Fossil hunter Nate Murphy back in the news

JudithNate Murphy, the commercial dinosaur prospector I wrote about extensively during my time at the Gazette, is in the news again.

I had never heard of Inverse before, but it appears to be a publication that does a lot of good science reporting, and this story on Murphy is well done.

The piece is headlined “Is Nate Murphy Holding a Dinosaur for Ransom?” and deals with Murphy’s latest find, from a ranch north of Roundup. Murphy has been touting it as the largest dinosaur ever found in Montana and definitely a new species.

But there are problems. Cary Woodruff, the director of paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, says that the fossil does not appear to be particularly large by sauropod standards and that it appears to be a member of a previously identified species.

But the larger problem, as Inverse reports, is that Woodruff “and his colleagues have not seen the bones in person. And that’s a strange thing if you think about it. The local sauropod expert has not inspected the local sauropod discovery.”

“If what’s happening in the Little Snowy Mountains right now is a unique paleontological event, it’s also a flash point in the long-simmering conflict between academic paleontologists and commercial fossil hunters in the United States. At it’s core, the question is about what makes dinosaur remains valuable and how that value should be exchanged into American dollars.”

The article has numerous links to stories I wrote about Murphy, including a story about his being sentenced for stealing a fossil from a private landowner. It also links to a couple of chapters from the four-part series I wrote about Murphy, looking at his entire career and some of his wildly inflated scientific and biographical claims.

I wish the Gazette had made these available as a package, but at least it is possible to find all four chapters—here, here, here and here.

I did a lot of reporting on Murphy, proprietor of the Judith River Dinosaur Institute in Billings, before he got into criminal trouble and I considered him a friend. I didn’t write the series then and I’m not linking to this latest story now because I bear him any ill will. But there are so many irregularities—not to mention guilty pleas to serious crimes—in his career, that it pains me to see any reporting on him that does not mention the considerable trouble he has gotten himself into.

And articles like this one in Inverse do a good job of showing what a tangled mess he gets into almost every time he finds a new specimen. And the damnedest thing of all? No one—not even those who question his credentials, his techniques, his science—has ever questioned his skills as a discoverer.

He can never be entirely trusted, but he can never be entirely ignored.

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