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Skeleton Crew

Academics may object, but these intrepid fossil hunters have found fertile ground for their thriving business.

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So far nobody knows what the 28-inch scapula Rob Peterson found in South Dakota belongs to. Three years ago the Clarendon Hills native spotted a tiny bit of bone poking out of a claylike deposit at the bottom of a hill in Harding County. It was the first day of the digging season, his second summer guiding fossil hunters for Paleo Prospectors, a commercial outfit that takes amateur paleontologists to privately owned properties out west to look for dinosaur bones and other fossils. He knew the particular spot of earth he was looking at didn't have the usual geologic features that signal the presence of dinosaur bones. But just two years earlier his friend Rob Sula (no relation to me) had found a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex claw in the same area, so Peterson had learned to look everywhere.

He dug in a bit and thought it was a piece of triceratops frill, the bony plate extending from the back of the beast's head. Triceratops were a dime a dozen 65 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period, and his clients were too busy scanning the ground for their own fossils to be interested in his discovery. As Peterson dug deeper into the hillside, he was joined by Sula and Steve Nicklas, the founder of Paleo Prospectors.

By then Peterson was sure he didn't have a frill but a scapula--possibly one belonging to a T. rex. Later that night they hit the books, comparing the fossil to scapulae of other common late-Cretaceous dinosaurs. It was far too big for a rex, but looked like it belonged to the same order, Theropoda--swift two-footed carnivores with grasping hands and claws.

Some academics would choke on the idea of Peterson--a legal researcher in the off-season--handling such a potentially important find. Academic and commercial paleontologists are often at loggerheads. Budget-bound PhDs have to compete with financially nimble commercial fossil hunters. Meagerly endowed museums have to compete with wealthy private collectors. Academics complain that commercial collectors drive up prices for specimens that ought to be safeguarded by the scientific establishment. Commercial collectors, in turn, accuse academics of elitism, of being more concerned with their own job security and exclusive access to career-building bones than with scientific inquiry.

However much academics might disapprove, the three paleoprospectors aren't often stumped by what they find. Sula, who lives in Aurora, teaches paleontology classes, restores fossils for other collectors in the winter months, and wrote a chapter on a giant prehistoric shark for the book Megalodon: Hunting the Hunter, currently the sixth-best-selling fossil book on Amazon. Peterson has learned plenty on the trips, and he's read heavily on the subject.

Nicklas, who's led these expeditions for seven years, has been digging for fossils since he was a kid growing up near the Red Hill deposit in Pennsylvania, known for its Devonian fish and amphibian fossils. "By the time I was seven," he says, "I'd switched to archaeology." He'd seen the Roman Colosseum on a family trip around the world, and that was it. In 1978, while studying archaeology at the University of London and doing his fieldwork in the Middle East, he took a job with a contract archaeology firm based in Georgia that did survey work for government projects. In the mid-80s he started a company called Put Your Future in Ruins, which reproduced archaeological artifacts for hotels and museums, and he defrayed the cost of his trips to Egypt by leading archaeological tours.

In 1996 the company went bankrupt, though Nicklas still had a warehouse full of reproductions to deliver. As he drove across the country dropping off his remaining orders, he started hunting for fossils. "By the time the business had collapsed," he says, "I had about 50 to 60 thousand dollars of inventory in fossils."

A fossil-dealer friend helped him understand how the itinerant and rarely lucrative business worked, and many of his early sales were to garden centers and interior decorators--former customers of his reproduction company. He got a feel for what specimens were worth at fossil shows in Tucson and Denver, where most of the big deals were made behind motel-room doors. Soon he branched out and began selling to teachers, grandparents, and other private collectors.

Fossil hunting requires spending a lot on gas, food, and lodging. At first Nicklas would pay ranch owners for permission to dig, offering a cut from anything he found that was worth selling. Then he decided to follow the model he'd used in Egypt, underwriting his expenses by bringing along tourists--people willing to pay for the opportunity to dig up dinosaurs.

In 1996 Nicklas, who still lives in Georgia, led his first six paying clients onto privately owned ranches in the Hell Creek Formation, a sedimentary deposit that covers vast areas of Montana, northeastern Wyoming, and the western Dakotas. It's loaded with fossils from the late Cretaceous, the period just before dinosaurs disappeared: tyrannosaurs, raptors, crocodiles, turtles, the "ostrich mimic" struthiomimus, and hadrosaurs--dull-witted herbivores called the "cows of the Cretaceous" for their ubiquity. Whole skeletons are rarely discovered, but pieces can be found everywhere sticking out of the eroding earth.

By then Nicklas had a good idea of what individual fossils were worth. He let his clients keep a generous number of the fossils they found--up to $3,000 worth, excluding any individual fossil worth more than $1,000 or with scientific value. He decided which ones to turn over to scientists for study and which ones to sell, giving the rancher a cut and the client a finder's fee. Every summer he's attracted more clients--up to 15 per expedition--and found more ranches where they can prospect. In the off-season he prepares bones for sale.

Rob Sula was working as an exercise physiologist in Lisle in 1998 when he heard about Nicklas's expeditions. "I was one of those annoying little kids that knew every dinosaur name," says Sula, who kept his passion for paleontology even through art school. Money was tight at the time, but he took the trip, Nicklas swinging through Illinois to pick him up on the way out west.

At first Sula was frustrated because he kept finding lots of bison parts. But soon he began to fill bags with whole dinosaur bones and fragments. On his last day he found the T. rex claw. He knew its scientific worth--juvenile rex fossils are extremely rare--so he handed it over to Nicklas.

Impressed with Sula's enthusiasm and knowledge, Nicklas asked him to return the following summer as a guide. Sula persuaded Peterson to come along. "I was wondering if I was really going to find anything," says Peterson. "If it was that easy wouldn't everybody have a dinosaur in their house? But after about an hour I had a big five-gallon bag of dinosaur bones, and two hours later I found part of a pelvis of a triceratops." At the end of the first week Nicklas asked Peterson to stay on as a guide too.

Peterson's and Sula's homes in the western suburbs are now filled with bones. Sula collects enough good ones to occasionally sell or trade on his own. Peterson hasn't sold any of his, but he's been known to trade them for beer and always carries a few in the trunk of his car to give away. On the night he met his girlfriend in a jazz club he took her out to his car and wooed her with fossils.

No one gets skunked looking for fossils on a Paleo Prospectors dig, which lasts a week and costs about $2,100. "Everyone finds bags of what I call 'chunkosaurus,'" says Peterson, referring to pieces too fragmentary to identify the species. At the beginning of a trip Nicklas, Sula, and Peterson tell the clients where and how to look for specimens, then point them in promising directions. At night they roam the guests' motel rooms identifying the better-preserved specimens. "It's really fun just to see people find their first fossil," says Peterson, "just to see someone's excitement when they find something that they think is a rock and you tell them it's a raptor vertebra."

Nicklas is usually in the process of excavating one or two whole dinosaurs, and clients--who've included vacationing families, professional paleontologists, doctors, lawyers, senior citizens, and, he says, lots of "good ol' boys"--can help work on those. In September 2001 they dug out a complete hadrosaur skeleton as well as preserved sections of its skin. Apparently after the creature died its bone mass slid downhill, leaving the decaying hide behind.

In Montana last summer a client uncovered a five-foot section of a T. rex pelvis. Nicklas spent the rest of the day digging out two pieces of vertebra and some bone chunks. He's convinced there are more pieces of the animal in the hillside, possibly a full specimen, in which case it'll be named Hank after the man who found it. Nicklas will know for sure what's there this summer when he returns to the ranch, though he doesn't seem particularly excited at the prospect. "T. rexes are a curse," he says, "and everybody I know that's ever found one has paid a horrible personal price."

He's referring to the controversy over the Field Museum's Sue, which was unearthed by commercial paleontologist Peter Larson, who spent two years in jail as a result of an investigation into whether he'd been trading in fossils dug on federal land, a felony. (He was cleared of the fossil-theft charges but convicted for failing to declare funds to customs officials on a couple overseas trips.)

The record-setting $8.36 million the Field paid for Sue only aggravated the problems between academic and commercial paleontologists. Academics say that once unscrupulous collectors saw they could command such staggering prices, poaching on federal lands shot up. They also complain that more important finds now go to the highest bidders instead of to scientists.

Commercial hunters shoot back that institutional fossil hunting is becoming irrelevant because commercial collectors vastly outnumber academics and are responsible for most finds, including the important ones. Academics, they say, have neither the funds nor the manpower to uncover even a fraction of the significant fossils poking out of the earth before they turn to dust. "There are academic paleontologists," Nicklas says, "who truly believe that it is better that fossils be destroyed by the forces of nature than collected by anybody other than themselves."

Academics also complain that ranchers have gotten used to the idea of commercial paleontologists paying to dig on their land and now expect the academics to pony up as well. Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at Montana's Museum of the Rockies and a critic of the commercial fossil trade, says commercial hunters have made his life more difficult. "I've actually been on private land with permission to collect, and then had people come out and pay the landowners more and throw me off of it," he says. "I certainly wouldn't blame the landowner if the landowner's not doing well on his ranch and finds a new way to make money. My father was a ranch owner himself, so I certainly understand that. That doesn't mean I necessarily like it when it happens to me."

Nicklas believes some academics are trying to protect their interests any way they can. He says Horner's controversial theory that the rex was a scavenger, not a hunter, is nothing more than a self-serving attempt to demythologize the creature. "No one's gonna pay $8 million if this thing is a scavenger," he says. "Of course it's bunk science. In paleontology the person that comes up with the most ridiculous theory with the least amount of evidence wins."

Horner laughs when he hears this accusation. "The predator-scavenger thing has to do with scientific method," he says, "and of course commercial collectors aren't very much into scientific method. As a scientist, I am obligated to gather the evidence and interpret it as best I can and present my case. And that's what I've done, even though it's not very popular. Science has to deal with evidence and hypotheses. The general public is free to decide things with belief."

Nicklas argues that his methods are head and shoulders above those of most commercial collectors and even of some scientists. He has an archaeology degree, and on scientifically important digs he uses standard archaeological field method to keep track of exactly how an animal is positioned in the ground, so that researchers can understand the context in which it was found. He also says that he's helping scientists by keeping important finds in the public realm. If it turns out that he does have a full rex on his hands, he plans to sell it to a museum "for a very reasonable price." He's donated or loaned important finds to museums in the past--Peterson's scapula spent several years in a Georgia nature center.

Despite all the strong words, there is symbiosis between the academy and the market, and when science is at stake level heads often prevail. Nicklas has museum contacts; he was the one who told Kirk Johnson, curator of paleontology at Denver's Museum of Nature and Science, about a unique Cretaceous plant-fossil site in Harding County. "The fossils we got in one day included a number of new and undescribed species," says Johnson. "There's a variety of floating aquatic plants that would look like water lilies. There's a bunch of broad-leaved trees. But the key thing is most of these things are extinct species." Now Johnson is collaborating with Paleo Prospectors at the plant-fossil site, and when Nicklas's clients find something special it goes to Johnson.

Many academic and commercial collectors would agree that millions of fossils on both federal and private land are destroyed every year when the earth erodes away and they're exposed to the elements. Peterson says that fossil beds like the Hell Creek Formation are so huge the combined efforts of academic and commercial collectors could never locate them all. The idea that fossils are rare and hard to find, he says, is a myth: "There's plenty of fossils out there for everybody."

Peterson is determined to stay above the fray. He recently retrieved his scapula and is in the process of photographing it and sending the pictures to academic paleontologists, hoping someone will be able to identify it. It's considered tacky to name a new dinosaur after oneself, so on the off chance he's dug out a new species, he'd like it named Sulasaurus, after his partner.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Stawniak, Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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