Written by Nikki Zambon
Back in 2006, Northeast Montana dinosaur prospectors Clayton Phipps, Chad O'Connor, and Mark Eatman, stumbled upon one of the most astounding discoveries in the history of paleontology—the fossils of two dinosaurs, interlocked in what appeared to be the final stages of a battle to the death that took place some 67 million years ago. The pair have been dubbed the ‘Dueling Dinosaurs.’
The rapid burial of these two creatures—a carnivorous Tyrannosaurus Rex and herbivorous Triceratops—in a single grave enabled the complete preservation of their skin and bones, which then fossilized perfectly. As incredibly rare as it is to uncover a fully-intact, fossilized dinosaur, it is unheard of to discover two perfectly preserved creatures, especially those of the most iconic species. In fact, this discovery is thought to mark the first ever uncovering of a complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The Dueling Dinosaurs were found on a ranch in Hell Creek Formation. This extraordinary discovery was paired with an equally unique question: Who owns them?
It is well-known that dinosaurs discovered on private property are often claimed by the property owners, but what made this case of ownership unusual can be boiled down to a single word: mineral.
The landowners of the ranch, Lige and Mary Ann Murray, had purchased the property from George Severson, whose sons also had a stake in the ranch. The brothers, Jerry and Robert Severson, fully sold the land to the Murrays in 2005. More specifically, the brothers sold the surface rights to the Murrays but they still owned parts of the mineral rights.
What ensued after the ground-breaking fossil discovery was years of unprecedented legal battles over ownership of the Dueling Dinos—appraised at $7 to $9 million—between the landowners of the ranch and the mineral owners of the land. This complex situation necessitated an explanation of mineral rights law—particularly, how they apply to dinosaur fossils—which had never before occurred in any court in the country.
To further complicate the situation was the question of the larger area of the unearthing.
Northeast Montana is known as a hotspot for prehistoric findings, where thousands of important discoveries have been made in the region over the years, many of which were embedded in sandstone and clay. In minerals.
If the courts ruled dinosaur fossils were indeed minerals, then the questions of who can dig, where to dig, and who any findings belonged to, become infinitely more complicated. Many amateur dino-diggers in Montana, along with paleontologists who get permission from landowners to explore, were on the edge of their seats as they awaited the possibility of their passions and professions fading to dust.
So, are dinosaur fossils considered minerals? It took years to decide.
In 2016, the Montana Federal Court first ruled in favor of the landowners surface rights, but the Severson brothers appealed to the Ninth Circuit. In 2018, the circuit ruled in favor of mineral rights. Paleontologists were baffled—what would this mean for their own geologic pursuits?
Finally in 2020, after a series of nail-biting appeals and court debate, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that fossils were not legally the same as minerals, like copper and gold. Montana fossils belonged to the surface estate, not the mineral estate.
The Murrays—landowners of the property where the Dueling Dinos were discovered—were granted full ownership of the specimens, along with any other fossils unearthed on their land.
A truly historical event, Montana justices have now set a precedent for cases like the one of the Dueling Dinosaurs moving forward, establishing that fossils are not considered minerals under state law.
Dino-diggers can breathe easy and continue their exploration.
So, 67 million years after the battle to the death and more than 15 years after the discovery of their remains, where are the Dueling Dinosaurs now?
The pair was sold to the non-profit organization Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for $6 million and then donated to the museum. The amazing duo will have their very own exhibit–Dueling Dinosaurs–which will be open to the public in 2023 for visitors to take a look at the legends themselves. Learn more about the exhibit and what incredible discoveries these Montana dinosaurs have contributed to science. To dig for your own dinos in the land of fossils—Northeast Montana, that is—visit Montana’s Missouri River Country.