In 2009, commercial fossil hunters in Montana excavated what was, unbeknownst to them, the jaws of an important new species of dinosaur.

Scientists weren't informed, and the fossil was sold to a private collector.

Fortunately, the story doesn't end there, as it sometimes does.

'It's wrong for people to assume they can get something for free.' - Peter Larson, Black Hills Institute of Geological Research

In the fall of 2010, the private collector heard that paleontologist David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto would be visiting his town of Fort Peck, Mont. He wanted to know more about the fossil he had purchased, so he showed it to Evans. 

"I was blown away," Evans recalled. "I instantly knew it was a new species of raptor."

"It was a unique find that is scientifically very important," added Evans, who co-authored a paper describing the new raptor in 2013.

The jaws turned out to belong to the only raptor from its time period ever found in North America. The turkey-sized meat-eater named Acheroraptor temertyorum would help paint a more vivid picture of the diverse ecosystem where Tyrannosaurus rex stalked Triceratops 66 million years ago.

Acheroraptor also revealed a surprise — it was a close relative of dinosaurs in Asia, suggesting that dinosaurs were migrating between continents.

But no one knew any of that until Evans, the  ROM's curator of vertebrate paleontology and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, talked the collector into selling his treasure to the ROM. It became part of the ROM's collection in 2011. The museum doesn't disclose the prices it pays in order to minimize their effect on the market, but Evans said it was reasonable and affordable.

Bringing the fossil into a museum was the only way it could be studied and be recognized as a new species with its own scientific name. That's because science needs to be repeatable by other scientists, Evans said, and that's possible only when they have unrestricted public access through an institution such as a museum.

"If we had not bought it," he added, "it would have continued to be in the hands of a private collector and off-limits to science."

Acheroraptor illustration

Acheroraptor is a newly discovered species of turkey-sized meat-eating dinosaur that lived alongside T. rex and Triceratops. (Julius Cstonyi)

The story of Acheroraptor illustrates how buying fossils from commercial collectors can provide scientists and the public with access to extraordinary dinosaur specimens they couldn't otherwise study. But it also shows how easily the commercial trade can inadvertently keep important specimens out of scientists' reach.

That is, the bustling dinosaur business has a profound influence on the science of paleontology – something that paleontologists struggle with.

Canadian museums often buy dinosaur fossils 

Dinosaurs are a huge public draw, but for many Canadian museums, buying dinosaurs is the only way to get them.

Laws enacted since the late 1970s in the main provinces where dinosaur fossils are found — Alberta and Saskatchewan — specify that dinosaur fossils are owned by the Crown. Regulations effectively ban them from being removed from the province.

Acheroraptor

If the Royal Ontario Museum had not bought the Acheroraptor fossil, it would have remained off-limits to science, says curator and paleontologist David Evans. (Royal Ontario Museum)

Paleontologists say the laws do a good job of safeguarding fossils for science. But they mean museums like the ROM, located in Ontario where no dinosaur fossils have been found, can't grow its collection except by buying fossils from outside Canada, mainly from the U.S.

"Every major museum in Canada buys fossils and it's been a common practice for a century," Evans said.

That said, museums far prefer to collect fossils themselves than buy them — partly because many have trouble affording them, and partly because commercial specimens are often missing important scientific data about their origins.

The U.S. is one of the few places in the world where dinosaur fossils collected on private land can be legally bought and sold in a mostly unfettered free market.

Driven by supply and demand, the market has commanded some impressive prices in the past decade. They peaked in 1997 with Sue, a T. rex bought at auction for $9.7 million Cdn by the Field Museum of Chicago.

Predators worth more than herbivores

Peter Larson is president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc., a major commercial fossil dealer based in Hill City, South Dakota that discovered Sue and has sold dinosaurs to Canadian museums including the ROM.

He says prices for entire dinosaur skeletons can range from tens of thousands of dollars to millions, with large meat eaters like T. rex fetching far more than herbivores such as duck-billed hadrosaurs.

"The coolness factor plays a part no matter who buys the fossil."

Larson said Sue's record auction "made a big difference in what people think dinosaurs might be worth."

Sue Tyrannosaurus rex Field Museum

Sue the T. rex is the most expensive dinosaur skeleton ever sold. The Field Museum in Chicago bought her at auction for $8.6 million in 1997. (Sue Ogrocki/Reuters)

Commercial collectors surged into the market, eager to cash in, offering private landowners money in exchange for access to their fossil beds.

Evans said farmers and ranchers who once provided paleontologists with access to their land started shutting them out. Those who once donated their finds to museums sold them to commercial collectors instead.

Larson thinks that's how it should be.

"It's very difficult to make a living as a rancher and a farmer. Those people own that land," he said. "It's wrong for people to assume that they can get something for free."

Peter Larson with Sue the T. rex

Peter Larson is president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, which collected and sold Sue the T. rex. He said Sue's record auction "made a big difference in what people think dinosaurs might be worth." (Black Hills Institute of Geological Research)

Many Canadian paleontologists accept that argument, at least to some extent.

"I'm not completely against it," said Hans Larsson, Canada Research Chair in vertebrate paleontology at McGill University. He acknowledged that fossils have market value, and being able to buy them promotes interest in paleontology.

"However, once we get into scientifically interesting specimens… those specimens should not be for sale publicly."

In many cases, Larsson said, commercial collectors who recognize that a fossil is a new species will save it for a museum. 

The same goes for scientifically important fossils like whole skeletons. Peter Larson said the Black Hills Institute has never sold one to anyone but a museum. Private individuals are more likely to buy dinosaur parts such as vertebrae or leg bones that are smaller and have less scientific value, he added.

But as turkey-sized Acheroraptor shows, "the most interesting species are not always the big ones," says Evans.

He noted that many recently discovered dinosaur species would easily fit in a collector's living room.

Poachers smash skulls

He doesn't think that the parts favoured by collectors have less scientific value. In fact, he says, they're often exactly the parts needed to identify a new species.

"What people want on their mantelpieces are the skulls."

Deinocheirus mirificus

Deinocheirus was similar in size to Tyrannosaurus rex and belonged to a group of ostrich-like dinosaurs. (Michael Skrepnick)

The high perceived price of dinosaurs after Sue's sale encouraged not only legal commercial collectors, but also illegal poachers, paleontologists say. When poachers are involved, even small dinosaur parts for sale can leave a trail of destruction.

Philip Currie, who holds a Canada Research Chair in dinosaur paleobiology at the University of Alberta, makes annual trips to Mongolia to collect dinosaur fossils. Many times, he has come across skeletons badly damaged by poachers, who take only the parts they can sell most easily.

"They'll take a pickaxe and they'll smash up the skull and take the teeth or dig until they find the hands and feet and they'll take all the claws," he said.

Earlier this year, Currie finally described an extraordinary dinosaur called Deinocheirus. He found the remains of its poached skeleton a few years ago, but couldn't identify and describe it until its skull and hand were found in a fossil dealer's shop and returned to Mongolia.

Professional ethics prevent paleontologists from studying poached specimens.

Lost data

An additional problem with poached specimens and some commercial specimens is they are often missing important scientific data such as the GPS co-ordinates of their location and their position within the layers of rock — necessary to figure out exactly when the dinosaur lived and its place in its ecosystem.

"There are definitely people who need to learn more about what they're doing," said Peter Larson, whose company takes great care to collect the scientific data and excavate fossils properly.

But he added  that commercial collectors in the U.S. have helped find and dig up far more dinosaurs than museums and university researchers have the resources to find. This is valuable work, given how fast fossils exposed on the surface of the ground weather away.

"In some instances, even if they don't do a good job, it's better than letting the fossil rot."

Evans said laws allowing commercial collection of dinosaur bones in the U.S. are unlikely to change, so it's important for paleontologists to forge good relationships with commercial and private collectors. That way, they are more likely to learn about important finds and can encourage the collection of important data along with the fossils.

"The private market is really, really big," he said. "And it can be heartbreaking to a scientist to realize that so many potentially important specimens are being held in private hands, outside the realm of science."

Evans thinks there are big scientific advantages to a system like Canada's where most dinosaur fossils remain in the public trust, whether they were found in public or private lands.

"All scientists prefer that model," he said, "because there is no chance of specimens being lost to a mantelpiece."