The Extraordinary Saga of
the Largest, Most Fought
A Fish Caught in Time:
If you woke upas I didlast May 17 to the strains of the CNN Morning News, you encountered no fewer than five live reports from Chicago’s Field Museum. That morning, the world-renowned natural-history museum was preparing to raise the curtain on Sue, the most complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered.
Correspondent Jeff Flock, standing next to the freshly mounted skeleton, was joined by an array of anchors in discussing Sue’s wider significance. Such figures as Sue Hendrickson, Sue’s discoverer and namesake, and McDonald’s CEO Jack Greenberg, whose corporation had helped buy Sue for the museum, trekked to the cameras to discuss their perspective on the day’s signal event.
Anyone viewing the CNN spectacle got a fine view of a remarkable skeleton surrounded by blinking flash bulbs and mouths agape. All the while, viewers could pick up tidbits of knowledgehow T. rex lived, how scientists had gone about mounting such a rare and fragile skeleton, how paleontologists locate ancient fossils in the rough.
However, viewers that morning learned nothing about the heartbreak and struggle that followed Sue’s discovery and preceded her display. Steve Fiffer’s latest book, Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. Rex Ever Found, fills in those blanks, illustrating that Sue’s backstory is just as interestingif indeed not more so.
Sue was discovered in 1990, when veteran fossil-hunter Hendrickson noticed some bones sticking out of the ground on a ranch in northwestern South Dakota. She immediately notified her colleagues at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a fossil-hunting outfit based in Hill City, S.D. Within days, Sue was fully removed from the earth. Immediately, dinosaur experts went into a tizzy. After all, only about a dozen T. rex skeletons had ever been discovered, and of these, Sue’s was by far the most complete.
For Peter Larson, who had founded the institute years before, Sue was the holy grail. Unlike most professional dinosaur experts, Larson and his crew did not inhabit endowed chairs at universities. Instead, they were ultraserious amateurs, knowledgeable about both fossil science and the technical details of specimen conservation. Although the institute was well-known and (largely) well-respected among university and museum experts, its relationship with the paleontological establishment was based largely on commerce. The exchange was simple: Larson and his team invested their time and energy in finding new specimens; then they sold those finds to scholars and curators and, sometimes, private collectors.
Because the daily work of fossil hunting is dusty, exhausting, and expensive, it had taken Larson years to steer the institute into something resembling financial health. The sudden discovery of Sue inspired in Larson the vision of a museum mecca that would sprout fromand redeemrural, depressed South Dakota.
Unfortunately for Larson, Sue would never become the institute’sor the region’ssalvation. Instead, she all but became his undoing. Though Larson didn’t know it, federal investigators had already been looking into his institute for months; the media attention devoted to Sue merely served to put the inquiry on the front burner. For the feds, the issue was whether Larson’s fossils had been taken with legitimate consent. In the American West, where private citizens, Indian tribes, and a smattering of federal agencies often stake overlapping claims to acreage, land disputes are pursued with vigor. The prosecutors concluded that, through a combination of cartographic imprecision and willful ignorance, Larson and his team had repeatedly removed fossils from lands owned by others without the owners’ consent.
Fiffer’s account strongly suggests that Larson was high-minded, not rapacious or sleazy. No matter: A combination of prosecutorial overreach, overzealous litigiousness, human hotheadedness, and a dollop of greed turned the episode into a high-stakes, zero-sum game that ended explosively.
FBI and other federal agents threw down the gauntlet by raiding the Black Hills Institute, boxing up Sue’s remains and taking them away to be stored in what amounted to a well-secured boiler room. (One of the biggest outrages detailed in the book is the authorities’ steadfast refusal to move the fossils to a more suitable temporary home; pilgrims to the Field Museum should consider themselves lucky that Sue did not crumble into nothingness during her exile.)
As prosecutors sought to make their case against Larson and his colleagues, the defense team put up a two-front attack: They litigated every conceivable angle, and they engaged in a public relations war with prosecutors. On the PR front, the institute got substantial backing from local residents, who still hoped that the bones would bring an economic renaissanceand who, for good measure, resented what they perceived as heavy-handed federal tactics.
Halfhearted attempts by the two sides to strike a plea bargain fell apart. Ultimately, the prosecutors won the litigation battle but lopsidedly lost the PR war. The outcome of Larson’s trialon charges carrying a penalty of 353 years, none of them directly related to Suemay have hinged on the judge’s decision not to move the trial to another jurisdiction. The accumulation of local sentiment against the prosecution probably helped seat a jury predisposed to acquit Larson on most counts.
Yet even after the verdict was rendered, the story wasn’t yet over. Possibly hurt by his attorney’s cocky reaction to the verdict, Larson drew two years in jailamong the stiffest penalties that the judge could have imposed. Emotionally worse for Larson, perhaps, was that the legal system declared Sue to be the property of the Native American rancher on whose land she had been founda man who Larson always said had consented to Sue’s removal and who had been compensated by the institute years before.
The author has interspersed into his narrative intelligent discussions of anthropology, geology, American history, and other far-flung topics. Equally important, Fiffera trained lawyerconcisely explains the relevant legal issues at each stage of the narrative. If Tyrannosaurus Sue lacks the elegance of A Civil Action, it’s still a certifiable page-turner.
But, although Fiffer makes a good-faith effort to tell the story with journalistic judiciousness, Larsona major source for the bookcomes across more favorably than do his antagonists. It’s hard not to admire the fossil hunter as an outside-the-box thinker who came up with, and stuck to, a worthy pursuit despite steep odds. But he appears to have a tragic flaw: naiveté. Larson, Fiffer writes, “refused to see the potential for malfeasance or even misfeasance in others. He knew his word was good, so he assumed the word of others was good as well.”
One might excuse Fiffer’s fondness for Larson were it not for the author’s decision to invite Robert T. Bakker to pen the book’s introduction. Bakker is a credentialed academic who created a bit of a stir in the paleontological world by openly supporting Larson during his troubles. Bakker is an eloquent and seemingly credible source within Fiffer’s narrative, but his inclusion in the authorship team surely gives critics a reason to question Fiffer’s evenhandedness.
Despite such missteps, Fiffer’s book provides valuable insight into several controversies that will continue to affect the practice of science for years to come. One issue is the antagonism between amateurs and academics, which prevails not only in the world of dinosaur-bone collecting but in other realms, as well. For example, as Eric Hansen explained earlier this year in Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy, amateur orchid-hunters view themselves as saviors of endangered plants, while academic botanists construct Draconian rules to curb their noncredentialed peers’ activities. Their battles are in many ways tearing the specialty asunder.
The second controversy highlighted in Tyrannosaurus Sue is the battle to establish ownership rights for cultural and scientific artifacts. Everything from Mayan artifacts and the “Elgin marbles” to Nazi-looted art has been the subject of intense debate in recent years
concerning the treasures’ rightful owners. The impact of Indian tribal sovereignty on many U.S. paleontological and archaeological finds complicates matters further; for illustration, one need look no further than Washington state’s Kennewick Man, whose ancient remains have been fought over for years by scientists and Native Americans.
A third major issue raised by the tale of Sue is whether capitalism can preserve objects as effectively as government can. A recent trip I took to Kentucky’s cave country suggests that it can. There, in the shadow of Mammoth Cave National Park, long-suffering commercial cave operators explained that the federal presence (a Microsoft-like monopoly, as one of them described it) had sapped the area’s economic vitality. With tourists steered to a self-contained national park, they said, local residents were unable to benefit from the steady stream of tourists driving up the interstateand thus had little incentive to protect the vicinity’s natural resources. Only an inspired local effort in the past few years has helped improve matters. In the town of Horse Cave, the American Cave Conservation Association and fourth-generation cave owner Bill Austin teamed up with other business leaders to restore and reopen the once-polluted Hidden River Cave; the cave now serves as a magnet for education-oriented tourism, which in turn has helped revive the downtown business district.
Similar efforts might have revived Hill City, S.D., had they been allowed to take shape. One of the depressing things about the Sue episode was the spectacle of expert preparators being stripped of a fragile and priceless specimen because government officials thought it would be better off in a warehouse. Yes, establishing clear lines of provenanceand clarifying the jumbled rules for collecting fossilsdoes present a useful role for law enforcement officials. But in an era when full government funding for museums and universities is no longer guaranteed, it may be prudent for policymakers to encouragerather than arrestdedicated amateurs who seek little more than a decent living off their avocation.
Sue’s story demonstrates the pitfalls of failing to do so. In an ironic denouement, the government officials who had sought to rein in commercial sales of fossils instead ended up with judicial decisions that set in motion an open auction for Sue. The fossil was eventually sold for $8.36 million, with the proceeds going into the pocket of a landowner who made clear that the only thing he cared about was getting the most money he could. Indeed, to buy Sue, the Field Museum had to rely on the corporate largess of Disney and McDonald’swhich, despite their apparently solid stewardship of Sue’s image so far, hardly seem the ideal partners for the tasteful management of a priceless scientific discovery.
Perhaps most disheartening of all, Fiffer cites reports indicating that Sue’s high price tag has inspired get-rich-quick fossil hunters to poke around other dinosaur-rich landholdings. Having the world’s best specimen of T. Rex wind up in the eminent Field Museum is surely not the worst of all possible worlds. But Fiffer’s book illustrates why one cannot refer to Sue’s unveiling as a happy event, either.
A fossil does not have to be dead to inspire intense passions. As Samantha Weinberg demonstrates in A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth, a 400-million-year-old, still-extant species of fish will do the trick just fine.
The coelacanth, Weinberg explains, is “less a fish than a bizarre confection of mismatched partsmodern, ancient, and unique.” It is 5 feet long, with a striking bluish tint and white speckles. Its fins are arrayed in an unusual patternone that may have enabled the coelacanth, or a close relative, to make the epochal climb up from the sea to dry land, a transition that eventually heralded the emergence of humans. The combination of the coelacanth’s oddness and its possibly pivotal role in evolutionary history have made it irresistible for generations of scientists.
Until 1938, the only coelacanths known to science were fossilized skeletons; no one had any reason to believe that the species had survived the Earth’s periodic mass extinctions. Then, a fishing vessel off South Africa reeled in an unusual fish. The captain contacted Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young curator at the local museum, to see if she could identify it. Unsure, she asked the help of J.L.B. Smith, a celebrated scientist. To their mutual amazement, it turned out to be a coelacanth.
As soon as the news spread, it caused a public sensation that, for its time, rivaled, and quite likely surpassed, the acclaim that met Sue’s discovery. “As interesting as what the fish shared with ancient creatures,” Weinberg writes, “was how and why it had survived the vicissitudes of time and nature, the dangers of fierce predators, when so many other creatures had perishedwhy it had, in a sense, trumped evolution and become a living fossil.”
The rediscovery of the coelacanth provides the beginning of Weinberg’s knowledgeable and often fascinating account, but over the next six decades, much more unfolded. Weinberg is blessed with the elements of a great story: exotic locations, a cast of compelling characters, and a suspense-filled narrative in which scientists must race the clock to locate and preserve their elusive specimens.
Strikingly, each person the author writes about was deeply touched by his or her interactions with the fish. After convincing the South African prime minister to provide urgent air transport to the location of the second coelacanth ever to be found, Smitha prickly, if brilliant, workaholicwrote:
I knelt down on the deck so as to get a closer view, and as I caressed that fish, I found tears splashing on my hands and realized that I was weeping, and was quite without shame. Fourteen of the best years of my life had gone in this search and it was true; it was really true. It had come at last.
Death is a constant presence in A Fish Caught in Time. More than one man died tragically in the quest for the coelacanth; Smith committed suicide in 1968. His wife, Margareta devoted partner as well as a gifted scientist in her own rightwas stricken with leukemia, but she died contentedly in the ’80s, having watched the first-ever images taken of a swimming coelacanth projected on her hospital-room wall. Later, when a species of coelacanth was discovered in Indonesia in the ’90s, the marine biologist who found it was struck by the fish’s reaction to impending death. (No coelacanth has ever survived capture for more than a few hours.) “It seemed so special,” the biologist, Mark Erdmann, told Weinberg:
“[T]here was no hint of ferocity. At risk of slipping into anthropomorphisms, I had the impression of great gentleness and intelligence. I used to do a lot of spear fishing, and I have seen many dying fishmost of them are anything but dignified. They shake and thrash around. But the coelacanth seemed to me to be very stately. It was very, very sad.”
In the hands of a less skillful author, such material could easily become mawkish. But compared with the dispiriting, sometimes infuriating, tale of Tyrannosaurus Sue, Weinberg’s storyalthough not entirely free of mindless scientific rivalryreminds readers that scientific discovery still has undeniable moments of joy. CP