A year-and-a-half ago, I wrote about an extremely rare set of fossil specimens dubbed the “dueling dinosaurs,” estimated to be worth more than $7 million at the time. What made this collection of mineralized bones so valuable was not only its exquisite state of preservation (it is thought to contain even remnants of soft tissues), but also the fact that it captures a moment in time about 66 million years ago in which a triceratops was seemingly locked in combat with a tyrannosaur.
Monetary worth aside, it is hard to understate the scientific value of such a find. Yet, despite the discovery of the dueling dinosaurs in the summer of 2006, scientists have been unable to conduct any research. A legal morass kept the dueling dinosaurs locked in storage, and inaccessible to science.
To revisit the state of affairs from the last time I covered this topic, there was an ownership dispute about who could claim the dueling dinosaurs, as there often is with valuable things found under the ground in Montana. There, it is not uncommon for the surface rights and the mineral rights of a particular piece of land to take wildly divergent paths of title. In the dispute over the dueling dinosaurs, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana found that even though dinosaur fossils may chemically be made out of minerals, they are not, legally speaking, transferred along with the mineral rights to a parcel of land — this is generally thought to be the correct legal treatment of dinosaur fossils by legal experts who have considered the issue. But then, to the shock and horror of the paleontological community (which prefers to keep the subject of its field of study out of the pit-of-despair that is mineral rights litigation), a divided panel of Ninth Circuit judges reversed and found that dinosaur fossils are minerals whose ownership travels along with the mineral rights of the parcel they’re found beneath.
In response, and to its credit, the Montana state legislature immediately (and unanimously) passed a law clarifying that dinosaur bones are not minerals and that fossils belong to the surface estate. This came too late for the dueling dinosaurs, however, a pair of unfortunate combatants who waited 66 million years encased in stone and earth to just miss being removed from the definition of “minerals” by like a month.
After a whole bunch more legal wrangling, the Ninth Circuit granted rehearing en banc, certified the question of whether dinosaur fossils constitute “minerals” for the purpose of a mineral reservation to the Montana Supreme Court, and finally followed the conclusion of the Montana Supreme Court that dinosaur fossils do not constitute “minerals” by affirming the original determination of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, in Murray v. BEJ Minerals, LLC, 962 F.3d 485 (9th Cir. 2020). Whew, it’s tiring even to read all that.
What this all meant is that the dueling dinosaurs, more than 14 years after their discovery, were finally able to find a home. With the ownership dispute resolved, the dueling dinosaurs sold for an undisclosed sum to the nonprofit Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Paleontologists are cheering the ultimate destination of the dueling dinosaurs within the scientific community, and are already no doubt fastidiously arranging their various tiny brushes and whirring their little dental drill thingies in eager anticipation of the “literally … thousands” of studies they are saying will be done on these fossils.
As for the legal community, well, I suppose we more or less got this one right, eventually. Maybe the next time we’re responsible for tying up a priceless scientific treasure we could move it along a little bit, maybe try to avoid parties having to pay like a decade of legal fees before getting the thing into the hands of researchers. Anyone with me on this? Hello? At any rate, we can all look forward to seeing the dueling dinosaurs when they are scheduled to go on public display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in 2022. I know I’ll be taking a trip to Raleigh to have a look.
Jonathan Wolf is a litigation associate at a midsize, full-service Minnesota firm. He also teaches as an adjunct writing professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, has written for a wide variety of publications, and makes it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Credit: Source link