Dinosaur 13 and the Ghost of Tyrannosaurus Sue

Of all the dinosaurs to have ever lived, none has been as embattled as “Sue” the Tyrannosaurus rex. One of the largest apex predators to have ever stalked the Earth, Sue undoubtedly scuffled with and fed upon other dinosaurs in the waning days of the Cretaceous. But even such gory Mesozoic fights look tame compared to the legal clash that Sue’s discovery would kick off some 66 million years after the tyrant’s death. The dinosaur’s modern day trials are at the heart of the new film Dinosaur 13.

How Sue went from a private ranch to the Field Museum is a tangled, painful tale. During a 1990 expedition with commercial fossil outfit the Black Hills Institute, Sue Hendrickson happened across chunks of T. rex crumbling out of a hillside. As BHI founders Peter and Neal Larson and their team dug in, they found that most of the dinosaur seemed to be present. They nicknamed the fossil after its discoverer, and, with dreams of opening a museum at their Hill City base, the fossil dealers paid landowner Maurice Williams $5,000 for the dinosaur.

The tyrannosaur didn’t stay in Hill City long. As the BHI crew prepared the specimen, FBI agents assisted by the National Guard descended on the business to seize Sue and all records relating to the dinosaur. Sue seemed to be a hot fossil. While the BHI was used to handshake deals with ranchers, Sue was found on land bound up in arcane regulations that eventually had the fossil hunters, Maurice Williams, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and the federal government all laying claim to the dinosaur.

Williams was eventually awarded ownership of Sue, and the controversy raised concerns over other BHI dealings. In a separate case, explicitly not including Sue the T. rex, the BHI’s commercial collectors were grilled over shady business practices. Peter Larson faced the worst of it, ultimately sentenced to two years in prison for failing to declare checks during international travel. By the time Larson was out, Sue was going up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York City and finally sold to the Field Museum for the astonishing price of $8,362,500.

Dinosaur 13 follows Sue’s route from the ground to Chicago, tripping through the courtroom snags along the way. But I wouldn’t call the film a documentary.

Based on the book Rex Appeal by Peter Larson and his now ex-wife Kristin Donnan, Dinosaur 13 is a dramatic retelling of Sue’s story that is so enamored with the BHI underdogs that the film doesn’t even blink at its own moment of irony. Relatively early in the film, soon after talking heads and camcorder footage replay the government raid on BHI, Donnan recounts how Larson urged her to come back to Hill City to tell the heartbreaking story of what was happening. As Donnan sheepishly says on screen, she broke one of the rules of journalism by falling in love with and soon marrying Larson. In a similar way, Miller became so entranced by Larson’s charm that anyone and everyone who stood against Dinosaur 13‘s protagonists is cast as greedy and incompetent.

From title slate to the end credits, Dinosaur 13 never questions the motives or honesty of its protagonists. The film never acknowledges whether or not Maurice Williams really knew what the BHI crew took from his ranch, for example, particularly since a check flashed on screen during the film notes that the sale was of a “theropod.” There’s a big difference between telling someone you’ve found a big theropod on their land and that you’ve discovered a T. rex on the property. Nor does the film ponder what should have been done about Sue. In a style that will undoubtedly make frothing FOX News pundits go into further fits, Miller makes much of the FBI and National Guard taking a dinosaur away from a small town, but the film never asks what should have been done about a massive dinosaur that might have been stolen from federal land. Through Miller’s lens, Larson and his BHI associates were always right and always just.

Sue's skull, displayed at the Field Museum. Photo by Brian Switek.
Sue’s skull, displayed at the Field Museum. Photo by Brian Switek.

Dinosaur 13 is being hailed as an underdog story of little guys against big government. That’ll play well in the west and more conservative states, and clearly did when Larson walked into Salt Lake City’s Tower Theater to a standing ovation from the audience this past Saturday. But even though Larson received an unfair, extended punishment in the court case following the Sue battle and the government’s seizure of Sue was bungled in execution, it’s hard to watch Dinosaur 13 for Miller’s unbroken admiration of the BHI and his simplistic damnation of everyone else.

Along with the federal government and Maurice Williams (whose onscreen appearance at the finale drew hisses from the audience), professional paleontologists are on Miller’s hit list. Echoing sentiments Larson has spouted elsewhere, such as Steve Fiffer’s Tyrannosaurus Sue, Dinosaur 13 casts paleontologists incompetent academics who almost never go out into the field and have not even a scrap of expertise possessed by commercial fossil hunters. In the Q&A after the film, as well, Larson added that it’s better and cheaper for museums to buy fossils from him rather than run their own expeditions.

I am not a professional paleontologist, but I spend weeks out of every summer prospecting and excavating fossils with professional paleontologists from around the country. The notion that curators, professors, and other professional paleontologists are nothing more than armchair experts is entirely false and is little more than name-calling by fossil dealers. And since paleo fieldwork is relatively cheap by scientific standards, Larson’s claim that museums are better off buying from the BHI  and other suppliers also rings false. A failed fossil sale underscores the flaw in Larson’s argument.

Conspicuously absent from any discussion of Dinosaur 13 so far is that Larson has recently been involved in bringing a pair of controversial dinosaur skeletons to auction. These “Dueling Dinosaurs” were promoted by the BHI, shopped to museums for $15 million, and were expected to get at least $9 million at public auction. (They did not meet their reserve and have yet to be sold.) Paleontology departments do not have anywhere near that amount of money on hand, not to mention that such astronomical amounts – fueled, in part, by Sue’s sale setting the bar high – can fund staff, collections, and fieldwork for years, if not decades.

A museum would be foolish to drop upwards of $9 million for two dinosaurs when the same amount of money could underwrite responsible collecting and good science, long term. And while the BHI and some other fossil businesses such as Triebold Paleontology specialize in excellent excavation and prep work, science benefits from scores of committed volunteers who donate their time to uncover and preserve dinosaur fossils. Understanding the past relies on people willing to give their time and their sweat to advance science. Acting as if museums can simply buy all the fossils they need is a snub towards committed volunteers and amateurs who allow paleontology to keep uncovering the past.

Dinosaur 13 favors righteous posturing over examining such arguments. The reality is that Sue still casts a long shadow.

The tension between commercial fossil hunters, paleontologists, and those that straddle that divide asks us to examine the costs of selling fossils – from depleting entire sites to valuable specimens going off to private collections where no one can see them. Despite what happened to Sue, commercial fossil hunters are still digging away, often pushing scientists out as paleontologists aren’t able to compete with the promises of cash that dinosaur dealers offer. And that’s not to mention that these dinosaurs sometimes go to collections or institutions far from home, such as a Diplodocus from Wyoming recently sold to an unfinished museum in Denmark, and how high-priced fossil sales inadvertently inspire black market interest in illicit and illegal fossils. In creating his ode to commercial collectors, Todd Miller missed the big picture.

 

18 thoughts on “Dinosaur 13 and the Ghost of Tyrannosaurus Sue

  1. This is a real shocker. I’ve always viewed Peter as one of the greats. Up with Horner and Bakker. In the end I think we can all be happy that Sue is safe and happy.

  2. How does this compare to the 1997 NOVA special “Curse of T. rex“, which covered the same story much closer in time to when the events transpired?

  3. My father gave Steve Fiffer’s book “Tyrannosaurus Sue” as my birthday present in 2013! And I can tell that is a great book about Sue indeed! I feel bad of what happened to Larson’s and BHI’s dream. Still, she’s safe in Chicago. My father and I met her in the flesh in 2009. I hope she reveals more secrets to paleontology. I think paleontologists must have luck in finding the specimens from the ground or from fossil dealers from now on. That reminds me of the Irritator’s skull, which also have been sold illegally and proved to be important to Brazil’s paleontology! I must wait until I manage to watch Dinosaur 13! I love the tyrannosauroids!

  4. It seems to me that commercial fossil operations cherry-pick what they collect and prep since the material has to be the kind of relatively complete and charismatic fossil they can market. The real scientists collect, prepare, and publish on specimens that frequently would have little value to well-heeled buyers. Real science is about looking for valuable clues, not market value. It’s about describing specimens and making them perpetually available for others to research. If all collecting was commercial and market-driven, I daresay we’d have an impoverished science of paleontology where only well-funded researchers could function and where buyers can lock fossils away from anyone and everyone. Whatever scientific analysis Larson and his kind may publish, it’s not worth a damn unless it’s falsifiable. The scientific method halts in its tracks without access.

  5. Great post, Brian. You couldn’t be more right about it being irresponsible for almost any museum to plop down millions for a single fossils skeleton (or 2 “fighting” ones. $9 mil would fund our entire museum for almost 4 years. You’re always welcome to join us in the field again!

  6. Your review pretty much confirmed my suspicions about this film: Even the descriptions of the movie came across as one-sided. Sadly, I see that Lionsgate and CNN have acquired the distribution rights to the film, meaning it will get a far larger audience than it deserves.

  7. In America, the land of the free, there will hopefully always be room for both commercial collectors and university/museum sponsored paleontologists, not to mention the private hobbyisst, often children, that are thrilled to actually find some fragnment of dinosaur bone that neither the museums or commerical fossil enterprises would bother with. The more (searchers), the merrier, for the more eyes on the ground will only mean more chances to discover new dinosaurs. I for one am very glad there are private fossil collecting enterprises like BHI to help join in the search. Without them, some of the greatest dinosaur finds in history (including Sue), may have never been found. A simple solution to combat the loss of scientific data, might be to pass a law that requires all privately collected fossils to be presented to a nearby scientific institution for study before they can be sold, and that the insitution be allowed to make casts of any significant find.

  8. Its ok for us to pay a baseball player or basket ball player 6 million dollars a year, but heaven forbid we sell a fossil for that amount! Firefighters and teachers to more good than a pro football player, yet who gets payed more? If you guys actually visited BHI and were able to view the collections, you would see cabinets upon cabinets full of scientific specimens avaiable for research! Research they are doing and research that is a partnership with places like AMNH, DNH, Tokoyo, England, and thie list goes on. Nobody is perfect in the scientific community, not even PHD holding scientists!

  9. The price tag on a specimen such as Sue can fun a field expedition for much than just decades. That same price tag would fund a small-scale domestic excavation in New Mexico or Utah for about 500-800 seasons.

  10. The big bad guy picking on the little good guy and the little good guy out-guiling the big bad guy is a popular archetype in America, but it is simplistic and rarely mimics the truth. Brian Switek’s summary of “Dinosaur 13” is the first I have seen that looks past the drama and hyperbole. I hope future analyses of this story will do the same.

  11. I’ve ranted about this topic plenty over on my blog so I’ll just stick to a couple points.

    “– from depleting entire sites to valuable specimens going off to private collections where no one can see them.”- Simple fact of the matter is, the vast majority of fossils, from unseemly fragments to whole skeletons, are never seen by anyone save for the occasional scientist. The only time people may see them is when they are in the viewable preparation lab (and not all museums have those). We are constantly reminded that what we see on display is only a fraction of the collection, and then are left completely in the dark about what the collection could possibly consist of. The tired excuse is “museums don’t have space to display everything”. Yes that is true, but there are ways around this. Rotate specimens out, have open houses, and publish in open access. Best of all, you can have an online database! Some museums have those, but even the best leave much to be desired (namely, few to no pictures of the actual specimens!). Museums say fossils represent our heritage. But most people don’t know the true extent of their heritage because most is locked away, unseen, in some warehouse. That needs to change.

    “And that’s not to mention that these dinosaurs sometimes go to collections or institutions far from home, such as a Diplodocus from Wyoming recently sold to an unfinished museum in Denmark…”- Just how far is “far from home”? Do you mean land of origin or just the country? Pretty much all my region’s fossils are, in fact, outside the region! And guess what: very very few of them are display. The rest are hidden away in the collections. Our own museums have so many dinosaur fossils as it is. So what’s wrong with some going to museums outside the country, to nations who don’t have the rich fossil deposits we do? As long as there is good local representation (unlike my home region), then maybe it’s not so bad when we occasionally let a fossil leave.

  12. You’d not guess from Doug’s comment that that one of the functions of a proper natural history museum’s collecting items is to have them conserved and studied and not just displaying them to the public. The main problem scientists have with important specimens going into private collections is not that the number of people who are not studying them but get to see them is so much smaller than if they are on display in a museum but is that there is no reasonable guarantee of access for scientists to the specimen when it is in a private collection.

    I’m particularly amused by the ‘something must be done’ about museums not displaying more of their specimens, which is not going to happen if museums are paying big bucks to fossil dealers for specimens.

    It would be nice if museums could display more of their specimens (and if the public had an interest beyond that in the more charismatic ones), but it would be even nicer if they had the funds to ensure proper conservation and study of their specimens. Having to compete with fossil dealers is not going to help them do it.

  13. I hate it when paleontologists act like commercial and private collectors are all bad. Many contributions to paleontology came from commercial dealers like Mary Anning.

  14. I just came upon this story after watching the entertaining and hopelessly inaccurate “documentary.” Brian, you’ve hit the nail on the head in noting how deceptive Larson and the film are about his “acquisition” of Sue, his motives, and his relentless self-promotion of which this manipulative film is the biggest, and we can only hope, last, foray into re-inventing fact.
    The facts are that Larson excavated without permission when he knew he was on Sioux land, tried to low-ball the owner, and was convicted of numerous charges of excavating fossils illegally from government land, as well as customs document falsification and tax evasion. The documentary plays fast and loose with these facts in making a hero out of a scoundrel.
    It’s easy and wrong to jump on prosecutors and the FBI for going after Larson in a big way. But OUR government, actually did science, the public and our fossil heritage a great service in confiscating the fossil and in prosecuting Larson and BHI for illegal commercial dealing. One can only hope that the harsh penalty to Larson discouraged others in the same line of work from repeating his excesses. Sadly, it didn’t seem to teach Larson right from wrong.

  15. The fact is, without the efforts of paleontologists and treasure hunters, often times specimens such a Sue would never be found. God forbid, what the finding is worth some money, suddenly everybody and their lawyers are involved and certainly the government will be quick to confiscate anything of value. The message to those who would put in the time and effort in the discovery is, whatever you find will quickly be taken away. Nothing in this or any other article about it I have read changes this fact, whatever your opinion about this story. Welcome to the new reality.

  16. I don’t agree with this article. I think Mr. Larson was crucified to scare away what those who have fancy degrees think are lay people who know nothing from digging up fossils. They should have left this one alone in the museum they were creating for that town. It would have helped the town but they are happy where it eventually ended up. The judge gave a sentence that was arbitrary because he was challenged. He should have recused himself. I don’t agree with this snarky article. I don’t think it was fair and I think those reading it that can’t see this are not paying attention to what the government actually did. It was shady and there was nothing these people could do about it.

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