Events / Science communication

The ‘cheetah of the Cretaceous’

It’s been a dinosaury week so far at the British Science Festival! Our event, ‘Dinosaurs, monsters and myths’ kicked off a huge amount of press coverage for Nanotyrannus, a disputed new species. Once thought to be a juvenile T. Rex, Nanotyrannus now appears to be confirmed, thanks to a beautiful new specimen which has been discovered in Montana by a real life dinosaur cowboy. That’s right, a Dinosaur Cowboy.

Here he is with his find…

Clayton Phipps, 'dinosaur cowboy, and Nanotyrannus

Clayton Phipps, ‘dinosaur cowboy’, and Nanotyrannus

‘This is possibly the most amazing fossil in the world’ says the University of Manchester’s Dr Phil Manning, who also described the fossil as ‘lickable.’

It was found locked in combat with a specimen of Triceratops, which had Nanotyrannus teeth embedded in its neck. The two probably fought to the death around 67 million years ago.

‘It was a bad day for both of them’ says Phil. ‘If you’re prey, you’re going to do everything you can not to be eating. You’re going to fight.’



But the specimen is more than just aesthetically pleasing. If Nanotyrannus is a distinct species, it will change our understanding of the ecosystem of the late Cretaceous, with another predator on the scene.

The specimen’s long, swan like neck and long arms suggest it cannot be simply a juvenile T. Rex. Instead, Phil suggests, Nanotyrannus “filled an intermediate ecological niche between the vast T. rex and the contemporary dromeosaur predators.”

It sounds like a pretty significant find. However, only a few scientists, including Phil, have so far had access to the fossil. And on 19 November, the ‘Montana Duelling Dinosaurs’ will be put up for auction at Bonhams in New York, with no guarantee that they’ll be available for researchers after the sale.

‘If it goes to a private collector, I’ll have to unlearn what I’ve seen’ says Phil, who is convinced Nanotyrannus represents a distinct species, the ‘cheetah of the Cretaceous.’ Anyone with around $7 – $9 million to spend could own the fossil, meaning other scientists may not be able to study it to confirm findings so far.

‘I hope a museum will be able to acquire it’ says Phil, ‘even if not for a few generations.’

‘We don’t usually view fossils in terms of the financial value. We see art being sold around the world all the time, with an associated value, but when something as precious and priceless as this comes onto the market, we worry about whether it should be sold at all.’

‘And it’s BEAUTIFUL’ he adds. ‘Seriously, a beautiful object in its own right.’

So, if any of our readers happen to have $9 million kicking about, do get in touch. The palaeontologists of the world will be eternally grateful.

Read more about Nanotyrannus:

‘Montana duelling dinosaurs could fetch $9 million at auction’ (The Guardian)
‘Mortal combat: Unique duelling dinosaur fossil could be lost to science when it is auctioned for up to £6m’ (The Independent)
‘Science ‘could lose’ duelling dinosaurs’ (BBC)
‘Palaeontologist leads battle to save fighting dinosaurs fossil’ (The Financial Times)
‘Scientists warn rare dinosaur auction could harm research’ (The Telegraph)

artist's model of Nanotyrannus and Triceretops

artist’s model of Nanotyrannus and Triceretops

4 thoughts on “The ‘cheetah of the Cretaceous’

  1. It is unfortunate that a supposedly learned society (the Geological Society) is promoting this auction, along with the unverified claims surrounding the specimen. The sale of scientifically important fossils contravenes the ethics bylaws of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP; unless they come into the public trust), such that the parties involved in this sale are not permitted to be members of SVP. Commercial paleontology has always had a right to operate, and has an important role to play in securing specimens, but the situation surrounding this specimen is nothing short of holding already cash-starved scientific institutions to ransom, based on nothing more than unsubstantiated (and unlikely) claims as to what these specimens may represent.

    Further (and perhaps most astonishingly), for the Geological Society to advertise such endeavors as part of a public celebration of science completely undermines the efforts of scientists to stop this media fixation on the monetary value of fossils, and muddies the public perception of how science is conducted. There has been no proper scientific investigation of the specimens; no papers have been through review nor published; yet you are actively promoting the fringe view that “Nanotyrannus” (which is not new; another inaccuracy in your article) is somehow now valid, despite this view being strongly opposed by virtually all tyrannosaur experts (e.g. Thomas Carr; Thomas Holtz; none of whom seem to have been contacted regarding the specimen by any UK journalists). I understand that dinosaurs are excellent tools for public engagement, but it is sad that you have chosen this controversial case to headline the science festival: there are literally scores of other superbly preserved and important dinosaur specimens dug up every year in proper scientific settings, why not focus on them? Vertebrate paleontologists should reconsider their membership to the Geological Society if this is the pervading attitude.

    This is my personal view, but you would do well to contact someone at SVP, or any of the recognized tyrannosaur researchers to see how unfortunately innaccurate your article is.

  2. Pingback: British Science Festival 2013 – dinosaurs, landslides and carbon sinks | Geological Society of London blog

  3. Pingback: Under the hammer… | Geological Society of London blog

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