Scientists Are Pissed Because a Man is Selling His T-Rex on eBay

They should be pissed about the lack of funding for scientific research instead.

Back in 2013, a man named Alan Detrich discovered the fossil of a baby Tyrannosaurus rex.

The fossil, which is incredibly rare because of the age of the creature when it died, has been on display at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum since 2017 — but now the man wants to sell it. On eBay. For $2.95 million.

Here it is on eBay.

This reminds me of the Simpsons episode when Lisa discovers a fossil of an “angel” and Homer turns it into an opportunity for economic prosperity.

But in this case, paleontologists are particularly pissed off because they didn’t get the chance to study the fossil, and now it’s being sold.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology released a statement expressing their disappointment in the man’s decision to sell the fossil, stating that he is capitalizing on the publicity generated by the museum’s exhibition, which likely enhanced the value of the fossil. Furthermore, the SVP claims that Detrich is withholding a scientific discovery from the public trust.

The SVP states:

Vertebrate fossils are rare and often unique. Scientific practice demands that conclusions drawn from the fossils should be verifiable: scientists must be able to reexamine, re-measure, and reinterpret them (such reexamination can happen decades or even centuries after the fact). … [O]ur Society’s bylaws explicitly state that “The barter, sale, or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust.” Only casts and other replicas of vertebrate fossils should be traded, not the fossils themselves.

Photo by Fausto García on Unsplash

The thing is, if you find a fossil on your own land, it’s yours. And let me tell you something… if I found a T-Rex fossil, I’d sell it tomorrow. So would you, and so would a paleontologist. If you haven’t actually discovered a fossil, there’s no point in arguing otherwise.

I feel for the paleontologists, but this T-Rex is someone’s ticket to a worry-free life. He has the right to sell it, just like paleontologists have the right to buy it.

This man is under no obligation to donate a ~$3 million asset to science. He already put it on display in a museum for 2 years. He held onto it for six years in total. Researchers could have made an arrangement with the owner to study it at any point during those six years, but, obviously, they did not.

According to Detrich, the SVP refused to study the T-Rex fossil while it was on loan at the museum because they, allegedly, only study fossils that are part of permanent collections.

While this cannot be verified, if true, it means that Detrich did give researchers the chance to study the fossil before he put it up for sale.

Scientific research is undoubtedly a crucial component of paleontology and of the study of history in general, but researchers can’t expect to receive valuable specimens as gifts. Someone owns them, and the owner ultimately decides what to do with the specimen.

Nobody has to donate anything to science. We often hear about people donating their bodies to science, especially when they have rare conditions that have not yet been studied. But remember: this is a donation, not an obligation.

The issue here is not that Detrich is selling the fossil, it’s that scientific research is historically underfunded.

There are solid arguments for funding paleontological research, just as there are solid arguments for funding cancer research or the research of black holes. As funding dries up, it’s easier to point the finger and blame private sellers for the lack of scientific progress than to blame the federal budget.

The White House recently cut funding for the sciences by over 17%, slowing the pace of scientific advancement. Ultimately, though, since scientific research benefits everyone, it shouldn’t have to depend on multi-million dollar donations from the public.

Detrich owns the fossil, and it looks like he did give the SVP the opportunity to study it while it was on loan at the museum.

If we want to treat scientific research with the respect that it deserves, we should fund it properly — not start public arguments with people who rightfully own valuable specimens.

Connect on LinkedIn.

technical writer • site reliability engineer • engineering leader • all views are my own • 👩🏻‍💻

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store