Fossil Teeth

Meghan Forcellati

A Dromaeosaurus tooth, approximately 2.5 cm in length, which was bought for $95.
A Dromaeosaurus tooth, approximately 2.5 cm in length, which was bought for $95.

20 years ago, a fierce legal battle ensued which shook the foundations of commercial paleontology. Sue, a massive, nearly-complete Tyrannosaurus, was discovered on a man’s property by a team of paleontologists, but afterwards the question of who the dinosaur belonged to was fiercely fought over. Multiple parties claimed rights to the dinosaur, including the landowner, the paleontologists, and Native Americans who shared a border with the land where the dinosaur was discovered. Eventually,  the landowner gained custody over the dinosaur, and opted to auction it off, receiving over $8,000,000 for it from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Like Sue, most dinosaur fossils are very expensive. One well-preserved dinosaur limb bone can cost tens of thousands of dollars. However, there is one outlet without the same limitations of larger, better-preserved, more expensive fossils, which buyers can turn to for more affordable dinosaur remains. Though their other bone counterparts are expensive, dinosaur teeth are surprisingly affordable and interesting commodities that can be purchased for under $100.

There are a number of reasons why dinosaur teeth tend to sell for such low prices compared to other fossils such as claws. It is suspected by scientists that dinosaurs replaced teeth in a similar manner to sharks. Every time a shark loses a tooth, it has one to replace it. Dinosaurs may have used the same or a similar mechanism to replace their own teeth, which would explain why they are prevalent in such abundance. Additionally, dinosaurs had more teeth than they did claws, which means that they had a higher number of teeth that could have been preserved.

Though dinosaur teeth are cheap, they can provide a lot of information about the dinosaur they came from. The shape and structure of dinosaur teeth say a lot about the dinosaur’s dietary habits, which is invaluable when investigating its lifestyle and understanding some level of dinosaur behavior. One example are the teeth of Spinosaurus, which indicate a semi-aquatic lifestyle similar to that of crocodiles. Rather than their teeth being sharp and jagged, Spinosaurus teeth are smooth and conical, indicating that they speared fish with their jaws. In comparison are Dromaeosaurus teeth, which are sharp and hooked with a slight curve backwards. Such a shape indicates that Dromaeosaurus led carnivorous, terrestrial lifestyles where they chased their prey down.

In order to compare the public’s point-of-view on dinosaur teeth with what is known in paleontology about teeth, a few freshmen students at BCA were asked what they thought the prices of dinosaur teeth were, and how much they would be willing to pay for such a commodity. Answers varied greatly. “Ah…I might pay $200 for a tooth, and it would have to be a really cool tooth,” One BCA student replied. “But I would really rather see it in the museum. And I think a tooth would be worth $50,000.”

The amount students were willing to pay for dinosaur teeth ranged from no more than $100 to up to $1,000, yet the amount of money they expected dinosaur teeth to go for was from at least $200 to $50,000. In general, students expected teeth to be much more expensive than what they were willing to pay. In reality, dinosaur teeth generally tend to range in price from a bit under $100 to $15,000, but the majority of them are under $300. Their prices depend on their size and level of preservation. Large, well-preserved T. rex teeth, for example, can sell for over $10,000. Smaller T. rex teeth go for under $1,000, and the majority of dinosaur teeth which are under 3-inches sell for much less — under $500. A small tooth can sell for $90 or less. When asked for her opinion on why this is, one of the respondees, Casey Chan, said, “They probably over-estimate the value but are not willing to pay too much for dinosaur teeth because not everyone knows why the teeth are so valuable, and teeth don’t have personal value to them.”

If the students asked were more interested in dinosaur teeth, they would be willing to pay more. It is easier to see a fossil in a museum than it is to buy one, as they are not common items seen in stores. In spite of this, there are a lot of online shops* selling dinosaur teeth at affordable prices. Hopefully, as paleontologists seek more and more outlets using media, the general public will become more aware of how inexpensive dinosaur teeth are, as a lot of information can be drawn from them.

*When purchasing fossils, it is imperative that one makes sure they are not making illegal transactions. Fossils are often smuggled outside of countries such as Mongolia, and their true places of origin may be forged. Knowing where certain types of dinosaurs are known to have been found in addition to knowing the laws of the countries where fossils are found prior to making fossil purchases will help prevent these illegal transactions which rob countries of their fossil heritage.