Episode 660: The T-Rex In My Backyard : Planet Money There's a boom going on for dinosaur bones, a veritable gold rush for fossils buried in the badlands of North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. Today on the show: the T-Rex that started it all.
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Episode 660: The T-Rex In My Backyard

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Episode 660: The T-Rex In My Backyard

Episode 660: The T-Rex In My Backyard

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Randy Rees owns a cattle ranch in northeastern Montana. He runs it with his son Shane.

Where are we?

SHANE REES: Rees Ranch - middle of nowhere.

SMITH: The Rees Ranch borders the badlands. These big, bare white hills stick up out of the sagebrush and dry grass. It is really remote. The only way to get to Randy's house is on this very bumpy dirt road. So Randy was pretty surprised a couple of years ago when he saw two strangers driving down that road to see him.

RANDY REES: Actually, the guy showed up with a fruit basket.

SMITH: He had a fruit basket.

RANDY REES: Yeah (laughter).

SMITH: And what did he say?

RANDY REES: Asked if they could go out and look around for fossils I guess.

SMITH: Look around for fossils. The men told Randy they thought his ranch might have dinosaur bones buried on it. They offered him $5,000 to look around for a couple years and if they found something good, the Reeses would get a 10 percent cut of the profit. Randy said sure. Go for it. They set off to a far corner of the ranch and Randy didn't see much of them for a long time. But then about a year later, they showed back up at his house. They'd found something - teeth and part of a tail. And they thought this was not just any dinosaur.

RANDY REES: Came back this year and they'd found a T. rex, so that was kind of exciting (laughter).

SHANE REES: They were like, oh, we found a T. rex, and we were like, yes.

SMITH: The Reeses are understated people, but there was a T. rex in their backyard. And this is a really big deal for them. Randy and his wife had Rees Rex T-shirts made up for all their grandkids and Randy's son Shane Rees learned all of these scientific facts about their dinosaur.

RANDY REES: Well, it's the most complete T. rex skull ever found. They found new orbital eye socket-like bones and maybe it was like...

SHANE REES: Ornamental they said.

RANDY REES: Like horns.

SMITH: They're getting super into it and there is a good reason for that. This T. rex could mean a lot of money for the Reeses. In the U.S., if you find a T. rex or any fossil in your backyard, you own it. It's yours. You don't have to hand it over to the government or a museum. You can sell it to the highest bidder. As a result, there is a dinosaur goldrush going on.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

QUOCTRUNG BUI, BYLINE: And I'm Quoctrung Bui. Today on the show - what happens when you try to put a price on the bones of a humongous 66 million-year-old monster.

SMITH: We can actually pinpoint the exact moment when fossils went from scientific artifact to cash crop. It was 20 years ago and it was the biggest, baddest dinosaur that has ever been found. It was a T. rex of course - a T. rex named Sue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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SMITH: Here's how the dinosaur world used to work. A team of scientists would come up to a rancher, ask if they could look around for bones; if they found something, they'd come out, excavate it with pickaxes, dental tools, paintbrushes. It was a painstaking process. It could take a year. The bones would end up in a museum and the rancher might get little credit on a plaque. It was a handshake business - no cash. That all changed because of Pete Larson. Pete had studied paleontology in college and he thought he could make a business out of dinosaurs. He started paying ranchers to dig up bones on their land, and then he would sell what he found.

BUI: And one day he was on a dig in the badlands of South Dakota. One of the members of his team, this woman named Sue Hendrickson, she went out on a walk with her dog. And she came running back to him with something in her hand.

PETE LARSON: She holds out her hand with these two pieces of bone with this honeycomb pattern and I asked her if there's more there and she said there's a lot more there. And so we ran - literally ran - to the site about two miles away. And here were these basically pieces of bones just dripping out of the side of this cliff and...

SMITH: What did you do?

LARSON: We dug it up (laughter) so it was like the most wonderful - most wonderful time of my life digging that farm.

SMITH: It was a Tyrannosaurus rex and not just a piece of one. The skull was there full of teeth, the whole spine and tail, the huge leg bones, one of the little arms.

BUI: It was the most complete T. rex ever found. Pete named it Sue after the woman who discovered it.

SMITH: Sue's bone had all of these amazing details that had been preserved - broken ribs that had healed and giant holes in her lower jaw, which Pete thinks were from the teeth of another T. rex.

LARSON: She has some crushed bones at the top of her skull and the left side of the lower jaw is pulled out of place that could I think actually caused her death where she had basically the left side of her face was ripped off by another T. rex.

SMITH: That was a rough life.

LARSON: Yeah.

SMITH: Pete and his team spent three weeks digging her out. They carried her bones back to his shop and started meticulously cleaning and preparing them. Pete's plan was not to sell her. He wanted to use her to start a museum in his little town of Hill City, S.D.

BUI: He wanted to make a place where everyone could see her, where scientists could come and study her.

SMITH: And the whole town was into it. School kids even held bake sales to raise money for this museum. And news spread fast. Scientists flew in from all over the world to get a look at Sue, reporters came.

LARSON: And then one day we get up. There was a knock on my door. I was showering at 7:30 morning and getting ready to come to work. And I lived in a trailer house behind the institute, walked out and there's 35 FBI agents and National Guard and all kinds of people here that just - just an unreal situation and they were saying that we had somehow spirited this dinosaur away and they had a search warrant to surrender her bones.

SMITH: Sue had landed in the middle of an epic legal battle. It was clear that she was special, and unlike the bones Pete had dig up in the past, Sue might be worth a lot of money. And there was a question now about who owned Sue. Pete had found Sue on the land of a rancher and he paid the rancher $5,000. But there was no written contract. The rancher said that money was for just digging up the land. He said he owned Sue.

BUI: And while this big custody battle was being sorted out, Sue's bones were seized by the FBI and held as evidence.

LARSON: And they put Sue in a sea freight container basically in the boiler room at the School of Mines.

SMITH: Sue sat in the basement at the university. Pete would go and talk to her at night.

LARSON: Actually looking in the window at the container.

SMITH: And what would you say?

LARSON: Oh, just basically I'm going to get you the hell out of there. You know, just - it was just - it was sad. I mean, to lockup this wonderful animal just - was just wrong.

SMITH: The court decided in favor of the rancher. Pete was crushed.

BUI: Now the rancher got to decide what to do with Sue and his choice - put her up for auction.

SMITH: It was a sale like nobody had ever seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Sotheby's. We have for auction today the fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex known as Sue.

BUI: To some people, this was a crazy moment. Auctioning off a dinosaur - that was something you didn't do.

SMITH: No one had any idea what Sue would sell for. Lance Grande is a paleontologist with the Chicago Field Museum. They were one of the bidders.

LANCE GRANDE: There were all kinds of people trying to get a hold of Sue. We bid against other museums, gambling casinos, real estate companies and even one private individual who wanted it for an ornament in his living room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And I begin with a bid of $500,000, opening up at $500,000, $600,000, $700,000, now at $700,000...

GRANDE: After $2.5 million, the Smithsonian dropped out, and after $7.2 million, the North Carolina Museum of Natural History dropped out.

BUI: And now there were just two bidders left - the Chicago Field Museum and a real estate baron from Florida.

GRANDE: He put up $7.3 million bid. We countered with a $7.4 million bid. He bumped his the $7.5 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Seven-five.

GRANDE: That was the museum's pre-arranged limit.

BUI: And it looked like Sue - she was headed to Florida.

SMITH: But the Chicago Field Museum had a professional bidder working with them. And he told them he thought the real estate baron might be tapped out. He said make one more bid, just one more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Seven million six hundred thousand.

(APPLAUSE)

GRANDE: So we bid $7.6 million and that was the bid that took it. With Sotheby's 10 percent commission added, the total price tag came to $8,362,500.

BUI: Sue went to the Field Museum for $8.3 million. She's still there today.

SMITH: And that moment, when the gavel fell, that moment changed paleontology forever. Now everyone knew that dinosaur fossils were not just scientific relics. They had a price tag and a pretty big one. And it didn't hurt that all of this happened around the time of a particular movie you might remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF "JURASSIC PARK" FILM)

SMITH: "Jurassic Park" - natural history museums were mobbed and lots of people wanted to buy dinosaurs. Prices were quickly established. Duck-billed dinosaurs - not worth a whole lot. They're kind of everywhere, like the cows of the dinosaur world. Triceratops - kind of in the middle. A good one can fetch you up to $1 million.

BUI: But by far, the most profitable dinosaur, the king of the market, the Tyrannosaurus rex.

SMITH: You can imagine what happened next. Thousands of fossil hunters started crawling all over the hills South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, hoping to strike it rich. It's the only part of the world where T. rexs are found. And paleontologists, people who had dedicated their entire lives to scientific discovery, they were not very happy about this.

BUI: Jack Horner is a paleontologist at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., and he's partially responsible for this whole dinosaur craze. He was a technical adviser for the "Jurassic Park" movie and one of the main characters is actually based on him.

SMITH: Yeah, the cute one.

JACK HORNER: (Laughter) Sam Neill's character - you know, I'm just glad he didn't get eaten.

SMITH: Jack was not excited to see all of these newcomers on his turf. He says a lot of these guys aren't scientists. They have no qualifications. Some of them just answered an ad on Craigslist. And he says a lot of valuable information is getting lost.

HORNER: When we're looking for scientific information, you know, the rock around it and how the thing is laying and exactly where it is geologically and geographically - that's all important information for us. But it's basically overhead for commercial collectors.

SMITH: Jack says doing a dinosaur dig right requires skill, equipment and precision. Like, right now, he is trying to find dinosaur DNA, just like in Jurassic Park. And he says he's close. All he needs now is to find the right bone.

HORNER: We wear white gloves. We do extractions into foils. We get it to a lab as quickly as possible. We actually built a clean lab in the back of an 18-wheeler trailer so we could actually get our laboratory to the field.

SMITH: Could something like that be lost in a commercial dig?

HORNER: Yes, it could, yes.

SMITH: Jack says all kinds of information is getting lost. He says most commercial diggers are all about get in, get bones, get out.

SHANE REES: What the hell, CB?

SMITH: Randy Rees' sons CB and Shane took me out to see the commercial dig site for their T. rex. So I have never been to a fossil dig before. I have no idea what they're supposed to look like. But I have to say this one was kind of a mess.

SHANE REES: So, I mean, yeah...

SMITH: Whoa, it's like a construction site.

SHANE REES: Yeah, they had a huge bulldozer - a D8 or D9 - out here to do all this.

SMITH: The diggers left the site a month ago, but Shane and CB say they can show me the spot where the dinosaur used to be. But when we get there, there's kind of a surprise waiting for us.

CB REES: Whoa, that looks like there's still bones out here. Oh, my God, there's still a plaster left.

SHANE REES: Wow.

CB REES: That better not be the skull.

SMITH: When fossil diggers get a bone out of the ground, they put it right into a plaster cast. The plaster cast protects it when they're moving it from the dig site to the lab. And there is a huge plaster cast that is still at this dig site just sitting on some boards in the dirt. And from the size of the plaster cast, Shane Rees thinks this is the skull of the Tyrannosaurus rex. He's really upset.

SHANE REES: They should've gotten it out by now because it's - pretty soon they're not going to be able to get it out. Once winter hits, this is going to be stuck here. That's a million dollars sitting right there.

SMITH: The digging company wouldn't talk to us, but they did send us an email. They said, yes, that is the skull. But the reason that it's still there is that they're trying to be careful. They said the skull weighs so much they have to bring in this special equipment so that they can take it out without damaging it. After that, they'll spend a year or two preparing it and then they'll sell it. After doing some research and talking to the company, the Reeses think their T. rex will probably go for between $1 million and $2 million. That would mean a couple hundred thousand dollars for the Reeses.

Do you guys have a preference for where it ends up?

RANDY REES: It really does belong in a museum and not in a private collection where only one person gets to enjoy it.

SMITH: It may end up in a private collection.

RANDY REES: If they pay more, I'm OK with it.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: The cool skull with all of the bones and horns, scientists might never even be able to see it. T. rexs might have horns and no one will know except a real estate billionaire who will hang Christmas ornaments on them. We asked Lance Grande about this - the paleontologist from the Chicago Field Museum - all of this information potentially getting lost and paleontologists getting priced out of the fossil market.

GRANDE: Oh, that's a really tough question. I mean, there is a downside.

SMITH: Lance says some science is being lost. And a lot of ranchers won't let museums or scientists dig on their land anymore. They want the money that private companies can offer. But...

GRANDE: Myself - for me and my locality, the net is positive because there are just a lot more fossils being excavated than have ever been excavated in the past.

SMITH: Before Sue, T. rexs were being found once every 10 years or so. Since Sue, T. rexs are being found once every six months. That's 20 times more fossils coming out of the ground because there is a market for them. And if the fossils weren't pulled out of the ground, they would most likely erode away.

BUI: And this is actually kind of important because there's actually a clock that's ticking. Fossils will start to peak out of the ground and then there's this little window of time for someone to see it and get out before it crumbles to dust.

SMITH: CB and Shane Rees tell me they see fossils all over their ranch all the time. They take me to one place where they used to camp as kids. They actually adorably called it dino hill. They say there's a big rib sticking out of a dirt mound that they used to pull their sleeping bags on. When we get there, the rib is gone. It's crumbled away. But they see something else.

CB REES: Oh, my God, right here.

SHANE REES: Oh, yeah, look at that.

SMITH: Whoa. That's like a good shoulder blade.

CB REES: Yeah - scapula.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, wow, that's impressive.

SHANE REES: Yeah, welcome to Rees Ranch. Hey, if you wanted - if you wanted a souvenir, you're welcome to take one.

BUI: Did you actually take one?

SMITH: No, I didn't. Fossils still seem kind of sacred to me. I couldn't even touch it. Actually, none of us did. We all just stood around looking at it, super excited, trying to imagine this animal running around these hills 66 million years ago. We were like little kids.

CB REES: There's probably a big skeleton underneath.

SHANE REES: Yeah, a couple years this will be gone.

SMITH: But we'll probably never know. This part of the Rees Ranch isn't getting excavated. It's on government land. The Reeses just lease it. And different rules apply here - no for-profit digging. So the shoulder blade will stay in the ground until a university or a museum comes to dig it up. Or it might just erode away. Actually, the same fate could have happened to the Rees' T. rex. It was right up against their property line, just 40 feet away from government land.

BUI: Two T. rex steps.

SMITH: Yes, exactly. If the T. rex had taken two more steps before it died, the Reeses wouldn't have gotten a dime. And the T. rex might not have be found at all.

Pete Larson, the guy who found Sue, did eventually build his museum in Hill City, S.D. He lost Sue, but he did go on to find a few other T. rexs.

LARSON: We've collected 10 T. rexs here. Sue, Stan, Steven, Duffy, Bucky, Wyrex, 007, AllieRex...

SMITH: And how many have been found in the world?

LARSON: So there's about 50 specimens that really qualify something that's important.

SMITH: So 20 percent of all the T. rexs in the world, you've put your hands on.

LARSON: Yeah, which isn't bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: And we have some sad news. Quoctrung Bui here, our beloved digital producer who found this story and who has designed countless charts and maps and infographics for us, is leaving.

BUI: Yeah, I am.

SMITH: Bui, we're going to miss you.

BUI: I'm going to miss you guys, too.

SMITH: We always love to hear what you think of the show. Send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org - or you can tweet us - @planetmoney. And, Bui, do you want to take us out?

BUI: I'll take her out. Our episode today was produced by Kristen Clark and Jess Jiang. And if you want to check out another show, try Latino USA. They tell great stories, like when nine young undocumented citizens walked from Mexico to border officials in the U.S. and demanded asylum, wearing only their graduation caps and gowns. Listen to Latino USA now at npr.org/podcasts and on the NPR One app.

SMITH: I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

BUI: And I'm Quoctrung Bui. Thanks for listening.

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