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The Dueling Dinosaurs

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

A relatively famous fossil that really had scientists and the public excited quite a few years ago was the 'fighting dinosaurs', which was found in Mongolia and showed a Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked in battle before being buried alive by a collapsing sand dune.

A fossil showing two dinosaurs fighting
The fighting dinosaurs. Image credit:

Well, now we have a spiritual sequel! Nicknamed the 'Dueling dinosaurs', this incredible obrusion deposit (a deposit that occurred in rapid succession, usually burying an organism alive) shows another two dinosaurs locked in battle, those dinosaurs being....Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops horridus!

Fossil of a Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus.
The complete 'Dueling Dinosaurs' fossil. Image credit: Matt Zeher. Use of this image is in an educational context and therefore comes under fair use.

The two entangled fossils are some of the most complete ever discovered, with both animals showing signs of injuries sustained in the fight. Whilst the Triceratops is fully grown at around 28 feet long, the T.rex is actually an adolescent and is around 22 feet long, meaning this whipper-snapper didn't have much luck on one of his/her first hunts. Not only are both skeletons around 98% complete (a number unheard of in vertebrate paleontology), but it also contains skin impressions and potentially some internal organs!

Close up of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull.
Close up of the T.rex skull. Image credit: Matt Zeher. Use of this image is in an educational context and therefore comes under fair use.

But here's the clincher: The dueling dinosaurs were discovered over 15 years ago! Found by ranchers Clayton Phipps, Mark Eatman, and Chad O'Connor in Montana back in 2006, the specimen wasn't revealed until 2020. So why such a long hiatus? Well, whilst it doesn't apply to this particular case, it is a good time to stress how long studies like this takes. Fully studying a fossil can take a very, very long time. Fossils of this magnitude often take a couple of years just to excavate from the Earth (mostly thanks to unfavourable weather and seasons), then are scrutinised by scientists for as long as it takes to extract all the information and to make sure the inferences they make from that information are reliable.

15 years is a bit much though. Unfortunately the reason for that is much the same as what happened with the 'Sue the T.rex' (something I touch on here) or 'Stan the T.rex' controversy: money and lawsuits. The ranchers, who were two families, who found the fossil had shared ownership of the land on which they excavated it from. After a decade of trying to sell the specimen to museums and private buyers to no avail, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences showed an interest. It was at this point that the two families begun a dispute over ownership percentages, which led to a court case lasting for 4 years!

Paleontologists soon got their backs up when the court deemed all fossils as minerals, therefore ownership automatically went to the family who had mineral rights. This also meant that any fossils found on private land were now at risk of being claimed out of the hands of science, as well as getting digging rights next to impossible. Thankfully, in 2020, the courts rethought their decision and, long story short, the dueling dinosaurs were bought for $6 million by the non-profit organization Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences are set to unveil in a public museum in this year in 2022! Further details on the findings will also soon come to light after the fossil has completed formal study.

Of course, the outcome had less severe stakes and a much happier ending than what was the case of Sue or Stan. However, it is sad that such amazing finds are wrenched away from scientists and the world, both of which only want knowledge and enjoyment from them, for the sake of money.

Science won for the dueling dinosaurs this time round, but how many other incredible and ground-breaking finds are currently being hidden from us just so someone can make a quick buck?...

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