Tyrannosaurus bones to be auctioned

Fossils could be part of first T. rex discovered

May 15, 2004|By Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - An auction of natural history specimens in Los Angeles tomorrow will determine whether bones thought to be additional parts of the first Tyrannosaurus rex discovered will be reunited with those of the dinosaur uncovered more than 100 years ago.

Experts say a collection of T. rex fossil bones and fragments from the Cretaceous period, to be auctioned at Bonhams & Butterfields auction house, are most likely parts of the prehistoric creature found in 1900 by paleontologist Barnum Brown.

That argument gained more heft this week when South Dakota paleontologist Japheth Boyce - who collected the bones from a Wyoming excavation site and prepared them for auction - flew to London with a cast of a portion of jawbone that seemed to connect perfectly with a section of jawbone housed in London.

"As soon as I touched it, I knew," Boyce said of the fragment excavated by Brown. "I made the discovery in London on Monday, changed underwear [Wednesday] at home and then flew here."

Because of a complicated legal dispute over ownership of what the auction house is advertising as "Barnum" - after the discoverer of the species - the court-ordered sale must close tomorrow, with the collection of skeletal remains going to the highest bidder.

"It will sell. There is no reserve," said Thomas Lindgren, director of Bonhams & Butterfields' natural history department. The collection is the highlight of an auction that also will include dinosaur eggs, meteorites, gemstones and other treasures.

According to the auction house, the offering is the second time a partial T. rex has come up for public auction. The first was in 1997, when Chicago's Field Museum paid $8.3 million for "Sue," the most complete T. rex ever found, which was excavated in South Dakota. Scientists think the species thrived 65 million to 85 million years ago.

The auction is being held too soon for the auctioneers to gain scientific confirmation that the bones are from the first T. rex discovered. If they are, Boyce said, the specimens, which must be purchased together, could be worth four to 10 times the original appraisals of $400,000 to $900,000. A potential buyer must take a calculated risk, he said.

Boyce said the bones found in 1900 constitute about 13 percent of the skeleton. The bones to be auctioned, found close to the earlier discovery in Wyoming, could make up an additional 20 percent of the skeleton. They include a partial skull with teeth and portions of bone from the arms, legs, pelvis and feet.

"That is about one-third of a dinosaur, which would put it in the top six of the most complete T. rexes," Boyce said. Remnants of about 20 T. rexes have been found, he said.

As part of the deal, the buyer of the collection will also get what Boyce calls "goop": rare evidence of the dinosaur's stomach contents, which include bones from Triceratops, duck-billed dinosaurs and another T. rex.

"When paleontologists find big bones like these - we call them `speed bumps' - we don't know if he passed these bones, or threw them back up, or whether when he died his gut was filled from feeding," Boyce said.

The presence of T. rex bones does not imply cannibalism in the species but rather that the creatures were opportunistic scavengers or that, while fighting, the T. rex "may have ripped off an arm and swallowed it."

Lindgren said scientists hope the British Museum, which owns the earlier discovery, buys the collection or that it goes to someone willing to donate or lend the bones so that they can be reunited with those in London.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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