Tri-Share-Atops: Digging into #Deaton with a Paleontologist
This Friday, January 29 at 12 PM EST, Rally will hold an IPO on a Triceratops skull, discovered by Dr. Bobby Deaton in 1999. The financials:
• Market Cap: $285,000
• Price per Share: $25.00
• Total Shares: 11,400
Dr. Deaton, who worked as a professor at Texas Wesleyan for 47 years, led the excavation of the seven-foot-long Triceratops skull on a private ranch in Marmarth, North Dakota. The skull was kept in plaster for seventeen years before it was finally prepared for auction. Featuring immaculate preservation, 60-65% of the skull is original fossil including the braincase and all three horns. In November 2020, Rally purchased the skull from GeoDecor for $250,000.
Interview with a Dino Expert:
To learn more about this unique offering, Altan Insights spoke with Harrison Duran, a paleontologist who was featured in various publications including the New York Times after discovering a Triceratops skull, nicknamed Alice, in 2019. The skull was unearthed in the Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota, the same region the Deaton skull was found 30 years earlier. In addition to Alice, Duran and the team at Fossil Excavators are currently preparing a second Triceratops skull known as Skull X.
1. What is your background?
I loved dinosaurs as a kid, and decided to make it my profession! I studied biology at the University of California Merced, and am now the lead excavator at Fossil Excavators nonprofit. I’m currently in the process of applying for paleo-monitoring and museum preparator positions, but museums are all closed - so it’s a tough time for that.
2. You made headlines with your discovery of Alice, a partial Triceratops located in the Hell Creek Formation. What is the process of actually discovering a dinosaur?
In order to find a dinosaur like Alice you need to research the rock formation of interest, understand the species of dinosaurs that are located in the formation, and know the different morphologies and textures of bone.
The first step towards discovering a dinosaur like Alice is to research which rock formations to prospect. The Hell Creek Formation is 65.5 to 66 million years old, containing fossils of species that existed during the Late-Cretaceous period. These species include dinosaurs such as edmonotsaurus, dakotaraptor, ankylosaurus, tyrannosaurus, and of course Triceratops.
Paleontologists and amateur fossil hunters have been excavating in Hell Creek for over a century, so we have a solid understanding of what species are found there.
Once the rock formation and general region are selected, prospecting entails combing the badlands hillsides and ravines for bone fragments seeping out of the ground. The number of bone fragments visible on the surface is usually indicative of more bone buried under the ground or embedded in the side of a hill. Sometimes concreted sediment that mixed with orange ironstone also contains fossils.
You must be knowledgeable on what dinosaur bone looks like in order to spot it. Dinosaur bone is mineralized, so it is technically a rock. It is the mineral replacement of the original bone from the animal. The mineralized bone still maintains the fibrous texture of actual bone, so you are looking for a variety of textures on the ground. The porous structure of bone is also something to look for as you scan for fossil fragments.
In order to find ‘Waldo’, you first need to know what he looks like. You’ve also got to have a little luck on your side.
3. How long does it take to excavate something as massive as a Triceratops skull?
It took us 10 full days from initially discovering Alice’s site to excavating and removing the skull. Removing sediment, or matrix, from the fossil requires delicate skill and knowledge of the morphology of the fossil. So, you must know the shape of the fossil you are digging up in order to predict what parts you will uncover next.
4. What is the process of preparing a skull for display?
First, the plaster jacket is carefully cut open and removed from the top of the specimen. Then the sediment, or matrix, is removed by either hand tools or a soft-brushed Dremel tool. Preparators use different techniques depending on the density of the matrix.
Once most of the loose matrix is removed, either a Dremel, pick, or low powered sandblaster removes the next layer of matrix off the bone. For the harder matrix connected to the bone, a high-powered micro sandblaster is used to remove the harder matrix. Depending on the hardness of the matrix, baking soda and/or iron dust is used to sandblast. This step cleans off the remaining sediment to leave only the surface of the bone.
Throughout the prepping process, a myriad of adhesives is used to structurally secure the bone from fragmenting and falling apart.
5. How much does it cost to excavate and preserve a Triceratops skull? We’d love to hear details on some of the specific expenses.
The excavation costs of tools, plaster jacket materials, food, gas, and other supplies comes out to a couple hundred dollars. This amount can increase depending on the number of people you have. If you need to rent vehicles, usually bobcat excavators and towing beds for larger specimens, the excavation cost can rise to a few thousand dollars. These material costs are not including the hours worked to prospect, excavate and remove the fossils. It’s difficult to determine the cost of manpower, which is usually an institution’s greatest expense.
Prepping a skull can cost $30,000 in labor and $8,000 to $10,000 in developing composites to complete the skull. These composite pieces fill in the missing parts of the fossil to make it complete. In the case of a full skeleton, costs add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
To understand the value of a skull for $300,000 and a skeleton for several million in the eyes of an investor, consider the labor and supply costs of tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
6. You’re currently working on two Triceratops skulls; Alice and Skull X. What is the end goal for each? Is it to find a buyer and sell, or something else?
The end goal for Alice is to have the skull displayed to the public in North Dakota. That can entail a public repository such as a museum or an airport, in the case of the Triceratops skull on display at the Bismarck airport. The landowner of the property that Skull X was discovered wishes to sell the skull.
7. In instances where the goal is to find a buyer, are the primary options in the private sector or public, such as museums?
If the skull is auctioned off it will be available to anyone, including museums. The challenge with this is that museums cannot financially compete with a random billionaire who wants to deck out his man cave. We prefer the skull to go to a museum if possible. If that doesn’t pan out, then it will most likely go to auction.
8. The skull offered on Rally is 60-65% original bone content. Is this a typical percentage of bone vs cast?
Anything around or above 60% is a decent specimen. That would be typical for a skull available for sale. The Triceratops skull that sold for $1.8 million was basically fully complete and they found the right market.
9. Building off that question, are there certain features that make a Triceratops skull more valuable if they are real bone?
Horns are a defining, iconic part of the dinosaur and the horns alone sell for thousands. If a skull has horns that increases the value. Since the morphology of a Triceratops skull, and ceratopsians in general, is remarkably unique and incredible, any part missing from it will decrease the value.
10. Is there anything else that would give a skull more value vs another? Help us better understand why a skull might sell for $200K vs $150K.
The difference in a sale price of $200K and $150K skulls would be based on their total completion percentage. After the 100% composites are developed, the buyer aesthetically has a complete skull. The buyer would then probably base their bid on the percentage of real bone.
11. This Triceratops is from the genus Triceratops prorsus. How does this differ from the genus Triceratops horridus? Is one more prevalent than the other?
Triceratops horridus has a more elongated snout and shorter nasal horn, while prorsus had a shorter snout and elongated nasal horn. We observe through several million years the evolutionary change from horridus to prorsus in the Hell Creek Formation. The horridus is found in lower Hell Creek while prorsus is found in the younger upper Hell Creek. Some Triceratops discovered have shown blended features of the two recognized subspecies, indicating that those specimens are transitional forms.
The horridus is more common than prorsus. We can only verify Skull X’s subspecies classification once further prepping is done around the snout.
12. There seems to be a battle between the commercialized, private sale of dinosaur fossils and preserving them in museums or other education-based settings. What are your thoughts on the private fossil market and how, if at all, it impacts your career?
The paleontology academic field, which is essentially SVP (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology), is adamantly against any form of private fossil trade. I do not like it when a fossil is lost to science either. However, SVP’s stance is not compatible with reality.
In the real world, fossils are and will always be sold privately in some capacity. It is better to develop policies that reflect reality, like instructing amateurs how to properly excavate fossils on their land. Or form a more cohesive relationship with private entities. The Black Hills Institute has worked with researchers and published papers for decades.
Private and state funding also secured the purchase of the Clayton Phipps’s dueling dinosaurs for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. There are many ways in which the academic and private sector can work together to bring scientific paleontological knowledge to the public.
The increase in fossil value over recent years has increased the desire for fossil hunting. For me personally, it’s my passion. Though the financial incentives are real and there are no financial incentives in paleo-academia. Unless you spend years getting your PhD, you generally battle through postdoc purgatory until eventually ending up with a comfortable professor position.
The high-risk, high-reward nature of the commercial fossil trade is exciting in many aspects. The increased valuation of fossils adds to that excitement.
13. You’re a young guy, but have you seen a shift in the fossil market since you started? Is there greater demand today for fossils? And have you seen more funding come into the industry?
Even since I started, I have noticed an increased demand for fossils- not just in the private sector but also in the public. Before Covid-19, museums had seen an increase in funding and attendance. Major institutions receive decent funding and ticket sales, almost giving off a theme park vibe. Museums nowadays have obviously been closed, resulting in massive layoffs and hiring freezes. I picked the best time to get into paleontology, didn’t I?
Jokes aside, I am optimistic that when this pandemic subsides, we will see museums come roaring back, with quarantined individuals wanting to experience the natural wonders of the prehistoric world.
Thank you Harrison for your time!
For anyone interested in learning more about Harrison Duran and Fossil Excavators, check out their website, YouTube channel, or donate to their Patreon for exclusive access to blog posts and updates.