Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Monday, June 13, 2011

"The Fighting Pair"

Allosaurus fragilis and Stegosaurus stenops face off at the Denver Museum of  Science and Nature.  Photo by Luke Jones, from Wikimedia Commons.
Good news, everyone! I woke this morning to discover that, once and for all, scenes like the one shown above are proven by science! That's right, good old fashioned science, where someone digs up fossils, doesn't publish research on them (someone feel free to correct me if I'm wrong about that bit), and sells them to the highest bidder. Thanks to the diligent work of Heritage Auctions, we now know that Allosaurus and Stegosaurus existed together at the same time.  Huzzah!

In case there is any question, I am being facetious in the above written paragraph. It has been known for quite some time that Allosaurus, a large predator from the Morrison Formation of the western United States, shared the Jurassic landscape with the heavily armored Stegosaurus and its kin. Any child who has read a picture book on dinosaurs could probably tell you that. But according to David Herskowitz, director of natural history at Heritage Auctions, "science did not even know [these two dinosaurs] existed together" until the discovery of "The Fighting Pair".

Discovered in 2007, "Dracula" the Allosaurus "jimmadseni" was discovered by a team from Dinosauria International LLC (you may remember the report they put out on Amphicoelias "brontodiplodocus" back in 2010) near the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains in Ten Sleep Wyoming. After the field jackets were taken back to the lab and the preparation of the specimen began, they discovered the leg bone of another dinosaur underneath the allosaur's skull.  It turned out to belong to "Fantasia" the Hesperosaurus (Stegosaurus) mjosi. Based on the proximity of the skull and the leg bone, the team, led by Henry Galiano, deciphered that the two animals must have died together, locked in mortal combat.  That piece of information helped the pair fetch a $2.75 million price tag when they sold at auction yesterday.

Maybe I'm being a bit unfair to Mr. Herskowitz, and he was misquoted when he talked about the pair. Perhaps he just doesn't know that much about dinosaurs.  But to say that the scientific community had no idea that these two animals coexisted is just silly.  There is ample indirect evidence that these two animals met from time to time preserved in many specimens known to science.  In fact, Dr. Kenneth Carpenter et al. wrote up a pretty comprehensive paper about the predator-prey relationship of these animals in a book that Carpenter also edited, The Carnivorous Dinosaurs. Brian Switek does a pretty good job of summarizing that paper over at Dinosaur Tracking, so I won't rehash it here.  But rest assured, the bones tell a pretty convincing story.  If that's not enough, the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in Utah (a possible predator trap) contains remains of Allosaurus and Stegosaurus together, deposited at the same time, in the same place. And "science" has known about it since at least 1927.  To be fair, these particular animals did appear to have died, literally, right on top of one another, which is a remarkable find.  But unlike the more iconic "Fighting Dinosaurs", these two animals were not locked in combat.  At least, that is what one would gather from reading the description of the fossils on the auction website.

Which is what bothers me most about the whole thing.  The Heritage Auction site with the listing for the specimens goes on and on about important the pair are to science; about how complete and undistorted the bones are, how they were articulated when discovered, how they both represent species known from only one other skeleton, and of course, how unprecedented it is to find the two together.  Assuming the fact that all of that is true, why is it that they ended up on the auction block in the first place instead of in a museum or university?  I've read that a museum outside of the United States bought the pair, and that the money from the auction will go to continued research and the search for new specimens.  I tend to believe this means that Dinosauria International LLC is the research institution being funded at the end of the day.  And I hope that whatever museum got them, does do some research on "Dracula" and "Fantasia".  If there is proof that these two animals died fighting one another, I'd love to read about it. For now, I'll  have to settle for the color pamphlet from the auction house.

I know there is no point moaning about the sale of fossils at auction.  It is not something that is going to change at any point in the near future. Unlike the illegal fossil trade, it is, perfectly legal.  Which is too bad, because it seems like the best, most complete specimens always end up at auction.  Many go to private collectors, and research on the specimens is never done.  This leads to a loss of invaluable data that could come from studying them.  Luckily, this is not always the case.  "Sue", safely the most famous Tyrannosaurus in the world, found her home at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago after selling at auction for $8.36 million. And since 1997, we have learned quite a bit from studying her remains.  I hope the same can be said about "Dracula" and "Fantasia" in the not so distant future.


  1. This is almost to depressing to contemplate.

  2. As is your grammar, Stu ;)

    But joking aside this sort of thing is very sad. Same sort of thing happens in the art world, of course, although arguably that has less impact on the sum knowledge of mankind.

    It'd be interesting to hear what sort of law or process people would advocate to keep these sorts of finds at least partially within the scientific domain without resorting to draconian - and probably unworkable - measures like banning the sale of fossils.

  3. Stu, I'm holding out hope that, since the "pair" are going to a museum, we will eventually see a paper or two published on them.

    Matt, the discussion has come up before on the vertpaleo and dinosaur mailing lists, but it's hard to draw a line when it comes to saying what is, and isn't acceptable when it comes to the fossil trade and private collections.