'Rex Appeal' -- one historic fossil, three stories

August 11, 2002|By John R. Alden | By John R. Alden,Special to the Sun

Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life, By Peter Larson and Kristin Donnan. Invisible Cities Press. 384 pages. $26.95.

Five years ago, the fossilized bones of Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever uncovered, were auctioned off for $7.6 million to Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Sue was discovered and excavated by a team from the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota, an organization founded by paleontologist Peter Larson. This book, written by Larson and journalist Kristin Donnan, tells his story.

The tale, however, is more complex than this introduction makes it sound. Kristin Donnan is not only Larson's co-author; she's also his ex-wife. The Black Hills Institute is a commercial fossil supply house, and Pete Larson doesn't have a degree, advanced or otherwise, in paleontology.

The $7.6 million paid for Sue went to a rancher named Maurice Williams, who had sold Sue's bones to Larson for $5,000 while they were still in the ground, and before Sue was sold Larson spent 18 months in prison.

But wait. Larson wasn't charged with any crime related to Sue. He was convicted of collecting two other fossils on public land and of failing to report that he had carried more than $10,000 (in checks, not currency) into or out of the country. "The official reason for my incarceration," writes Larson, was listed in prison records as "failure to fill out forms."

Larson's trial sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland, and the authors emphasize the similarity by plastering multiple quotes from that book into their tale. And while they are clearly not disinterested observers, it certainly seems as though they got railroaded by a federal prosecutor who wanted to count coup on a bunch of famous fossil collectors.

Larson's legal struggle, however, is just one of three stories this book aims to tell. It also discusses how paleontologists find, excavate, prepare and interpret fossil material, with emphasis on T. rex, and describes Larson's personal triumphs, travails and opinions about how paleontological research should be funded, regulated and carried out.

So who is the intended audience for this three-part book? Readers interested in the law will find Larson and Donnan's account of the case disorganized, one-sided and frustratingly incomplete. Those interested in his personal history will find the book filled with gaps (the authors never say a word about when or why they divorced) and arguments (such as the one between academic paleontologists and commercial fossil collectors about paying big bucks for big bones) that are never effectively set forth or explained.

The book's title, however, implies that it is aimed at people who want to know more about the world's most famous dinosaur. Since Larson has excavated more T. rexes than any other paleontologist, there is a lot here for this audience, including the information that T. rexes seem to have habitually attacked and eaten one another. Still, such readers would have been better served with a book that focused on what they really wanted rather than digressing into the thicket of legal and personal issues that the authors felt they simply had to relate.

John R. Alden, an archaeologist, is fascinated by the ingenious ways paleontologists reconstruct animal behaviors and adaptations from physical remains. He regularly reviews books about natural and physical science for The Sun and several other newspapers.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.