The largest triceratops skeleton ever found, a specimen christened “Big John”, has been sold at an auction in Paris for a record price: €6.65m ($7.74m).
Big John was unearthed in South Dakota, US, in 2014, and it was a stunning discovery indeed. It is the largest example of its species to have ever been discovered, and around 60% of its bones were recovered at the site, making it a relatively complete skeleton.
After being re-assembled by specialists in Trieste, Italy, the skeleton was put up for display at the Drouot auction house in Paris last week. The buyer, a private collector from the US who chose to remain anonymous, said through representatives that they were “absolutely thrilled with the idea of being able to bring a piece like this to his personal use”.
Triceratops were tri-horned, plant-eating dinosaurs who lived during the Cretaceous period some 66 million years ago. Their fossils are quite rare, complete specimens even more so, and complete triceratops skulls are exceedingly rare. This, alongside the size, makes Big John definitely stand out among other fossils of its kind.
The fossil was found in an area that, during the Cretaceous, was a floodplain. Its body was quickly encased in mud after the animal died, which helped preserve it. While researchers found no indications of exactly what led to the dinosaur’s death, there are signs of damage on the skull. The working theory so far is that Big John, despite his size, had been defeated by another dinosaur in battle.
The sale does, however, call into discussion the ethics of commercializing dinosaur fossils. Demand from private investors is already leading to an increase in the price of fossils, one which museums around the world are struggling to match. There is a very real risk that at some point, museums might not be able to afford fossils to showcase altogether.
The high price fetched by Big John makes this trend painfully obvious.
The official names of five snakes are up for auction — and the money raised will go towards saving them.
The new species Sibon bevridgelyi is arguably the prettiest of the lot. Image credits: Alejandro Arteaga.
Want to show someone you love them? Or even better, would you like to name a snake after your ex? Or perhaps you just want to help save a few snake species? Well, then you just missed your chance. A team of biologists has auctioned the naming rights of five newly discovered snakes and the money might just save them from extinction.
With four out of five snakes already at risk of extinction, it seems like a sensible thing to do. The international research team decided to auction off their naming rights, and with the money they gain, they hope to purchase and save a previously unprotected 72 hectares (178-acre) plot of land where some of these species live. If everything goes according to plan, Fundación Jocotoco is to add the purchased plot to the Buenaventura reserve, thereby expanding the only protected area.
The snakes themselves are rather unique. They have an unusual taste for snails, which has led to a remarkable adaptation: their jaws have developed in such a way that they can suck the viscous slimy body of a snail right out of its shell. The species are described in a new study, where Alejandro Arteaga, an Ecuadorian-Venezuelan Ph.D. student at the American Museum of Natural History and scientific director of Tropical Herping and his team present their unusual habits.
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Three of the species were discovered in rainforests in Ecuador between 2013 and 2017, while the other two were found in drier environments. Having made the highest bid at the auction, the Rainforest Trust (RT) and Bob Ridgely got to name three of the five new snakes. Ridgely, who is a renowned conservationist, has opted for the following names:
Dipsas georgejetti was chosen to honor George Jett, who supported the inception of Fundación Jocotoco’s reserves in Ecuador;
Dipsas bobridgelyi, after himself; and
Sibon bevridgelyi (Bev Ridgely’s Snail-Eater) to honor his father.
The remaining two species, Dipsas oswaldobaezi and Dipsas klebbai, were named after Dr. Oswaldo Báez and Casey Klebba, respectively, in recognition for their passion for Ecuador’s biodiversity and conservation.
The species Dipsas klebbai is the only one of the newly described species not currently threatened with extinction. Image credits: Alejandro Arteaga.
It’s a very unusual and creative technique, which to be honest, also seems very practical — the benefits are obvious.
“We had to let people know that these cool snakes exist,” Alejandro said, “and that these species might soon stop to exist, and we need people’s help to protect the snake’s habitat.”
“Several companies let you name a star after a loved one,” he noted, “but, generally, such names have no formal validity. Naming an entire species after someone you love or admire is different. With few exceptions, this is the name that both the general public and the whole scientific community will use. So, why not let people choose the name of a species in exchange for a donation that protects its habitat?”
Naming species is a part of the very core of biological studies and is more than just a symbolic gesture — once a species is named, it stays that way. Renaming species is possible, but it’s very rare, and generally only happens when a species has been misclassified or needs to be reclassified.
However, it should be noted that making a public auction can also have some unexpected consequences. Who knows — the next new species of snake might be called Snakey McSnakeface.
Journal Reference: Arteaga A, Salazar-Valenzuela D, Mebert K, Peñafiel N, Aguiar G, Sánchez-Nivicela JC, Pyron RA, Colston TJ, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Yánez-Muñoz MH, Venegas PJ, Guayasamin JM, Torres-Carvajal O (2018) Systematics of South American snail eating snakes (Serpentes, Dipsadini), with the description of five new species from Ecuador and Peru. ZooKeys 766: 79-147. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.766.24523
The CEO of a French waterproofing company just bought a woolly mammoth skeleton — 80% of which is original bone.
Image via Youtube.
If you’re looking for more unusual Christmas presents, know that it cost Pierre-Etienne Bindschelder, CEO of French-based waterproofing company Soprema, €548,250 (US $646,000) to buy himself a nice, full wooly mammoth skeleton at the Aguttes auction house in Lyon. Which, I think we can all agree, will definitely make for an interesting discussion topic around the holiday table.
Bindschelder says he was motivated to buy the giant skeleton — mounted in a forward walking position, its enormous curved tusks with tones of caramel and ivory facing slightly downward — at least in part, by his line of work: his company’s logo is a woolly mammoth.
“We are going to display it in the lobby of our firm,” he said. “I think we have enough room.”
The skeleton is the largest of its kind ever found, a male standing at more than 10 feet tall. It’s also of “exceptional quality”, being spectacularly well preserved and almost complete. It’s one of only a hundred mammoths of its species we’ve ever discovered, and it stands out through its imposing size and the quality of its tusks — each roughly 9 feet long, “weighing 80 kilos and 90 percent intact,” natural history expert Eric Mickeler told The Local France.
It was unearthed roughly one decade ago by a hunter in Siberia, who found the bones sticking out from the permafrost. The once-in-a-lifetime find was made possible, in large part, by climate change — which is making Siberia’s permafrost thaw and melt at a very rapid rate. The other part is that mammoth bones are actually pretty abundant in Siberia, sometimes insanely well preserved.
“The permafrost in Siberia particularly is melting at a very rapid rate because of climate change,” David Gelsthorpe, curator of Earth Science collections at Manchester Museum, told the BBC. “So not only are we getting these incredible skeletons coming out, but also pretty much as they died as well. We’re getting things like fur, the skin, the muscles, the organs – and even the last meal.”
That bit at the beginning where I called this a ‘more unusual’ present? It’s not even an exaggeration; mammoth bone auctions take place more often than you’d believe. The first full mammoth skeleton to be auctioned off sold for US $176,000 in France in 2006. Another was sold in October 2012 in Paris for €240,750 at an auction organized by Sotheby’s. Then there was one in 2014, and, just last month, a ‘family’ of four such fossils failed to sell in the UK.
Here’s the beautiful fossil getting prepped for its big sale last month:
Do you think scientists should retain control over fossils, in the name of furthering our knowledge, or should collectors be allowed to own such artifacts just because they can afford to pay up? Let us know in the comments.