The Wall Street Journal

Inside the Battle Over Dinosaur Fossil Hunting


Should anyone be able to dig up and sell dinosaur fossils? It's a question that's increasingly being asked as the commercial fossil market booms. WSJ met with fossil hunters and scientists to

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… show captions ↓
(upbeat orchestral music)
- I think that there's several reasons to own fossils.
Science is only one of 'em.
- I've made millions of dollars in the dinosaur business.
- The thrill of discovery
doesn't get old.
It's almost like an addiction.
- [Narrator] There is a fight going on
in the world of dinosaur fossils.
The market for these prehistoric treasures is booming,
but increasingly, wealthy individuals
are buying up the best specimens.
And that has paleontologists worried.
- A rare, baby T-Rex fossil is for sale on eBay.
Some scientists and other critics
are calling the listing a disgrace.
- [Narrator] Last year, a baby T-Rex fossil
was listed on eBay for $2.95 million.
The sale outraged many paleontologists.
According to a letter from
the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology,
if the fossil was sold to a private buyer,
it would effectively be lost to science
since private buyers are under no obligation
to share their fossils with researchers.
- The scientific community is trying to hurt us.
They want to discourage anyone
from making money selling fossils.
I tell you what?
I've been charmed, had a charmed life.
And it's all because I pick fights
and I'm pickin' fights now.
And I'm doin' it in a different way.
I'm goin' after the scientific community.
They need to open up.
(gentle upbeat music)
- [Narrator] Alan Dietrich is the commercial fossil hunter
selling the baby T-Rex.
(door opening)
- This is Son of Sampson,
the smallest Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur in the world.
Son of Sampson was found in 2013,
near Jordan, Montana.
- [Narrator] Dietrich's T-Rex
is a scientifically significant find
which is why he had hoped to sell it
to the American Museum of Natural History.
- It's an important specimen.
He has made a big effort
to try to get it
into a public institution.
We were interested in it, for instance.
But it just didn't work out.
It purely comes down to an issue of price.
- [Narrator] Dietrich told The Wall Street Journal
that he offered to sell the dinosaur
to the American Museum of Natural History
for one million dollars,
which was about two million less than the asking price.
- Usually, like in the art market,
when it's been on the market for a long time,
it's either not that good or they're asking too much money.
So it gets kinda stale.
- [Narrator] But Dietrich
has been in the fossil business for decades
and he's confident that he'll find a buyer.
- You know, if you can't wait,
you'll spend too much or you won't make enough money.
This material's 65 million years old.
I can wait a few months.
I can wait a few years.
(gentle upbeat music)
- How lucrative is hunting for fossils?
That depends upon how lucky you are,
how skilled you are,
how much time you have to dedicate to it,
and how much money you have to invest in it,
in the first place.
- [Narrator] Although the commercial market is thriving,
that doesn't mean it's easy to make a living
as a fossil hunter.
- I wear many different hats.
So I'm Assistant Professor at Mayville State University.
I teach biology, ecology.
(water swishing)
That's the day job.
If I have enough time to come out here to the Badlands,
I switch hats and become the Indiana Jones
or the Jurassic Park character.
- [Narrator] This is one of the best places on Earth
to find fossils.
Every year, thousands of fossil hunters flock here
to the Badlands,
to try their luck at finding buried treasure.
Recently, one of the lucky ones was Michael Kjelland,
who runs a small, non-profit fossil hunting company.
To survey the land, Kjelland worked out a deal
with the private land owner to split the sale.
- One day I was out walking
and I went up into this box canyon.
In the distance, there was some white colored dinosaur bone.
I realized, "Wow, this is a brow horn."
And that's how we found Skull X.
- [Narrator] Skull X refers to the fossilized skull
of an adult triceratops,
which Kjelland is working to excavate.
But digging the skull out of the ground
is only the very beginning of the process
of getting the specimen to market.
Once the fossil is secure
in a dried jacket of plaster of Paris,
Kjelland will need to move
the approximately 500 pound mound of dirt and rock
across this ravine and then, up and out of this canyon.
For Kjelland, digging up fossils is a labor of love.
He knows that he will likely only break-even on Skull X
but that doesn't matter.
His primary interest is science.
- The reason why I decided to set Fossil Excavators up
as a non-profit?
Because I'm not in it just for the money.
(gentle upbeat music)
- I've made millions of dollars in the dinosaur business.
You know, I love capitalism
because the people that get to the top of the hill
get to do what they want to with their money.
Welcome to my studio
where I clean and prepare fossils.
I've sold thousands of fossils.
Right now, I have a 30-year accumulation
of triceratops dinosaur bones and T-Rex dinosaur bones
and Edmontosaurus dinosaur bones,
and some new to science bones,
I don't know what they are.
(loud drilling)
Like most commercial fossil hunters,
Dietrich doesn't have a formal education in paleontology.
But he knows his dinosaurs.
What's more, he's an accomplished artist
who can prepare and mount his own specimens.
But perhaps most importantly,
Dietrich has a gift for sales.
- Wow!
This is a 20-foot mosasaur from Kansas.
This was 85 million years old,
give or take three million years,
some people say 88 million.
(blowing loudly)
This is what you call the eye of the tiger here.
This is what gets kids excited.
Buyers, you've gotta excite their imagination.
And what I like to tell people is,
"You know, at some point
"you're gonna be able to ride this thing off
"into the sunset.
"Because your name will live on
"that you owned this dinosaur."
(gentle upbeat music)
- [Narrator] Today, private ownership of fossils
can be seen as controversial.
But things weren't always this way.
- Commercial fossil hunting has existed
since the dawn of modern paleontology.
One of our most important specimens in our own collection
that's on display here on the fourth floor
is a mummy of a duck-billed dinosaur.
That specimen was commercially purchased
from a legendary fossil hunter named Charles Sternberg.
So it's always been part of the game.
- [Narrator] The modern commercial market
took off in 1997,
when Sue, the largest in-tact T-Rex skeleton ever found
was auctioned off at Christie's for $8.3 million.
- Everybody was just astounded
that that specimen would get that much money.
I think before that,
nothing had ever been sold above like $200,000 or so.
- [Narrator] Since then, the commercial market has boomed,
driving up prices and making it harder
for public institutions like museums to compete.
- You know, most of the people in my field
would go for more regulation.
I personally would go for less regulation.
Because there's a lot more fossils out there
that are just being destroyed by neglect and erosion
than there are paleontologists
who can actually collect them.
(upbeat orchestral music)
- [Narrator] After days of careful extraction and plastering
Skull X is finally ready to move.
(clicking and whirring)
- With a budget of a couple hundred bucks,
how do you get it out of there?
You can't go out and rent a helicopter.
What we do have is a crew
that have a lot of creativity.
- We're using these metal pipes
as a bridge.
They're kinda like railroad tracks.
Then we're gonna slide it across here.
(metal clanging and banging)
(upbeat orchestral music)
(squeaking loudly)
(gentle upbeat music)
- [Mark] I think the commercial market has a place.
- Ugh!
- Okay!
- [Mark] The financial side of it gives the motivation
for people to go out and look for them and conserve them.
Some of them are just so remote
they might not even be found.
(metal clanging)
Now the bad side of the market is
people can make up things and maybe they'll make mistakes
because they weren't properly trained.
(engine running)
- Wahoo, (mumbles)!
- Yeah! (loud clapping)
- Nice, thanks, man. - Well,
you gotta be pragmatic.
As long as these things are collected ethically,
meaning that they're not stolen off public land
in this country,
or they're not imported from a country
that doesn't allow the export of any fossils,
just get real with it.
I mean, just get used to it.
I mean, this is something that's gonna happen.
(cheerful orchestral music)

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