The Hell Creek formation is a fossil-laden geological deposit that formed beginning in the late Cretaceous Period, and now comprises part of the badlands of eastern Montana and the Dakotas. Fossilized bones, teeth, and flora constantly surface in the area, overwhelming academically trained paleontologists and leaving behind a bonanza for amateur fossil prospectors, including a Montana rancher named Clayton Phipps.
It was in this paleontological playground where, one day in June 2006, Phipps, his cousin Chad O’Connor, and a friend named Mark Eatman were fossil hunting when Eatman noticed a pelvis protruding from the sandstone on the side of a hill. It turned out to be a near-complete skeleton of a new species called Chasmosaurine ceratopsian, a close relation of the Triceratops.
On its own, it would have been a nice discovery. But about three weeks later, during the excavation of the ceratopsian, Phipps discovered a claw. It belonged to a pygmy tyrannosaur, perhaps of another new species named Nanotyrannus lancensis. The complete fossil appears to show the two dinosaurs locked in combat. It was a major find, with great potential for further study, and Phipps and his partners priced it accordingly: $9.8 million.
"I am just going to say I appreciate the academically -trained paleontologists that recognize the contribution that amateurs such as myself bring to paleontology."
But after protracted attempts to sell the fossil to museums, they couldn't get a buyer, so—contrary to the wishes of many paleontologists and museum curators—the skeletons will be auctioned at Bonhams, in New York. Billed as the “Montana dueling dinosaurs,” the fossil is expected to fetch between $7 and $9 million.
Phipps, 40, lives on a 1,100-acre ranch with his wife and three children in the unincorporated community of Brusset, Montana. Beset by the decline of the ranching industry, he has found secondary success as an amateur fossil prospector, earning himself the nickname “Dino Cowboy.” His first big find came in 2003: the complete skull of a Stygimoloch, the first one ever found. He sold it for $40,000, enough for his family to live on for a year.
Could you tell me about how you got started collecting fossils?
I started collecting fossils because a guy stopped by the ranch I was working on—I was a cowboy on a working cattle ranch here in Montana—and he asked the landowner if he could look around on his land for fossils. At the time it seemed like a strange request, but after he was there for a few days he showed me some fragments of dinosaur bone he had picked up. It looked like a fun thing to do so I started looking for fossils myself. It was a hobby at first. When my father passed away I inherited a small ranch. My ranch was too small to make a living on and support my family, so I decided to quit my job to run the ranch and look for fossils to help supplement our income. My hope was to find something really great so I could buy more land.
How’d you acquire the nickname “Dino Cowboy”?
I met Mark Eatman, a fellow fossil hunter, and one time I went with him to a ranch where he had permission to collect fossils. Mark introduced me to the landowner as the “Dino Cowboy” and the name stuck.
You coined the term “dueling dinosaurs,” right? How was the circumstance of their deaths confirmed?
Yes, I coined the term. These two dinos were obviously not friends. There are snapped-off teeth from the nano imbedded in the flesh of the ceratopsian. They undoubtedly killed each other.
How'd you come to partner up with Robert Bakker, the curator for the Houston Museum of Natural Science?
Technically, we are not “partnered up.” I met Dr. Bakker when I discovered the Stygimoloch. He is my favorite paleontologist. He and Phil Currie named Nanotyrannasaur as a new species in 1988, and it has been hotly debated as to whether Nano is its own species or just a juvenile T-rex. I am on Bakker’s side that the Nano was indeed its own species. I have found baby T-rex teeth that are shaped and serrated like fully grown T-rex teeth but much smaller—Nano teeth are much different than T-rex teeth, with Nano teeth being more slender with much smaller serrations. When we found the dueling dinos, we now had a complete-enough specimen to rule out the Nano being a juvenile T-rex.
You and your partners attempted to sell the fossil to museums for a reported $9.8 million. What museums did you try to sell to, and why, in your opinion, did none of them buy it?
I am not going to go into this too deeply as I feel it is personal. As to the reported amount ... I had an old-time cowboy friend once tell me, “You can't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see!” I will say, for the last seven years we have tried to get U.S. museums to purchase the dueling dinosaurs. Our group had hoped to see it go to a U.S. museum from the start. When I first realized what we had found, my initial thought was this discovery is worthy of the Smithsonian. I contacted the curator there shortly after we finished excavation. It was a tough decision to make but when Tom Lindgren from Bonhams contacted us about possibly putting the fossils in an auction, our group decided it was time.
You've been quoted as saying you search for fossils, in part, to “supplement [y]our income.” How do you think it affects your relationship and reputation with academically-trained paleontologists?
I am just going to say I appreciate the academically-trained paleontologists that recognize the contribution that amateurs such as myself bring to paleontology. And I would like to work together [with them] for the benefit of science. I would also like to point out if it weren’t for amateurs such as Mark, Chad, and I, many discoveries, such as the dueling dinosaurs, would have potentially never been discovered.
Make the argument for amateur fossil-hunting, either instead of or in addition to “academic” fossil hunting. It seems many scientists have been chafed by regular folks like yourself making huge discoveries. Do you think they're intimidated?