitive duck-billed dinosaur, discovered near Flower Mound by Gary Byrd," he says. Byrd is not a professional paleontologist, but he recognized the value of his find and notified the Department of Geological Sciences at SMU. Head named the 15- to 20-foot-long dinosaur after him--Protohadros byrdi.

Although he donates material to museums and loves his work, Wyatt admits he can't afford to be too altruistic about his trade.

"I do it because I like it, but I also have to...pay bills," he says.
In the meantime, while regulations don't change, ancient fossils remain subjected to the vicissitudes of the market and human folly.

One of Wyatt's most recent sales was a partial plesiosaur--a marine reptile--and a partial triceratops. The man who bought them, Wyatt explains, has a large wall and thinks authentic dinosaur bones protruding from it would be a nice touch. Wyatt also is closing a sale of a $35,000 giant armadillo to a California billionaire who fancies one for his living room, instead of the customary grand piano.

Money may buy dinosaurs these days, but it still can't buy good taste.

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