Movie Review: Dinosaur 13

Skeleton of Sue in Chicago Photo by Connie Ma, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Peter Larson and his team of private, commercial fossil hunters ran the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota.  One day in 1990, one of their team members stumbled upon a few T-Rex bones crumbling out of a hillside.

Up to that point, only twelve T-Rex skeletons had ever been found, and in the aggregate, only 40% of their skeletons had been recovered. Dinosaur 13 eventually turned out to be 80% complete, the most phenomenal T-Rex find ever, to this day.

Larson’s team knew they had made the find of a lifetime. They were at the peak of their careers. But it ended overnight one day when the federal government swept in with FBI agents, search warrants, supported by National Guard troops, and took away the skeleton that Larson and team had purportedly “stolen” from federal land. Along with the skeleton itself, they took all their records, photographs and anything related to the find.

A ten-year legal battle started that turned out to be not just about the dinosaur, but the integrity of Larson’s team and company. Larson eventually went to prison for two years for several felonies, most poignantly “failure to fill out government forms.”

Dinosaur 13 is a riveting documentary about the world of commercial paleontology and it shows the painstaking work involved in recovering fossils, a subject I know very little about. So I learned a lot just watching this. The film is also about underdogs trying to stand up to the massive blows of the federal government. As most interference of the feds with private life, this meddling seems completely out of proportion and uncalled for. Why can’t the government ever get it right?

This was a great documentary to watch, as it not only taught me about new subjects, but it also motivated me to research the topic further. I came across this article in National Geographic that reviews this movie and puts an entirely new spin on the situation. Clearly, the world of fossil recovery is much more complex than I ever expected.

After watching Dinosaur 13, I must say, that if it hadn’t been for Larson and his team, Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex that is now in The Field Museum in Chicago would still be inside a hill in South Dakota, slowly eroding and slowly washing away, perhaps for millennia to go.

Rating: *** (out of 4)

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