Racing Against Time and Weather for Dinosaur Bones

In eastern Montana, a dirt road can run for 40 miles. Out here is where you'll find what's called the Hell Creek Formation, the last great deposit of rock and dirt that buried the dinosaurs.

And here is where you'll also find dinosaur hunter Peter Larson, digging into what he calls "the bone zone," layers of sediment that have gripped the remains of dinosaurs for 65 million years.

And interestingly, after all these years, the fossils are being exposed by wind and weather. Digging them out has become a race against time.

"Certainly, the fossils are weathering out way faster than we can collect them," Larson says.

That is why when he finds something good in the ground, Larson doesn't mess around getting it out. Sometimes he uses heavy equipment to scrape the upper layers of dirt, to the horror of more staid paleontologists, who fear he will crush valuable bones.


"We do things maybe a little more quickly than most museums would do it, because we're so experienced," Larson says.

Larson is a big and controversial name in the world of dinosaurs. He's not a college professor, not a Ph.D. But he may possibly be the most skilled and successful of all fossil hunters.

Profitable Paleontology

As dinosaurs have become big business, Larson has kicked the dust off the study of old bones.

He is the man who dug up the most complete T-rex skeleton ever found, the famous "Sue," which now stands in Chicago's Field Museum. He is also the man who was tried and acquitted of charges that he dug up Sue on federal land, and ultimately went to prison for 18 months for traveling out of the country with too much undeclared cash in his possession.

Now, 10 years out of prison, Larson is at the forefront of a movement in which paleontology can be very profitable. He runs his operation out of Hill City, S.D., within a few hours drive of some of the greatest fossil deposits in the world.

There, he has his own museum, and a factory that builds perfect replica skeletons for exhibitors who can't afford the real thing. For $100,000, you can buy a T-rex skeleton made of resin and foam.

Larson pays ranchers for the valuable bones they find on their land, and sells them to collectors, universities and museums. He's been kicked around for that, too, sometimes by academics who say ancient bones should be free for the digging.

But Larson responds, saying, "There are some people that, strangely enough, view it as a moral issue, which I don't get, because they don't have trouble taking their paycheck for teaching, or whatever they're doing.

"You have to pay for value. If there's value here, and it has a monetary value, why should someone, especially people who have a hard time making a living out here — why should they give it away for free?"

Dreaming of Dinosaurs

Larson learned about fossils while growing up on a South Dakota ranch, and they've been a business for him since college, in the 1970s. Universities and private collectors would buy old bones. In 1974, with his brother Neal and a couple of friends, he started what became the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City. His children have also grown up with dinosaur bones and worked for the family business.

But bones are not just a business. Larson advances the knowledge of how dinosaurs lived and died.

The last T-rex he dug up revealed some interesting things. Its tail had been bitten off, probably by another T-rex, but the creature lived and learned to balance itself by walking in a crouch that curved its femur bones.

And contrary to what is generally believed, Larson found finger bones that suggest the T-rex had three fingers, not two.

He still dreams of finding something new. Every once in a while, he or a colleague will find bones that suggest the existence of a dinosaur no one has yet identified.

"We just found a scapula, a shoulder blade," he says. "I don't have a clue as to what it is. You know, those new undescribed dinosaurs that we're finding pieces of — I just, that's where I'm hoping to find a whole one of these guys someday."