It's rarer still that such a skeleton needs to be found twice.
Such is the fate of "Stan" the T. rex, a massive, mostly complete skeleton of one of the most legendary species of dinosaurs known to Earth.
The enormous fossil was sold in October of 2020 for more than $30 million to an unknown buyer. It subsequently vanished from public view - leaving the paleontological community and dinophiles the world over clamoring for clues as to its whereabouts and fearing its potential loss to science.
National Geographic's Michael Greshko revealed Wednesday that Stan is bound for a museum in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi - potentially putting to rest widespread concerns that the invaluable fossil would be rendered inaccessible to study.
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"Outside scientists' biggest hopes for Stan hinge on reliable long-term access to this fossil," Greshko told ABC News. "I know that scientists are hoping for a happy ending, not just for the fossil but for the science that depends on that fossil."
Stan's story begins in the early 1990s, when a nearly 40-foot long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton was unearthed in South Dakota. The skeleton stood at a private institute in the state for two decades before a legal dispute forced its sale.
That auction in 2020 was nearly as eye-popping as Stan itself. The skeleton sold for $31.8 million to an anonymous buyer - making it the most expensive fossil auction ever.
As chronicled by Greshko, the price tag enraged scientists and scholars. They not only feared the fossil would be sealed behind closed doors, but worried its price tag would accelerate the gold rush of fossil privatization, which threatens to remove more and more bones from the realm of research and education.
"This is terrible for science and is a great boost and incentive for commercial outfits to exploit the dinosaur fossils of the American West," one paleontologist told Greshko of the sale in 2020.
Since then, sleuths have searched for Stan's whereabouts, with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson making perhaps the strangest cameo. A giant T.rex skull was spotted by the The Rock during a television interview earlier this year, leading to speculation that he'd purchased Stan.
"I am not the mystery buyer," Johnson later conceded in an Instagram post. "If I was the proud owner of the real STAN, I sure as hell wouldn't keep him in my office I'd keep him in a museum, so the world could enjoy, study and learn from him."
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Greshko spotted a clue in monthly U.S. export totals -- specifically an entry for $31,847,500, Stan's precise price, due for the United Arab Emirates.
"Because Stan is such a high value item and this is such a niche commodity, Stan casts a long financial shadow on these data sets," Greshko said.
"I was very confident it had been exported to the United Arab Emirates, and then the UAE happened to reach out to me about this museum project ... and everything fell into place from there," he said.
BREAKING: I tracked down Stan, the T. rex that vanished after it was sold for $31.8 million in a record 2020 auction. It's going to be in a huge natural history museum being built in Abu Dhabi, the UAE's capital.https://t.co/GfUGwUNYkZ— Michael Greshko (@michaelgreshko) March 23, 2022
This story was a wild ride. THREAD
Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi announced Wednesday it will house Stan as part of an ambitious exhibit and research program to chronicle and study the history of life on Earth.
The identity of the anonymous buyer, however, remains unknown. And the effects of Stan's colossal price could still reverberate throughout the bone hunting world.
"It remains to be seen how Stan's record-breaking price will affect the global legal and illegal trade in fossils," Greshko said. "I know that academic paleontologists around the world are watching that very closely."
For more on this story, visit www.nationalgeographic.com.
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