Teenage Tyrannosaurus rex gets Trial Date

It seems that humans teenagers are not the only ones capable of getting themselves embroiled with the law but in the case of a teenage T. rex, the dinosaur is the innocent party caught up in a legal wrangle.

The fossil Tyrannosaurus, excavated from a secret site in South Dakota was initially excavated by Mark Eatman, a commercial fossil collector.  He removed a partial dentary (lower jaw bone) before selling on his discovery to a group of Texas based business people.  The new owners contacted the Tyrannosaur expert and leading palaeontologist Bob Bakker, who was able to examine vertebrae, ribs, gastralia, tibia, fibia and a complete humerus.  He concluded that this was potentially a female and one that was as yet fully grown – a teenage Tyrannosaurus!  Approximately 60 fossil bones have been recovered making this one of the most complete immature Tyrannosaurs ever found.

Fossils of juvenile and sub-adult animals help scientists understand how such creatures grew and developed.  An appreciation of the ontogeny of a Tyrannosaurus rex can provide an insight into social behaviour.  For example, was a young T. rex able to hunt or did it depend on its parents to bring it food.

An assessment of the vertebrae and the disproportionately large leg bones have led Bob Bakker and his team to deduce that this was indeed a young T. rex, perhaps the equivalent of a teenager.  The animal has been nick-named “Tinker”.  The well developed jaws indicate that even at this young age, it had a lethal and powerful bite, but the long limb bones would have given this animal a clumsy almost gangly appearance.  This phenomenon is known as “distal growth” and is a process whereby animal’s bodies grow at different rates.  This can be seen on young calves and foals as their legs are much longer in proportion to the rest of their bodies.  These animals need to be able to run from a very young age to escape predators.  T. rex also exhibited these characteristics, perhaps it needed to be able to keep up with its parents as they followed herds of migrating Hadrosaurs.  Or perhaps young Tyrannosaurs needed to be fleet footed to escape the attentions of their brothers and sisters who might have wanted to practice fraticide.

Unfortunately, further study of this specimen is not possible as the fossils have become the centre of a legal row over ownership.  A federal lawsuit was filed in August 2004 against the Texas team, accusing them of illegally removing the fossil from County property.

A trial date has been set for February 5th 2008, which will hopefully settle ownership and permit this valuable fossil to be studied more closely.

In June 2006, U.S. District Judge Richard Battey (a veteran of T. rex court cases after his involvement with the famous “Sue” fossil and the Black Hills Institute court case), ruled the original lease between the County and the fossil collectors was invalid.  This ruling was overturned in April by a federal appeals court, thus setting up the showdown in February which should decide ownership rights.

“Tinker” is in storage in Pennsylvania.  After being in the ground for 65 million years the fossils are now locked away in store cupboards.  The case has been complicated as the man hired to restore the fossils has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

Dinosaur fossils are big business and a museum quality specimen can sell at auction for very large sums of money.  The large Tyrannosaurus rex fossil “Sue” – BHI2033; was auctioned at Sotheby’s on October 27th 1997, she fetched $8.36 million!

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