Sues story

Sue, an almost perfect Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, was found by fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson on the morning of 12 August 1990, on a ranch in South Dakota, and later excavated professionally by Peter Larson and his team from the Black Hills Institute. It took seventeen days of careful excavation to get the skeleton out. Larson then told landowner Maurice Williams that they had found a really good specimen on his land and would pay him US$5000 for the specimen. To further complicate matters, the Cheyenne River Sioux Indians claimed on 29 August in the Rapid City Journal that the dinosaur had been taken without permission from reservation land, an act in direct contravention of Federal law. On 10 November Larson received a letter from Williams stating that he hadn't sold the specimen to the Black Hills Institute, just given them permission to remove it for cleaning and preparation for sale. The Rapid City Journal also reported that Williams had entered into a partnership with the Sioux to determine the dinosaur's future.

At 7.30 am on 14 May 1992, 35 law enforcement agents, including the FBI and local sheriffs, descended upon the Black Hills Institute. Larson was handed a writ alleging crimes such as the felony of stealing from government and tribal lands, as well as violations of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The town rallied round to save Sue from being confiscated. Larson had arranged for the dinosaur's skull to go to NASA for a CAT scan to reveal its three-dimensional internal anatomy. US Attorney Schieffer would not allow the specimen to go, however, and put motions in train to have the whole skeleton taken away. It took the government agents only three days to pack up the skeleton, despite the countless thousands of hours of work it took to prepare it. Several well-known palaeontologists, including John Horner, Phil Currie and Bob Bakker, went public with their outrage at the government's rough treatment of this unique specimen.

Sue's story was long and involved with various court cases and appeals, and is well documented in Steve Fiffer's excellent book Tyrannosaurus Sue (Fiffer 2001). Finally, on 15 December 1993, Judge Magill used the South Dakota property law to hand down his decision on the ownership of Sue. He concluded that the fossil was 'land', and that for millions of years the bones had been buried as a mere 'ingredient' of the soil that the United States held in trust for Williams.

Criminal charges were laid against the Larsons and Peter Larson was eventually sentenced, quite harshly in view of the charges, to two years for retaining (buying) fossils valued at less than US$100 taken by a third party from Gallatin National Park, plus two counts of customs violations with respect to taking money out of the country. He had been convicted of only two counts out of 33 felony charges. The US government had spent millions of dollars on the case, but the Larsons were acquitted of the main charge, that of being involved in a conspiracy to steal fossils from public lands. The jury had not seen them, or their institute, as being in any way fraudulent. (I first met Peter Larson and his brother Neil at the inaugural Dinofest Conference in Indianapolis in 1994, and was impressed by the level of scholarship Peter exhibited in his presentation on the anatomy of the new Tyrannosaurus skeleton. Many of the other palaeontologists also commented upon his good work. He had identified wounds in Sue's skeleton and had made detailed measurements to determine sexual dimorphism in Tyrannosaurus, arguing that Sue was clearly a female dinosaur (Larson 1994).)

On 4 October 1997, Sue the Tyrannosaurus went under the auctioneer's hammer at Sotheby's in New York. It was sold to the Field Museum of Chicago, one of the world's foremost natural history institutes, for the princely sum of US$7 600 000. With Sotheby's commission, the real price paid for the dinosaur was US$8.36 million (in Australian dollars in 2002, that's around $16 million). The funding to purchase Sue for the Field Museum was put up by McDonalds and Disney. The second-highest bidder was the North Carolina State Museum, which offered US$7.5 million for her, while the third-highest bidder was a private foundation which intended to donate the specimen to a natural history museum in Florida if they were successful. It is cheering to note, therefore, that Sue would have ended up in a legitimate US museum regardless of which bid won.

Sue is now on display in the Field Museum of Chicago, for all to marvel at.

Wednesday 10 September. At Bob Bakker's invitation, we spend the day at a famous dinosaur fossil site, Como Bluff east, to get some perspective on the rarity of good dinosaur bones, and on how delicate and time-consuming is the task of excavating them.

The three-hour drive from Boulder took us through some very scenic country. We followed Bob in his field vehicle, a small, rusty and aged Datsun. The back seats and passenger's seat were filled with an assortment of digging tools, bags of plaster, rolls of hessian, bottles of superglue and other dinosaur hunter's paraphernalia. Along the way I tried to figure out the local geology, my eyes lighting upon rugged escarpments that looked ideal for fossil hunting. Two hours later we pulled into the town of Rock River, Wyoming. We all walked into a local cafe, Longhorn Lodge, for lunch.

'Best chilli burgers in Wyoming,' Bob said as we walked inside. A couple of crusty oldtimers sat talking and drinking coffee. As we ordered our meals in broad Aussie accents, they stared at us as if we were from another planet.

After lunch we followed Bob along a dirt trail that wound through gently rounded hills of grey-, white- and buff-coloured sediments. The late Jurassic Morrison Formation, about 145 million years old, is arguably one of the world's richest dinosaur-bearing rock units. The site Bob was currently working was a small quarry, formed by levelling out the cliff halfway up a low hill of light grey sandstone and shales. A tarp was stretched across a flat excavated area that had large white blobs of plaster scattered across its floor.

'They're all dinosaur bones,' Bob told us. Each one had been carefully excavated and plaster jacketed, and some were now ready to go back to the lab for further preparation. Here before us were the scattered remains of the great Jurassic giants—the long-necked Apatosaurus (or Brontosaurus, as Bob prefers), Camarosaurus, the carnivore Allosaurus and the bone-plated Stegosaurus. Working here over the last twenty years or so, Bob's field teams had discovered 50-60 different fossil sites. Many hundreds of dinosaurs' bones had been carefully excavated, with painstaking drawings made of their positions, and measurements of their three-dimensional orientation in the ground. One of Bob's doctorate students had been working on the diagenesis of the site, studying how the fossils had formed within the sedimentary layers, and how the decomposition of the dinosaurs' flesh had chemically altered the sediments around them. She told us that the dinosaurs' decomposition caused 'saproglabritic' nodules to form in the soft mud, through gas bubbles escaping from the flesh. The gases inherent in the sediment sometimes caused bones to be uprighted within the soft, muddy layers, before they hardened to sedimentary rock.

Each site at Como Bluff east is different, and each tells us something new about the world in which dinosaurs lived.

One locality was interpreted as a feeding site, where mother theropods dragged lumps of meat back to their young. The main signpost for this was the presence on the site of many shed teeth, some only 4-5 mm in length, obviously from new hatchlings. Other sites are dominated by aquatic fauna such as turtles and fish. Every site in the whole region is of great scientific importance because when collated, the information they contain provides us with an overall picture of a complex terrestrial environment in the late Jurassic. This area of North America was then an isolated island, with a number of endemic fauna and flora, much like Australia today.

As I lay on my side in the dirt, picking away for hours at the sediment surrounding a large Stegosaurus vertebra, I began to realise how much was involved in collecting a single dinosaur bone. To record its position in the sedimentary layer properly, excavate it without damaging it, plaster jacket it, transport it back to the lab and then prepare it was clearly a time-consuming job, requiring considerable skill. In many cases the bones start to dry up as soon as they are exposed to sunlight, causing the surface layers to crack and flake off. We had to pour superglue liberally over the surfaces of the newly exposed bones and let it soak right in, to combat this. Some cases of fossil poaching I had heard of from Steve involved the offenders literally ripping a dinosaur skeleton out of the ground in a day or two. That sort of rough treatment would not be good for the bones.

I don't know where the afternoon went, while I was lying next to the bones, listening to Bob chatter away about all things wonderful and Jurassic, but it was a very pleasant day. Among Bob's many tales was a memorable one about the first case of professional dinosaur rustling, a story all the more thrilling because it took place in the same region where we were digging.

2 John Yates (left), Steve Rogers and me at Broome police station examining the stolen dinosaur footprint that was recovered In 1699.

4 Moroccan trllobites for sale—some faked.

5 Bob B&Kker (with hat) and me dying down) digging up dinosaurs at Como Bluff, Wyoming

6 Aerial photo showing poaching 7 sites in Wyoming, where fossils have been taken from government lands.

Steve Rogers with his plane. Steve flies aerial patrols over State lands In Wyoming, searching for fossil poachers.

9 Mike Treibold and the 'chicken from hell', a new genus of oviraptorosaur dinosaur from South Dakota.

10 Carl and Shirley Ulrlch, who have been quarrying the Green River fish sites tor over 50 years. la the background, a perfectly prepared palm frond with fish.

11 ConTuciusornls, an early fossil bird from Liaonlng, China, on display In Seipia Fossil Museum.

IS Workers searching for fossils at Chaoyang site in Liaonlng Province, China.

13 Dinosaur eggs from. China, one of the items most commonly smuggled out of the country. These specimens are safe In a museum In Jlnzhou, China.

14 Paittacosaurus skeleton from China, the most commonly smuggled and sold type of dinosaur skeleton In the world.

16 A possible new type of dromaeosaur (raptor) from Liaoning, China, on sale at a Tusoon show in 2002 for US$68,000.

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