Did "The Rock" really buy Stan, one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimens on record, which sold for a record $31.8 million in October 2020 to an unknown buyer?
Rumors swirled online this week after actor and XFL owner Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson appeared on NFL and ESPN's "ManningCast" with professional football brothers Peyton and Eli Manning on Jan. 17. During the show, The Rock sat next to a fearsome friend: the skull of T. rex.
"I got a T. rex skull, yes," Johnson said, laughing during the show. "That's Stan. As a matter of fact, so Stan is the most complete T. rex skull ever found by a paleontologist — a young paleontologist — and his name was Stan, so this T. rex head was named after him. Pretty cool and badass isn't it?"
But is it really Stan, or a replica of the powerful predator? Dinosaur fans on Twitter (opens in new tab) quickly began to debate the issue. A call to the Black Hills Institute (BHI) in South Dakota, the company that formerly owned and housed Stan, cleared up the matter.
Related: Photos: Dinosaur's battle wounds preserved in Tyrannosaur skull
It's a replica, not the real deal, said Peter Larson, paleontologist, president and founder of Black Hills Institute, a company that supplies fossils for research, teaching and exhibit.
"The Rock purchased from Black Hills Institute a cast of Stan's skull" toward the end of 2021, Larson told Live Science. "We were very excited that he was going to get one. He's one of our heroes. He seems to be a really genuine human being who plays pretty cool parts in movies."
Though not as expensive as the auctioned-off specimen, a mounted Stan skull isn't cheap. It goes for $11,500 plus crating and shipping, according to BHI (opens in new tab). The institute sells anywhere from five to 10 Stan skull replicas a year, Larson noted. "It's one of our best sellers."
"What's really cool is it's a size you can fit into a house," Larson said. At 58 inches long and 32 inches wide (147 by 81 centimeters), the skull is a lot smaller than Stan's entire skeleton, which measures nearly 40 feet (12 meters) from snout to tail and stands 12 feet (3.6 m) tall at the hips.
So, if The Rock doesn't own the original Stan, who does? Even Larson isn't sure.
"The auction company was not able to tell us where Stan went," he said. "We are keeping our fingers crossed that Stan is going to a museum. Stan is a super-important specimen for science."
The Christie's New York auction sale was done by the London desk, sparking rumors that the buyer was from the Middle East, The New York Times reported at the time.
The saga behind Stan's auction came to light in 2015, when Larson's brother, Neal Larson, a minority shareholder of BHI, decided to leave the institute. He asked Peter Larson and the other shareholder, Robert Farrar, that BHI be liquidated. "He brought a lawsuit against us and won," Peter Larson said. Not wanting to liquidate, "my lawyer and I came up with the idea of giving up Stan — something you could sell and get lots of money for."
That may be the understatement of the year, at least when it comes to fossils. Stan ended up being the most expensive fossil ever sold at auction, Live Science previously reported. Many paleontologists and the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology were upset at the sale; private owners are under no obligation to share fossils with scientists, who still have much to learn about Stan. (Despite the name, it's unclear if Stan is a male or female T. rex.) For instance, researchers know that Stan is an adult, but they're not sure how old the apex predator is, as they have yet to sample a good section of its bones showing its "growth rings" — which, like the rings of a tree, can reveal a specimen's age.
Differently aged T. rex specimens can also reveal how the dinosaur king grew as it reached its late 20s, Live Science previously reported.
Amateur paleontologist Stan Sacrison discovered Stan in the Hell Creek Formation, near the town of Buffalo, South Dakota, in 1987. BHI scientists spent more than 300,000 hours excavating and preparing the skeleton, which then toured the world in the 1990s and has been examined in probably about 100 studies, Peter Larson said.
Anatomical research has revealed that Stan fought in some vicious brawls when it was alive about 67 million year ago during the Cretaceous period; the beast had several broken bones, including its neck, as well as healed ribs and a scar on its skull the same shape and size as a T. rex tooth, BHI reported (opens in new tab).
"Stan was tough," Peter Larson said, so it's no wonder The Rock wanted to have a replica of Stan in his abode.
"I think it's really cool that people were speculating that he bought the real Stan," Peter Larson said. While The Rock probably has the funds to buy Stan, "That's a lot of money. I don't think that's a single person that bought it. That's another reason why I think it's a museum," he added.
Originally published on Live Science.