Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


dueling-dinos-fossil

(PHOTO: COURTESY OF BONHAMS)

Clayton Phipps, Dino Cowboy

• November 14, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: COURTESY OF BONHAMS)

Meet the amateur paleontologist who discovered “Montana’s dueling dinosaurs,” a fossil expected to fetch between $7 and $9 million at auction.

The Hell Creek formation is a fossil-laden geological deposit that formed beginning in the late Cretaceous Period, and now comprises part of the badlands of eastern Montana and the Dakotas. Fossilized bones, teeth, and flora constantly surface in the area, overwhelming academically trained paleontologists and leaving behind a bonanza for amateur fossil prospectors, including a Montana rancher named Clayton Phipps.

It was in this paleontological playground where, one day in June 2006, Phipps, his cousin Chad O’Connor, and a friend named Mark Eatman were fossil hunting when Eatman noticed a pelvis protruding from the sandstone on the side of a hill. It turned out to be a near-complete skeleton of a new species called Chasmosaurine ceratopsian, a close relation of the Triceratops.

On its own, it would have been a nice discovery. But about three weeks later, during the excavation of the ceratopsian, Phipps discovered a claw. It belonged to a pygmy tyrannosaur, perhaps of another new species named Nanotyrannus lancensis. The complete fossil appears to show the two dinosaurs locked in combat. It was a major find, with great potential for further study, and Phipps and his partners priced it accordingly: $9.8 million.

“I am just going to say I appreciate the academically -trained paleontologists that recognize the contribution that amateurs such as myself bring to paleontology.”

But after protracted attempts to sell the fossil to museums, they couldn’t get a buyer, so—contrary to the wishes of many paleontologists and museum curators—the skeletons will be auctioned at Bonhams, in New York. Billed as the “Montana dueling dinosaurs,” the fossil is expected to fetch between $7 and $9 million.

Phipps, 40, lives on a 1,100-acre ranch with his wife and three children in the unincorporated community of Brusset, Montana. Beset by the decline of the ranching industry, he has found secondary success as an amateur fossil prospector, earning himself the nickname “Dino Cowboy.” His first big find came in 2003: the complete skull of a Stygimoloch, the first one ever found. He sold it for $40,000, enough for his family to live on for a year.

Could you tell me about how you got started collecting fossils?
I started collecting fossils because a guy stopped by the ranch I was working on—I was a cowboy on a working cattle ranch here in Montana—and he asked the landowner if he could look around on his land for fossils. At the time it seemed like a strange request, but after he was there for a few days he showed me some fragments of dinosaur bone he had picked up. It looked like a fun thing to do so I started looking for fossils myself. It was a hobby at first. When my father passed away I inherited a small ranch. My ranch was too small to make a living on and support my family, so I decided to quit my job to run the ranch and look for fossils to help supplement our income. My hope was to find something really great so I could buy more land.

How’d you acquire the nickname “Dino Cowboy”?
I met Mark Eatman, a fellow fossil hunter, and one time I went with him to a ranch where he had permission to collect fossils. Mark introduced me to the landowner as the “Dino Cowboy” and the name stuck.

You coined the term “dueling dinosaurs,” right? How was the circumstance of their deaths confirmed?
Yes, I coined the term. These two dinos were obviously not friends. There are snapped-off teeth from the nano imbedded in the flesh of the ceratopsian. They undoubtedly killed each other.

How’d you come to partner up with Robert Bakker, the curator for the Houston Museum of Natural Science?
Technically, we are not “partnered up.” I met Dr. Bakker when I discovered the Stygimoloch. He is my favorite paleontologist. He and Phil Currie named Nanotyrannasaur as a new species in 1988, and it has been hotly debated as to whether Nano is its own species or just a juvenile T-rex. I am on Bakker’s side that the Nano was indeed its own species. I have found baby T-rex teeth that are shaped and serrated like fully grown T-rex teeth but much smaller—Nano teeth are much different than T-rex teeth, with Nano teeth being more slender with much smaller serrations. When we found the dueling dinos, we now had a complete-enough specimen to rule out the Nano being a juvenile T-rex.

You and your partners attempted to sell the fossil to museums for a reported $9.8 million. What museums did you try to sell to, and why, in your opinion, did none of them buy it?
I am not going to go into this too deeply as I feel it is personal. As to the reported amount … I had an old-time cowboy friend once tell me, “You can’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see!” I will say, for the last seven years we have tried to get U.S. museums to purchase the dueling dinosaurs. Our group had hoped to see it go to a U.S. museum from the start. When I first realized what we had found, my initial thought was this discovery is worthy of the Smithsonian. I contacted the curator there shortly after we finished excavation. It was a tough decision to make but when Tom Lindgren from Bonhams contacted us about possibly putting the fossils in an auction, our group decided it was time.

You’ve been quoted as saying you search for fossils, in part, to “supplement [y]our income.” How do you think it affects your relationship and reputation with academically-trained paleontologists?
I am just going to say I appreciate the academically-trained paleontologists that recognize the contribution that amateurs such as myself bring to paleontology. And I would like to work together [with them] for the benefit of science. I would also like to point out if it weren’t for amateurs such as Mark, Chad, and I, many discoveries, such as the dueling dinosaurs, would have potentially never been discovered.

Make the argument for amateur fossil-hunting, either instead of or in addition to “academic” fossil hunting. It seems many scientists have been chafed by regular folks like yourself making huge discoveries. Do you think they’re intimidated?
No comment.

Phillip Pantuso
Phillip Pantuso is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He has contributed to The New York Times, Esquire.com, Paste, and others.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

Study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

Study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.