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The podcast where we sit down with UCalgary professors, researchers and experts to get the answers to five questions submitted by you.


Episode 14: All I want for Christmas is a Tyrannosaurus

December 16, 2020

In October, Stan, one of the most famous T. rex fossils in the world, sold at private auction for a jaw-dropping $31.8 million dollars. We don't know who the buyer was, which would suggest that it's going into a private collection, which also means it'll most likely be lost to scientific research.

We talk with Dr. Darla Zelenitsky, a paleontologist and dinosaur researcher, about how the fossil trade is a growing problem for researchers and museums around the world, and how it's only getting worse as sales like Stan's drive prices up.



Mike MacKinnon (MM): Welcome to We Can Answer That. I'm your host, Mike MacKinnon. Each week, I sit down with an expert from the UCalgary community to ask five questions related to the topics that matter most in the world. With the holidays coming up, most of us are wondering what gifts we'll be leaving under the tree. How about a Tyrannosaurus rex? In October, Stan, one of the most famous T. rex fossils in the world, sold at private auction for a jaw dropping $31.8 million. That's U.S. dollars. We don't know who the buyer was, which would suggest that it's going into a private collection, which also means it'll most likely be lost to scientific research. In this episode, we're talking with Dr. Darla Zelenitsky, a paleontologist and dinosaur researcher in our Faculty of Science. We'll be talking about how the fossil trade, legal and illegal, is a growing problem for researchers and museums around the world and how it's only getting worse as sales like Stan's drive prices up. Darla, thanks for joining us.


Dr. Darla Zelenitsky: Oh, you're welcome. Thanks for having me.


MM: Now, a $31 million sale of a fossil is obviously pretty rare, but it seems like lesser fossils get bought and sold pretty often. How prevalent is the fossil trade around the world?


DZ: I think the fossil trade is fairly common and worldwide. If you've ever been to a rock and gem shop or searched on the Internet on eBay, it's apparent that there's a market for fossils unfortunately. And many of these fossils that I've seen are just pieces of fossilized wood, bone fragments and teeth, so mostly smaller fossils. And I suspect that these fossils are being bought by people as curiosities or novelties so they can sit around the living room and chat with their friends about this new fossil that they had bought. Now the sale of skeletons like Stan is obviously much less common because these fossils are difficult to find and to excavate so there's just not that many of them for sale.


MM: Now why would anyone pay so much for a dinosaur skeleton? Like, $31 million?


DZ: Yeah, that's an interesting question. And I get a sense that paleontologists really are holding out hope for Stan, that he ends up in a museum somewhere, so can be studied scientifically. And that said though, that's a pretty hefty chunk of change regardless who bought that fossil. And I think that the fact that Tyrannosaurus rex or T. rex is a pop culture icon, that really helps drive the price of this particular fossil. It's been a character in some of the earliest movies, like The Lost World in the 1920s or the blockbuster King Kong in the 1930s, all the way to movies today, like Jurassic Park and the Jurassic World. I think his icon status, plus the fact that T. rex skeletons are extremely rare, has resulted in these jaw dropping prices. And I was reading the other day that the average price of a T. rex is something like $12.5 million.


MM: Now what's the difference between legally and illegally trading fossils?


DZ: Thankfully many places around the world, including Alberta, have laws that prevent the export and sale of their fossils. In Alberta, fossils are essentially . . . they're the property of the Crown and so they're protected for the benefit of all Albertans. People can go out to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller or go to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton and see the many fossils that have been collected in Alberta over the decades. And also these fossils can be studied by scientists. We don't have a fossil trade in Alberta, but as well, many countries like Mongolia for example, Argentina, they have similar laws to Alberta so they also are protecting their fossils for their citizens. But some of these countries however, are victim to the illegal fossil trade. And that's most notably Mongolia, where fossils are actually illegally collected or poached and often destroyed in the process and then they're exported for sale outside the country. And you may have heard about skeletons of Tarbosaurus, another large, meat-eating dinosaur, like T. rex, that has been illegally exported from Mongolia. And I can think of at least three specimens of Tarbosaurus that have been seized by law enforcement, actually in the U.S. in more recent years. On the other hand, the legal fossil trade, it's really the product of countries where the fossils are not protected or not fully protected by laws. And two countries that really stand out for me are the United States and Morocco so that many of the legal fossils sold online or on auction are from these countries and this includes Stan, which was collected in South Dakota in the U.S.


MM: Last time we talked you, you said you've been involved in actual raids on people's homes in the U.S. to recover illegal fossils. I'm picturing these action shows in the blue jacket with the yellow lettering on the back and all that kind of stuff. What's that actually like?


DZ: My day-to-day job primarily involves studying dinosaurs at my U of C lab or at museums and universities around the world and as well visiting field locations to look for and collect fossils. When I received a call from federal law enforcement in the U.S. to participate in the execution of a search warrants for illegal fossils, this was a bit of a jolt for me. Certainly I could feel my heart pounding and blood pressure rising during that conversation because this was not something that I was accustomed to. But obviously for me, this was going to be a very unique experience. And so I was happy to volunteer for the Department of Homeland Security, but my role in these raids was actually just to help the field agents identify the types of fossils and the potential country of origin. Determining if some of the fossils were maybe illegal that were found at the time of the raid. I think for me, this really stands out as one of my career highlights.


MM: Were you actually there, taking the door?


DZ: I was there at the fossil raids but I wasn't right there, front and centre. I was standing back a bit.


MM: Now we were talking earlier about museums and research. How does the trade in fossils affect museums and research?


DZ: This really is a complex issue for certain. If a museum chooses to buy a legal fossil, which some do, this obviously has an impact on their budget because money used for the purchase of fossils can be used by museums to fund research teams, to find, collect, to clean and study their own fossils for years or even decades, depending on what the price of that fossil is. That's a huge thing to consider for museums when fossils go up up for sale. On the other hand though, if a fossil is bought by a private collector, then it is essentially it's out of the public domain and lost to science and a central tenet of the scientific method is that data and results really should be reproducible. With fossils though, the data they're all tied up in the bones. If a fossil is owned privately and housed in someone's basement, it's unavailable to scientists and they are unable to collect or reproduce data if needed. This can be a very difficult situation for museums and their paleontologists when a significant fossil goes up for sale because if they don't have the money or have to put up the money to buy a fossil, it'll have a huge impact on their budget or that fossil may never be seen again. This is really something that we are grateful in Alberta because the fossils are protected by the province and they remain in the public domain so again, all Albertans and other visitors can go to our museums and see the fossils that have been collected over the decades. And as well, they're available to scientists worldwide.


MM: I was at the Phillip J. Currie Museum in Grande Prairie a little while ago and one of their exhibits with a T. rex actually has feathers on it, which was really, really jarring. How widely accepted is that notion now?


DZ: Well, pretty much all paleontologists know that dinosaurs had feathers and there is a Tyrannosaurus from Northeastern China that was found and it was essentially fully covered with feathers. At least with T. rex, it wouldn't be surprising to see that the juveniles would have been covered in feathers. Maybe they lost them as they grew into larger adult body sizes. But most of the dinosaurs within the lineage known as theropods, which are the ancestors to birds, most certainly were covered in feathers.


MM: That's so contradictory to how we portray them in movies and popular culture and traditionally in museums.


DZ: Yeah, it's really changed a lot over the decades, just how dinosaurs moved and what they look like. And yeah, definitely.


MM: Now, I'm picturing people in exhibits rushing to put feathers on their models. Like maybe at the zoo, that section that has all the dinosaurs.


DZ: That's right. Yes. And I think the Jurassic Worlds, they still didn't have dinosaurs with feathers in the last Jurassic World, but maybe the next one, but certainly you're seeing a lot more dinosaurs with feathers displayed in museums. It's starting to become much more widely accepted.


MM: Speaking of Jurassic World, last question, in real life, T. rex versus Indominus rex: who wins?


DZ: Indominus rex.


MM: This has been We Can Answer That. Edited and produced by Nate Luit and hosted and produced by me, Mike MacKinnon. We've been talking with Dr. Darla Zelenitsky, a paleontologist and dinosaur researcher in our Faculty of Science about the worldwide fossil trade and its impact on science. You can subscribe to We Can Answer That on Apple, Google or Spotify or by visiting ucalgary.ca/podcasts. This is our last episode for 2020. We hope you've enjoyed this season and we'll be back early next year with new episodes and a new format, so stay tuned. We also hope you're able to enjoy the holidays and take some time to rest and recuperate after this world-changing year. We Can Answer That is a production of the University of Calgary. Thanks for listening.



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