NC Museum of Natural Sciences receives ‘spectacular’ fossil

Photos courtesy the NC Museum of Natural Sciences

RALEIGH — Dinosaur lovers around the state are celebrating the recent news that the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has been gifted Dueling Dinosaurs — a fossil pairing some of the world’s oldest and most popular dinosaurs, the Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops horridus. The Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, a nonprofit whose purpose it is to support the NCMNS, initiated a capital campaign to acquire and gift these fossils to the state’s museum so it could advance its research and educational mission. The acquisition is being heralded as “America’s most spectacular fossil,” and will be featured it as part of the museum’s forthcoming expansion as well as a global paleontology education and research project.

In conjunction with the fossil acquisition, design is nearing completion on a globally unique, behind-the-scenes visitor experience at the NCMNS. The exhibit will be part of the first physical expansion to the museum in over 10 years. “The Museum is thrilled to have the unique opportunity to house and research one of the most important paleontological discoveries of our time,” said Dr. Eric Dorfman, director and CEO of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “Not only are we able to uncover unknown details of these animals’ anatomy and behavior, but our new dedicated facility and educational programs will allow us to engage with audiences locally, across North Carolina, and worldwide.”

Construction of the new visitor experience is set to begin next year and the renovation will be located on the ground floor of the Nature Research Center. It will include high-tech exhibit spaces, an area where visitors can explore the tools and techniques used by paleontologists, and a science laboratory dubbed the “SECU DinoLab,” where scientists will research specimens live in front of the public.

Dr. Lindsay E. Zanno, Ph.D. is Head of Paleontology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences says that although the new lab won’t open until 2022 they hope to have a few pieces on display to the public around the upcoming holidays. “We are thrilled to finally announce this exciting opportunity that we have been working hard on for years,” Zanno says.

The Dueling Dinosaurs acquisition has been years in the making. The dinosaurs were buried together 67 million years ago. The skeletons were discovered back in 2006 on an eastern Montana ranch and remain entombed within the sediment where they were found. They are worth millions of dollars and have been the subject of a years-long court battle over who legally owned them, until this June when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the fossils belong to the owners of the land’s surface rights, not the owners of the mineral rights.

Dr. Zanno, who is also an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University where she is part of the Paleobiology and Forensic Anthropology Research Group and Paleobiology Minor, says the fossil will forever change scientists’ views of the world’s two favorite dinosaurs and that the way the NCMNS has designed the entire new viewing experience has raised the bar and will truly set a new standard for museums. “We have not yet studied this specimen, it is a scientific frontier. The preservation is phenomenal, and we plan to use every technological innovation available to reveal new information on the biology of T. rex and Triceratops,” Zanno says.

According to Friends of the Museum, the Dueling Dinosaurs were specifically discovered in eastern Montana in 2006 by Mark Eatman and  Clayton Phipps, a rancher prospecting in the Hell Creek Formation. Clayton and his partners spent three months excavating the specimens, which weighed nearly 15 tons combined. The nonprofit says Dr. Zanno first made contact with Pete Larson of the Black Hills Institute to inquire about the specimen and then, accompanied by other museum representatives, met with Clayton and Pete to examine the specimen and discuss the NCMNS’s vision for making them the heart of a live-action research project focused on public engagement. Reportedly Clayton and his team were so inspired by Zanno and her team’s vision to share their discovery with the world that they agreed to put a “hold” on the specimens, giving the Friends of the Museum time to mount an amazing campaign to acquire them.

“Becoming the home of the Dueling Dinosaurs is further evidence that the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is one of the finest museums in the world,” said Susi Hamilton, secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “We look forward to inviting dinosaur lovers of all ages to experience this awe-inspiring fossil and learn from our talented team of paleontologists as they undertake a one-of-a-kind research project to uncover and analyze them.”