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17 July 2014

Pete Larson, a palaeontologist with a bone to pick

Dinosaur 13, a forthcoming documentary, presents Larson and his team as underdogs battling against bad guys who’d rather see the T rex hidden away than on display in its home town. 

By Kate Mossman

Pete Larson looks like any other scientist at the Royal Society’s summer exhibition in London, surrounded by schoolchildren and tweeting a photo of a fossilised fish he has found in the concrete outside. We meet in the shadow of a gorgosaurus, a relative of the T rex, with its rictus grin, sprung heels and stumpy little arms. It is one of nine near-complete theropods that Larson has found in 20 years – a slip of a girl compared to the one his team pulled from the sands of South Dakota in 1990, the dinosaur called Sue, which made his career and destroyed his life for a while.

He talks about his current work in fossil soft-tissue research, mapping the colour of ancient feathers and skin. Only his jittery laugh and the urgent way he presses contact details on me at the end of our interview suggest the psychological fallout of his biggest find. In 1992, the FBI seized Sue from Larson’s Black Hills Institute, near where the T rex was found. He faced a prison term of 353 years on various charges involving alleged fossil trafficking and carrying currency abroad: longer than the sentence received by Jeffrey Dahmer, he says, “who killed and ate 13 people”. (In the end, Larson served only two years.)

Dinosaur 13, a forthcoming documentary by Todd Douglas Miller, presents Larson and his team as underdogs battling against bad guys who’d rather see the T rex hidden away in boxes than on display in its home town. But from the moment Larson shook hands with the landowner he bought it from (for $5,000) the morality of the story was complicated. Maurice Williams, who has a business degree, was Native American; as Sue was found on Sioux territory, which is leased from the government, the court declared the deal illegal (you can’t sell fossils found on public land). This is a tale of the tensions between commercial fossil-dealing and scientific research.

If you want a dinosaur enough you can get one. A complete tyrannosaurus will fetch about $4m. In 2007 Nicolas Cage outbid Leonardo DiCaprio for the skull of one at an auction; the fossil was later rumoured to be contraband. Larson’s activities have always attracted controversy: many palaeontologists claim that commercial collectors push them out of the picture, at the cost of research. Yet it’s clear Larson was motivated by something beyond money. When Sue’s skull was seized, he visited it almost daily, reassuring it through the crates: “We won’t let you rot in here.”

He has spent much of his life trying to change rules about harvesting remains on public land. “People who collect fossils understand how vital it is to get them out of the ground in a timely fashion to make sure we don’t lose all that information,” he says. “Every time the rain blows, every time it freezes, it breaks them up. If we hadn’t got Sue when we did, her pelvis would have washed away by now. Leaving things where they are guarantees their destruction.”

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Larson claims that, following the Palaeontological Resources Preservation Act passed by Barack Obama in 2009, “A scoutmaster removing a shark tooth for his scout hut could be arrested and charged with a felony. You can drive a motorcycle over it! Or a bulldozer. But an amateur literally cannot touch it.” His dinosaurs were found by amateurs on his team. Sue was named after his then girlfriend, Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the bones while the rest of the group was in town getting a flat tyre fixed.

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The T rex now resides at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which bought it from Williams for over $8m. Larson has been written out of the display notes, which bothers him. In one sense, you can’t quite work out why he ought to be there. But in this tiny sliver of the T rex’s 67-million-year history, perhaps the person Sue belonged to was the one who wanted her the most.

Dinosaur 13 is released on 15 August.