October 19, 2012
For the past six months, the fate of a million-dollar tyrannosaur has been in limbo. A composite Tarbosaurus skeleton has been awaiting the outcome of an ongoing court trial–will the dinosaur bones go home to Mongolia or wind up in the hands of the private collector who successfully bid for the dinosaur?
At every step, the case has become more complex. What was thought to be a single, mostly complete dinosaur turned out to be a jumble of many, and the documents used to import the fossils to the United States hint that these dinosaurs were indeed smuggled out of Mongolia. Earlier this week, federal officials arrested the man who imported and assembled the contentious skeleton.
According to reports by the Guardian and LiveScience, commercial fossil dealer Eric Prokopi was involved in many shady schemes. In addition to the disputed Tarbosaurus, documents filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office charge Prokopi with trying to smuggle a specimen of the small, feathery dinosaur Microraptor out of China, illegally selling an illicit specimen of the hadrosaur Saurolophus to auction house I.M. Chait and the sale of two other dinosaurs illegally collected from Mongolia. The charges against Prokopi include conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, making false statements and interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods.
From the very beginning, the Mongolian Government, paleontologists and U.S. officials have been skeptical about how a “mostly complete” Tarbosaurus–a tyrannosaur primarily found in Mongolia–could have been secretly exported from a country with a strict commitment to responsible collection and research. But experts also knew that this dinosaur was only one visible point of a massive black market that continues to rob nations of their natural history heritage. Indeed, the new charges assert that the Tarbosaurus was not the first illegal specimen Prokopi tried to sell, and the Florida fossil dealer is hardly unique. How many dinosaurs have been lost in private collections because of unscrupulous commercial paleontologists? With any luck, though, this case may help the United States tighten the laws surrounding fossil sales. We should not only strive to protect fossils at home but to work with other countries to preserve the global story of dinosaurs.
September 27, 2012
Seeing a hadrosaur alive would be a fantastic sight. Or any non-avian dinosaur, for that matter. As lovely as today’s avian dinosaurs are, it’s their distant, extinct cousins that fire my imagination. Sadly, despite the speculations of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, I don’t think my dinosaur dreams are going to come true.
In a Big Think video posted last week, Kaku rhapsodized about the possibility of resurrecting extinct species through genetic techniques. I’m not as optimistic as he is, especially since Kaku glosses over some essential steps in his confused editorial.
Kaku spends most of the video talking about Neanderthals and woolly mammoths. These species went extinct so recently that, in some cases, researchers can extract DNA from their remains and go about reconstructing their genomes. Pretty cool science. Whether I’ll ever be able to cuddle a fuzzy baby woolly mammoth is another matter. (I’ve heard promises ever since I was a child. I’m still waiting.) But non-avian dinosaurs obviously present a different problem. They went extinct about 66 million years ago, and, given the circumstances required for genetic preservation, there’s no hope of ever obtaining Mesozoic dinosaur DNA.
But, Kaku says, “we have soft tissue from the dinosaurs.” He makes it sound as if dinosaur skeletons are saturated with bits of prehistoric flesh. “If you take a hadrosaur and crack open the thigh bones, bingo,” he says, “You find soft tissue right there in the bone marrow.”
Kaku’s going far afield from what science has actually revealed. Since 2007, paleontologists and molecular biologists have been tussling over the possibility that some non-avian dinosaur fossils might preserved the degraded remnants of soft tissue structures such as blood vessels. A Tyrannosaurus femur kicked off the debate, which has since extended to the hadrosaur Brachylophosaurus, as well.
Even though researchers Mary Schweitzer, John Asara and colleagues have hypothesized that they’ve detected preserved proteins from remnants of dinosaur soft tissues, their results have been heavily criticized. The supposed dinosaur leftovers may be microfossils created by bacterial biofilms that broke down the creature’s bodies, and the protein analysis–which placed the supposed T. rex protein close to bird protein–might have suffered from contamination. As yet, there’s no definitive proof that non-avian dinosaur soft tissues or proteins have actually been recovered, and the debate is set to go on for years to come. Contrary to what Kaku says, you can’t simply break open a dinosaur skeleton and start scooping out marrow.
Not that preserved protein would bring us closer to resurrecting Tyrannosaurus or Brachylophosaurus, anyway. The biomolecules could tell us a bit about dinosaur biology, and possibly become another way to test evolutionary relationships, but we’d still lack dinosaur DNA. And even if we could reconstruct a dinosaur’s genome, that doesn’t mean that we could easily clone one. Much like Michael Crichton before him, Kaku skips over an essential and complicated step–the development of the embryo inside the mother. How do you go from a genetic map to a viable embryo? And how can we account for interactions between the embryo and the surrogate mother–a member of a different, living species–that could influence the experimental animal’s development?
Studying the genetics and biomolecular makeup of prehistoric organisms is a fascinating area of research. And even though the dinosaur protein issue remains contentious, the debate has the potential to refine a new way to look at dinosaurs. That’s where the real value of this science is. Non-avian dinosaurs are long gone, and I don’t believe that we’ll ever be able to bring them back to life. But the more we understand about their biology, the better we can reconstruct dinosaurs in our scientific imagination.
September 25, 2012
Since May, Mongolian officials, a fossil dealer, federal agents and paleontologists have been tussling over a million-dollar dinosaur. And the story of this Tarbosaurus keeps getting more complicated.
When the tyrant was sold by Heritage Auctions, the dinosaur was advertised as being about 75 percent complete. But, according to a court hearing earlier this month, only about fifty percent of the reconstruction came from a single animal. The rest apparently came from any number of other dinosaurs. Eric Prokopi–the dealer who imported, mounted and tried to sell the dinosaur–has not provided any information about where all these fossils came from.
To date, Tarbosaurus skeletons have only been discovered in Mongolia. The color and preservation of the bones of the specimen in question indicates that the primary individual used to make the reconstruction came from that country. But the admission that the dinosaur is an amalgamation of several dinosaurs–all of undocumented origin–complicates the Mongolian government’s claim to the dinosaur. Who knows what kind of monster Prokopi created in his effort to create a salable specimen?
And the lack of paperwork has further marred the case. Upon hearing that experts believe that the Tarbosaurus at the center of the mount could only have come from Mongolia, U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel offered his opinion that the dinosaur could have been found outside Mongolia simply because “We’re finding new things all the time.” It would seem that Castel fancies himself an amateur paleontologist.
This ever-more frustrating case highlights the problematic nature of the fossil black market. All too easily, fossils are poached and shipped around the world without documentation. Should they ever become the subject of an attempt to send the fossils back home, as in this case, the shady dealings of irresponsible commercial dealers hinders attempts to figure out where the fossils came from, much less return a country’s natural heritage.
No one knows what might happen next. The fact that the Tarbosaurus was a “Frankenstein” of many dinosaurs complicates the case, yet the bulk of the evidence indicates that the core of the mount–the 50 percent from a single Tarbosaurus individual–is an illicit specimen that was smuggled into the United States. For now, though, all we can do is wait. The case is set to resume in December.
June 19, 2012
A million dollar dinosaur may soon be going home.
Last month, Heritage Auctions offered a mostly complete, reconstructed skeleton of the tyrannosaur Tarbosaurus for sale. This was despite protests from the Mongolian government and paleontologists that the specimen was illegally collected from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. The country has very strict regulations involving the collection and curation of dinosaurs, and the very fact that the tyrannosaur was taken from Mongolia and put up for sale was a sure sign that it was an illicit specimen. The auction house went along with the sale anyway—where the top bid was a little over one million dollars—but a last-minute restraining order gave Mongolian officials and paleontologists a little more time to investigate the dinosaur.
There could be no doubt about where the dinosaur came from. This Tarbosaurus was collected from Mongolia just a few years ago, in violation of Mongolia’s laws. Frustratingly, however, Heritage Auctions maintained that the specimen had been legally imported to the United States. If this were the case, the skeleton could still be legally sold—even if a specimen is illegally collected from its country of origin, lax importation regulations give dinosaur smugglers legal loopholes.
But the history of this Tarbosaurus may provide the key to sending the dinosaur back to the people of Mongolia. Yesterday, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a press release which revealed that the dinosaur was not only collected illegally, but also illegally smuggled into the country.
The paperwork for the Tarbosaurus, which was imported to the United States from England on March 27, 2010, contained several untruths. Despite being excavated in Mongolia, the fossils in the shipment were said to have come from Great Britain. Not that the documents actually said the shipment contained a tyrannosaur. According to the press release, the customs forms only listed “two large rough fossil reptile heads, six boxes of broken fossil bones, three rough fossil reptiles, one fossil lizard, three rough fossil reptiles, and one fossil reptile skull.” It’s not as if the people who possessed the skeleton didn’t realize what they had. According to a report by the Daily Mail, the Tarbosaurus was knowingly shipped to the United States so that the skeleton could be completely assembled.
Official documents named Eric Prokopi as the consignee of the imported fossils. Prokopi, a self-styled commercial paleontologist, runs Florida Fossils and owned the tyrannosaur at the time it was brought into the country. After the dinosaur was prepared in Florida, it was shipped to Texas and then New York for auction.
If you wish to see all the legal files yourself, paleontologist Chris Noto is hosting them on his website. This may be the action that sends the Tarbosaurus home. And Heritage Auctions is stepping aside from the skeleton, shrugging off the blame for auctioning an illegal specimen by saying the company believes the consignor acted in “good faith.” That is demonstrably not the case. The dinosaur was looted, smuggled and would probably be on its way to a private collector’s home—locked away from everyone else—had the Mongolian government and paleontologists not complained about the sale.
I hope the Tarbosaurus will soon be on its way back to Mongolia. But as paleontologist Phil Currie notes in a New Scientist opinion piece, this won’t be the last illegal or illicit dinosaur that comes up for sale. There will undoubtedly be others, but with luck, this case will turn the tide against the wave of poaching that continues to pillage the natural heritage of Mongolia. And that country’s loss is everyone’s loss—stolen dinosaurs are often hastily excavated and disappear into the black market, robbing paleontologists of significant specimens. This makes it that much harder to understand how these animals actually lived, or to bring dinosaurs back to life for the public. Too many dinosaurs have been lost to private owners looking for just another symbol of their affluence. Dinosaurs belong to everyone.
June 8, 2012
Prior to the summer of 1993, “raptor” was synonymous with “bird of prey.” If you said “raptor,” whoever you were talking to knew you were talking about some kind of hawk, owl, eagle or other sharp-taloned aerial predator. Then Jurassic Park came along. Thanks to some taxonomic muddling and abbreviation, the cunning, sickle-clawed villains of the film’s third act immediately came to be known as “raptors.” Velociraptor, Deinonychus and kin had stolen the term for themselves.
Among non-avian dinosaurs, raptor might refer to the entire group of feathery coelurosaurs with grasping hands and hyperextendable toe claws—the deinonychosaurs—or to a specific subset of that group, called dromaeosaurids. It depends on where you care to draw the line. Just like its use among avian dinosaurs, the word “raptor” is informal and is a quick way to draw a conceptual outline of any dinosaur similar to Velociraptor.
But not everyone is happy with how “raptor” has been co-opted. A few months ago, paleontologist and Tetrapod Zoology author Darren Naish wrote:
Oh, and can everybody please stop using the word ‘raptor’ as a popular term for deinonychosaur, or dromaeosaurid? Admittedly, this rarely causes confusion, but it looks dumb and naive given that THE WORD RAPTOR IS ALREADY IN USE FOR ANOTHER GROUP OF ANIMALS. It would be like deciding to call sauropods ‘elephants’ or something.
And earlier this week, a reader sent me an email questioning the Los Angeles Times‘ use of the word raptor to describe a new genus of dromaeosaurid found in the Early Cretaceous rock of Utah. If birds of prey had claim to “raptor” first, and the term is just a bit of pop culture fluff, should we drop the word and push for deinonychosaur instead?
I don’t think so. Even though some informal dinosaur terms make me cringe—such as “parasaur” for Parasaurlophus and “Trike” for Triceratops—I think “raptor” provides a useful hook. To borrow a bit from another Steven Spielberg monster flick, you say “deinonychosaur,” and people say “Huh? What?” You say “raptor,” and your audience immediately has a general image of what sort of dinosaur you’re talking about. Rather than lament the reapplication of the word raptor as misappropriation or dumbing down, we might as well take advantage of the instant recognition the word triggers when trying to communicate with people who are not up on the latest theropod phylogeny. Almost twenty years after Jurassic Park debuted, it’s a little late to put “raptor” back in the cage.
More than that, I think “raptor” is a perfectly wonderful term for dromaeosaurids, if not deinonychosaurs as a whole. Not only has the “raptor” suffix been used in numerous dromaeosaurid names—Velociraptor, Utahraptor, Bambiraptor, Pyroraptor, Microraptor and so on—but these feathery dinosaurs were close cousins of the lineage which spawned the first birds. Some dromaeosaurids may have even hunted like avian raptors, using their huge tow claws to pin down prey rather than slash at it. Since “raptor” was always an informal term that applied to various lineages of avian dinosaurs anyway, I think it’s perfectly legit to use the word for the more ancient, non-avian precursors of today’s formidable falcons and eagles. Avian and non-avian raptors were dinosaurs of a feather.