February 3, 2009
Last month I wrote about a potentially new ankylosaur, Minotaurasaurus, that had been described in the journal Current Science. Unfortunately, paleontologists were unable to precisely determine how old the fossil is or where it exactly came from. The scientists who reported on it did not dig it out of the ground themselves, and a new report from Nature News suggests the skull might have been taken from Mongolia illegally.
As shown by the case of the missing Tarbosaurus, fossil theft is still a big problem for scientists working in Mongolia. What’s there one field season may be gone the next, and who knows where it will wind up? In the case of Minotaurasaurus, the skull wound up at the Tuscon Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase in Arizona, an expo known for sometimes selling fossils of questionable origin. The ankylosaur skull was one of these poorly-documented specimens, which the scientists who described the fossil knew when they obtained it. The history of the specimen has yet to be fully detailed.
What’s the harm in publishing on fossils like this? Even though it is good for important specimens to be described in the scientific literature, the sale of illegally-obtained specimens is extremely harmful to paleontology. The people who sell stolen fossils are not concerned with science, they only care that they are making money. And the people who do the dirty work of robbing sites get so little out of the deal that they keep stealing to make a living, removing fossils before scientists can get to them and destroying paleontological evidence as they dig.
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