A James Cook University geologist is in the middle of one of the most important, and legally complex, palaeontological finds in history.
JCU’s Associate Professor Eric Roberts is leading the geological aspect of the study of two dinosaurs that killed each other in battle and were found still entwined 66 million years later in a Montana creek bed.
Dr Roberts said it’s been a long haul waiting to see if the dinosaurs were going to available to a public institution where then can be properly displayed and studied.
“They were discovered by private fossil hunters in 2006 and are such an important find, potentially worth millions of dollars. But scientists have been extremely concerned that the spectacular fossils would end up in private hands and be inaccessible for scientists to study.
“The subsequent legal battle over whether fossils were owned by the landowner or the mineral rights holder took a long time to resolve. It’s not until this year that their ownership has been legally established and they were able to be purchased by a non-profit group and donated to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences,” said Dr Roberts.
He said the dinosaurs, the well-known Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, were discovered tangled together, leading to the hypothesis that the two animals died in combat with each other before sinking into the swampy floodplain of Late Cretaceous Montana some 66 m years ago.
“The Triceratops is reported to have teeth in its spine and pelvis and the T-Rex seems to have broken teeth and fractures that may be associated with trauma.
“Both are extraordinarily well-preserved. Each specimen is among the most complete of its kind ever found. It’s arguably one of the most amazing dinosaur fossil discoveries ever,” said Dr Roberts.
The fossils will be housed in a new expansion to the museum at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and will be studied in a state-of-the-art palaeontology lab that will open in 2022.
Dr Roberts said his role and that of JCU honours student Stuart Hodgson is to establish the geological framework of the fossil site.
“Stuart and I are working on dating the fossil, and helping to unravel the mystery of how and why these two dinosaurs came to be deposited together,” he said.
Dr Roberts and Mr Hodgson will return to the site and museum to work on the project with Dr. Lindsay Zanno and the rest of the team in the United States as soon as it is possible to travel again.
“The project will take several years to complete, because most of the fossils are still entombed in rock matrix that must be carefully prepared at the museum before we can fully examine them and test the hypothesis of these as duelling dinosaurs,” said Dr Roberts.