Dinosaur wars 

One-of-a-kind fossils are unearthed in Montana–and shunned by scientists

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With proceeds from his first fossil sale, Phipps bought some cows. Then, in 2003, he discovered the world’s most complete skull of Stygimoloch, a type of tall dome-headed dinosaur. That brought him the equivalent of a year’s salary—enough money to tend to his own ranch. His success inspired him to continue seeking fossils, often in the company of a friend, Mark Eatman, and later his cousin, Chad O’Connor.

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  • Montana Hodges
  • Katie Busch uses her foot for scale next to the Ceratopsian foot, seen in its plaster cast and field jacket at the CK Preparations facilities.

It was Eatman who first glimpsed the Dueling Dinosaurs on the 2006 prospecting trip. Eatman had other dramatic finds in his past, including “Tinker,” a Montana T. rex discovered in 1998. Still, the earnings from his carpentry job in Billings weren’t enough to pay for excavating Tinker, and he sold the fossil to a commercial company while it was still in the ground.

O’Connor is a tall, strong-looking man with a limited range of motion due to cerebral palsy. During conversations, Phipps translates his cousin’s slurred words. O’Connor says he went out dinosaur hunting for the very first time that fateful day, hoping to “find something that could change my life.”

As the trio examined the bones they’d found, Phipps spotted cattle nearby and realized he wasn’t on his brother’s land, as he’d thought. The cattle carried the brand of Mary Ann and Lige Murray’s 25,000-acre ranch; luckily, he had permission to prospect on their land.

Phipps told the Murrays about the find and they planned to meet once hay-cutting season was over. When they finally did so later in June, it didn’t take long for the group to agree to start digging that day. Phipps was so excited, he says, that when it came time to break for lunch, he opted to stay with the dinosaur instead. By the time the others returned, Phipps had exposed nearly half a skeleton, using small hand tools. A couple weeks later, they had uncovered a complete ceratopsian.

As Phipps began excavating a perimeter around the ceratopsian block with a backhoe, he dumped his bucket and a large, sharp claw fell out. Ceratopsians didn’t have claws. “Man, my hat went in the air,” says Phipps. “Things were just going through my head like crazy, because here is this meat-eater in with this plant-eater, and obviously they weren’t friends.”

The claw led him to a complete theropod, one of a group of big-footed bipeds popularized in Hollywood movies (think Jurassic Park’s velociraptors). This particular specimen turned out to be a tyrannosaurid that Bakker and others believe to be the controversial Nanotyrannus. “A theropod is something every fossil hunter dreams of finding,” Phipps says. “It’s the wolf of the Cretaceous.”

Realizing the significance of his find, Phipps sought help from CK Preparations, a nearby commercial company run by preparator Chris Morrow and paleoartist Katie Busch. The CK team became stakeholders, and eventually the multi-ton blocks containing the fossils, jacketed in plaster, were moved to its facility.

“The matrix in the jackets is pure sand,” Morrow says, “which is really rare for skeletons. This layer is about 17 feet thick of nothing but sand, with no vegetation in it. So a massive pile of sand was dumped all around these graves.” Perhaps the animals sank in quicksand; perhaps they were buried by collapsing cliffs. It’s up to the scientists to decipher the story—provided they get the chance.

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