Dueling Dinosaurs and Landowner Lawsuit

November 15, 2018

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that dinosaur fossils found on a ranch in Montana belong to the owners of mineral rights, rather than the surface owners of the property. The fossil, known as “Dueling Dinosaurs,” seems to depict 2 dinosaurs in the middle of a fight. “Dueling Dinosaurs” was discovered in 2006 by a fossil hunter exploring the property. The same ranch is also the location of the discovery of an almost complete skeleton of a T. rex in 2013. That fossil, renamed “Trix,” was sold to a Dutch museum for several million dollars, but the proceeds have been held in escrow pending the outcome of the lawsuit. Fossils depicting dinosaurs interacting are considered very rare and therefore are considered to hold huge scientific value.

The Montana District Court had previously ruled in favor of the Murrays (the surface owners) stating that a fossil is not included in the definition of “minerals” and therefore the rights to the fossils and their subsequent value at auction, should belong to the owners of the surface rights. However, the 9th circuit, in a divided opinion, has overturned that decision and determined that fossils are considered a mineral and are valuable, and therefore belong to the owners of the mineral rights of the land. The test for whether or not something constitutes a mineral requires a 2-pronged test that first determines whether the item or substance is, in fact, a mineral, and whether it is also “rare and exceptional” and thus has special value. The Murrays argued that most fossils end up being essentially worthless, and that the 9th Circuit’s standard would create confusion and a need to litigate every case regarding mineral fossils to determine whether the fossil is actually valuable. The court rejected this argument.

The dissent in the case stated that the court overly focused on the value portion of the test, while neglecting other important factors that should have been considered. One of those factors was the proximity to the surface of the land and the effect that removal would have on the surface of the land.

“Dueling Dinosaurs” is said to include the fossils of a Nanotyrannus lancensis, a smaller relative of the T. rex with a longer swan-like neck, and a Chasmosaurine ceratopsian, a creature similar to a triceratops. There has been some concern about whether or not the fossils actually come from a Nanotyrannus lancensis or a juvenile T. rex. Many scientists have expressed a desire for more study of the fossils, while others state that the fossil is not a good specimen for research because it was discovered and excavated by an amateur archeologist, rather than scientists. They concern is that the fossils may not have been treated carefully enough during excavation to be a good representation for study. Regardless, the fossil has been sitting on cold storage pending the outcome of this action. Previously there was an attempt to sell the fossil at auction, but it failed to garner the 6 million dollar minimum bid required for sale at that time. An attempt at another auction sale is in the works now that the lawsuit has been resolved.

Image Source: Jorge Gonzalez/Pablo Lara/REUTERS

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