TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa is chomping at the bit to show off the real dinosaur skeleton it is getting — not one of those plaster or robotic ones. It’s nicknamed “Big John” after the South Dakota rancher whose land was the final resting place for the ancient bones, which set a Guinness record for the largest triceratops skeleton ever uncovered.
It measures 26 feet long, 10 feet high and is as big as an RV. It sold at auction in 2021 for $7.7 million, another record for the highest price ever paid for a dino skeleton that isn’t a T. rex. The buyer had been unnamed, but the museum has revealed that the donation is coming from the Tampa-based Pagidipati family.
“Ever since I was a young boy, I have been fascinated by dinosaurs roaming the Earth,” said Siddhartha Pagidipati, an entrepreneur who has founded numerous global brands, including Talent.me, Inventcorp and Freedom Health, which was ranked No. 7 in Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing companies of 2009. “When we found out Big John was discovered, and that he was the biggest triceratops ever found, we were so excited to bring him here to Tampa Bay. Now everyone will have the chance to see him in person and feel an experience of what his world was like millions of years ago.”
The dinosaur is being lent to the museum for three years, and possibly longer. When the epic exhibit opens this Memorial Day weekend, Big John will become Tampa Bay’s first-ever large fossilized dinosaur skeleton on long-term display. The exhibit also marks Big John’s North American debut and his first time on display in a museum.
Sections of Big John will be arriving in the coming weeks, and the museum will convert its large event space on the third floor into a new dino exhibit.
At a news conference Tuesday, the museum showed off renderings of the titanic triceratops that will be the focal point of an immersive dinosaur exhibit designed to take both children and adults into Big John’s world. The exhibit will feature tunnels with clear domes, where curious kids can pop up and see the skeleton from underneath.
Big John was discovered in 2014 by Walter Stein, the founder of a South Dakota firm called PaleoAdventures, which digs up fossils for commercial sale. Stein was there for Tuesday’s announcement in Tampa to talk about how he stumbled across the giant horn of a triceratops sticking out of an eroding hillside in South Dakota. He had hopes that a U.S. museum would purchase it, but none came forward because of the expense of preparing the skeleton for display since it was still largely covered in rock.
The Italian fossil firm Zoic bought the skeleton, and its team spent most of 2021 carefully removing rock from the bones. They sculpted, cast and 3D-printed missing pieces to fill out the display. The result drew interest around the world because of its size and also the dinosaur’s completeness, with 75% of its skull and 60% of the full skeleton together in the display.
The jaw-dropping price at the Paris auction in October 2021 was controversial in scientific circles, with some experts worried that the rising prices of fossils will put more scientifically valuable specimens out of reach for museums and universities. Stein at the time said he had mixed feelings about the sale and hoped to see the triceratops show up in a museum one day.
“On one hand, I am glad the skeleton was finally fully prepared, reconstructed and mounted. The Italians did a nice job displaying and showing it off to the public. Lots of young kids in Europe had the opportunity to see a real triceratops up close, and that’s a great thing,” Stein told National Geographic at the time. “On the other hand, I’m obviously sad to see it go and hope the new owners can put it in a museum or at least on display, so others can enjoy and learn from it too.”
The Pagidipati family said in a news release when it purchased Big John that they had the intention of bringing it to Tampa for the public to enjoy.
“Our interest in purchasing Big John and other specimens is first and foremost to make them available to the public and for research,” added Siddhartha Pagidipati. “We want to do our part to help the Tampa Bay area become the best place in our country for families to live and raise their children.”
Excitement is high at the Glazer Children’s Museum, which now has a replica plaster cast of its horn on display that people can touch and a full-scale mural of Big John on its building to demonstrate his epic size.
“What makes dinosaurs such an enduring and universal source of fascination is their ability to bridge the gap between generations,” said Sarah Cole, president and CEO of the Glazer Children’s Museum. “It’s hard to believe that these seemingly mythical creatures roamed our planet long ago, so getting up close to a fossil as remarkable as Big John inspires awe and sparks curiosity about the world around us.”