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SYFY WIRE dinosaurs

Someone put a baby T. rex skeleton on eBay... and it's causing an uproar

By Elizabeth Rayne
Jurassic Park

If it exists, you can find it on eBay. Movie props, a lollipop that looks like Jar-Jar Binks' tongue, Ghostbusters proton packs, a giant inflatable Godzilla, the 68-million-year-old bones of a juvenile T. rex...

Wait just a second.

These are not leftovers from the Jurassic Park set. Professional fossil hunter Alan Detrich discovered the skeleton (nicknamed "Son of Samson") on private land in Montana back in 2013, lending it to the University of Kansas Natural History Museum in 2017 — until he decided to sell it. It's now up for grabs on eBay at a Buy It Now price of $2.95 million.

Paleontologists are understandably outraged.

“If you want to understand the life history of a species, you really need juvenile skeletons,” paleontologist Melissa Tallman, of Grand Valley State University, tells SYFY WIRE. “It could help give us insight into the timing of different growth phases and other aspects of the growth process if we know what the starting point is.”

Tallman also explains that a juvenile skeleton such as this could tell us more about the T. rex’s already rapid rate of growth, though she did point out that while mammals like us reach a point where our bones stop growing, reptiles can continue to grow indefinitely. This 40-foot-monster essentially stopped its massive growth spurt at 18 but may have continued to grow at small increments throughout its lifespan.

Then there is the issue of whether this is even the same species of Tyrannosaur that has terrorized movie theaters everywhere. There has been an ongoing debate as to whether smaller variations found in North America are really juveniles or an entirely separate species that should be classified as Nanotyrannus. If a museum or university doesn't end up with that skeleton in its claws, we may never find out.

“Some journals won’t even let you publish anything on specimens that are not available in a national repository somewhere,” Tallman notes. “We can’t just publish a study on a fossil someone keeps in their garage, because it won’t necessarily be available for future researchers.”

SYFY WIRE has reached out to Detrich for comment.

Even the University of Kansas was unaware Detrich had decided to list the skeleton on eBay while it was still on display. The exhibit had to be taken down and returned to Detrich, who was required to remove all associations with the museum from his listing.

This isn’t the only rare fossil Detrich has listed. Another find that could end up in anybody’s hands is a Thescelosaur that is supposedly the smallest in the world. It may be a juvenile or an entirely different species or subspecies. Tweeting about the auction, he claimed that the North Carolina Museum of Natural History paid $350,000 for one that was five times larger, but now anyone with serious cash to burn can buy his.

“I don’t think it’s ‘right’ per se, but I think it’s an ethical gray area,” says Tallman. “Humans are different because there are clear laws governing human remains that don’t exist for things like dinosaurs. There are certainly people who hold fossils in private collections indefinitely. There is no way to guarantee that it ends up in a museum and not a safety deposit box somewhere.”

The Twitterverse appears to echo her sentiments:

So far, nobody’s biting, but the auction is being watched by over 6,000 people. It is possible that enough investors banding together can get the skeleton in the hands of a museum, like what happened with a Bronze Age sword that went up for auction. Tallman says she would have never listed a find like this.

“If I had found it,” she said, “I would seek out a paleontologist who seems to be doing good work on this particular species and turn it over to them free of charge. I would never pay for a fossil because it sets a bad precedent."