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 27, 2012
Last Friday, the United States government captured a tyrannosaur. The scene was more Law & Order than Jurassic Park. The million-dollar Tarbosaurus skeleton was seized in an ongoing legal dispute about the origins of the dinosaur and how it was imported to the United States. To date, the evidence suggests that the giant Cretaceous predator was illegally collected from Mongolia (a country with strict heritage laws), smuggled to England and then imported to the United States under false pretenses, all before a private buyer bid more than a million dollars for the skeleton at auction. (For full details on the ongoing controversy, see my previous posts on the story.) Now that the dinosaur has been rescued from the private dinosaur market, I can only hope that the skeleton is swiftly returned to the people of Mongolia.
But there’s one aspect of the dispute that I haven’t said anything about. Heritage Auctions, press releases and news reports have been calling the illicit dinosaur a Tyrannosaurus bataar, while I have been referring to the dinosaur as Tarbosaurus. Depending on who you ask, either name might be correct. Embedded in this tale of black market fossils is a scientific argument over whether this dinosaur species was a “tyrant lizard” or an “alarming lizard.”
Paleontologist Victoria Arbour recently wrote an excellent summary of this issue on her blog. In general appearance, North America’s Tyrannosaurus rex and Mongolia’s Tarbosaurus bataar were very similar animals. They were both huge tyrannosaurs with short arms and deep skulls. Unless you really know your dinosaurs, it’s easy to confuse the two. But there are a few significant differences between Tyrannosaurus rex and Tarbosaurus bataar.
In 2003, paleontologists Jørn Hurum and Karol Sabath counted the ways the two dinosaur species differed [PDF]. The most obvious is in the top-down profiles of the tyrannosaur skulls. The skull of Tyrannosaurus rex looks much more heavily built and flares out abruptly at the back, while the skull of Tarbosaurus bataar is narrower and doesn’t have the same degree of expansion at the rear of the skull. A more subtle difference is the shape of the lacrimal bone, which made up the front part of the eye socket and was also part of the dinosaur’s skull ornamentation. In Tyrannosaurus rex, the top portion of the lacrimal has a concave shape, but in Tarbosaurus bataar the same portion of bone is domed. And as Arbour mentioned in her post, the arms of Tarbosaurus bataar are proportionally shorter compared to the rest of the body than in Tyrannosaurus rex—so there are three quick ways to tell the dinosaurs apart.
As Arbour noted, the two dinosaurs definitely belong to different species. As it stands now, the two appear to be each other’s closest relatives. The question is whether they should be two species in the same genus—Tyrannosaurus, which was established first and has priority—or whether each species belongs in its own genus. That decision is influenced as much by a paleontologist’s view of how prehistoric animals should be lumped or split into different taxa as anything else. Some prefer to call the Mongolian form Tyrannosaurus bataar, and others view the tyrannosaur as a very different animal rightly called Tarbosaurus bataar. As you might guess, my vote is for Tarbosaurus.
Like Arbour, I suspect that Heritage Auctions advertised the dinosaur as a Tyrannosaurus to get more attention. Tyrannosaurus is the essence of prehistoric ferocity, and putting a Tyrannosaurus up for sale—rather than a Tarbosaurus—will undoubtedly gain more attention every time. In fact, we know that celebrity has a lot to do with why the legal dispute over the auctioned specimen erupted in the first place. There were other Mongolian dinosaur specimens for sale on auction day, such as a rare ankylosaur skull, but almost no one paid any attention to these specimens. The nearly complete Tarbosaurus was a vacuum for media attention, and it was the most powerful symbol of the rampant fossil smuggling problem. But this isn’t necessarily bad. Perhaps, in time, one outcome of this high-profile case will be to keep other, less charismatic dinosaurs from winding up in the homes of affluent private collectors.
Hurum, J.H. and Sabath, K. 2003. Giant theropod dinosaurs from Asia and North America: Skulls of Tarbosaurus bataar and Tyrannosaurus rex compared. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 48 (2): 161–190.
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.
May 22, 2012
A few weeks ago, Heritage Auctions announced that it had a tyrannosaur to sell. The assembled and articulated Tarbosaurus was expected to fetch nearly a million dollars at the May 20 auction. Paleontologists shook their heads in dismay: Such specimens typically come with very little documentation and often end up in private collections, lost to researchers and the public alike. News services and aggregators made typically inane comments about the dinosaur being the perfect gift for the dinosaur aficionado who has everything. I expected the sale to go on and the dinosaur to disappear into some affluent buyer’s private collection.
But this dinosaur has rapidly become a symbol of a country’s pillaged heritage. Two days before the auction, the president of Mongolia, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, questioned the legality of selling the dinosaur. Every significant specimen of Tarbosaurus has been found in Mongolia since Russian paleontologist Evgeny Maleev initially described the dinosaur in 1955. The assembled skeleton undoubtedly came from Mongolia, and that country has strict regulations and heritage laws intended to halt fossil poaching. Dinosaur-collecting expeditions must acquire formal permission, and whatever those scientific explorations find remains in the country or is temporarily loaned to academic institutions by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. But this Tarbosaurus skeleton came out of nowhere.
According to the Heritage Auctions website, “The dino was discovered within the past decade and has been in storage in England, still in its field jackets, for the last 2-1/2 years.” (A time frame corroborated by a Daily Mail news item about the skeleton.) It seems that this dinosaur was collected recently and exported outside of Mongolia, all without the permission or cooperation of Mongolian authorities. The fact that the dinosaur secretly went from the field to a private collection alone is a strong indication that the Tarbosaurus was collected illegally—yet another victim of fossil poaching. Despite Mongolia’s laws, thieves often raid field sites and loot geologic formations for specimens that are subsequently smuggled out of the country to be sold elsewhere. Although Mongolia has regulations against such criminal activity, other countries do not necessarily have laws against importing illegally collected dinosaurs. This Tarbosaurus was almost certainly collected illegally, but it appears to have been imported to the United States legally.
Paleontologists joined Mongolia’s president in calling for the dinosaur to be returned to its country of origin. Regardless of its subsequent history, the fossil should not have left the country and fallen into private hands. (And the United States has returned smuggled fossils before, such as a set of seized fossils that had been illegally collected in China.) Paleontologists and concerned members of the public signed a petition demanding a halt to the auction, and lawyer Robert Painter obtained a temporary restraining order on the dinosaur’s sale. This created a bit of dinosaur drama when Heritage Auctions decided to go ahead with the auction. Right after the auctioneer announced that the sale of the Tarbosaurus was contingent upon the resolution of the legal dispute, Painter stood up to state that he had the judge who issued the restraining order on the phone and that going ahead with the auction was a violation of that order. At that point, according to a press release issued by Painter’s law firm, “Heritage Auctions, Inc. President Greg Rohan rushed toward Painter, refused to speak with Judge Cortez, asked Painter to leave the room and directed that the auction proceed.”
The Tarbosaurus was sold for a little over a million dollars. And while I haven’t heard any news about them, I assume that other Mongolian dinosaur fossils, including a skull of the ankylosaur Saichania, were also sold.
What ultimately happens to the Tarbosaurus skeleton depends on the legal skirmish. Heritage Auctions has refused to cooperate with paleontologists and Mongolian authorities. It insists that the dinosaur entered the United States legally, and therefore there was no hurdle to its sale. In an update to a Heritage Auctions press release issued after the dinosaur controversy broke, the auction house affirmed that “[W]e are not aware of any treaty between the United States and Mongolia which would prevent the import into the United States and are equally unaware of any prohibition of export, particularly since Mongolia has not produced any factual or legal document supporting a possible claim.” There is every reason to believe that the dinosaur was found in Mongolia, and therefore that it was stolen from the land, but Heritage Auctions is focusing on regulations involving import and export.
At the very least, Heritage Auctions should have respected the wishes of the Mongolian government and paleontologists by halting the auction and investigating the provenance of the Tarbosaurus. Instead, the company bit its thumb at critics and went forward with the sale. At least there is still some hope that the dinosaur might be returned to Mongolia, pending the results of the legal dispute. This isn’t just about one dinosaur. Fossil poaching is a major problem, and the Tarbosaurus is certainly not the last illicit dinosaur we’re going to see go up for auction. (In fact, a Tarbosaurus leg of unknown origins is due to go up for auction today at Christie’s in England.) If the Tarbosaurus goes back to Mongolia, the decision might help many other illegally obtained fossils find their way home.
UPDATE: The dinosaur lab at London’s Natural History Museum tweeted that Christie’s has decided to postpone the sale of the Tarbosaurus leg until the provenance of the fossil is determined. This is a step in the right direction, and hopefully auction houses will work more closely with paleontologists to prevent the sale of illegal and illicit fossils.
[I wrote a longer post about this issue at my other blog, Laelaps, and included several of the relevant press releases there.]
August 12, 2010
Twenty years ago today, fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson discovered the dinosaur that now bears her name—the immense, 80 percent complete Tyrannosaurus rex called Sue. Arguably the most famous representative of the superstar of the dinosaur world, Sue is one of the most fantastic fossil discoveries ever made, yet the story of the discover underscores persistent problems that still confound paleontologists.
The route Sue’s skeleton took from the Cretaceous-age rock of South Dakota to Chicago’s Field Museum was circuitous. Soon after researchers from the privately owned Black Hills Institute removed the bones from the encasing rock, a dispute arose over who owned the land where Sue was found and who had the rights to the skeleton. The Black Hills Institute crew had paid Maurice Williams, the putative landowner, $5,000; Williams later contended that this fee was only for access to his land and that the skeleton was his. Since he was a member of the Sioux Nation, the tribe also became involved in the dispute. “Tyrannosaurus Sue” quickly took on a distressing new meaning as the parties jockeyed for ownership. As it turned out, the land Sue was found on was being held in trust by the Department of the Interior, and in 1992 the FBI and National Guard raided the Black Hills Institute to seize Sue.
Eventually, a trial judge awarded Sue to Williams.
Then Williams decided to auction the skeleton to the highest bidder through Sotheby’s, and the event was set for October 4, 1997. Many paleontologists feared that Sue would wind up with a private collector, never to be seen again—but a partnership between a museum and several corporations secured the fossil for public display. While the bones would ultimately come to rest at Chicago’s Field Museum, the institution needed the help of Disney, McDonald’s and other donors to reach the winning $7.6 million bid for the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.
Many of the problems that delayed Sue’s journey to the Field Museum and into the scientific literature remain. Land ownership is still a major concern for scientists and fossil collectors, especially when something agreed upon over a handshake goes sour. Paleontologists must check and double-check the provenance of the bones they are recovering so they can protect themselves and the dinosaurs they find.
Auctions and the fossil black market continue to do brisk business. All too often, exceptional specimens go from the ground into private hands and never receive the scientific study they deserve. The fact that Sue sold for nearly eight million dollars only made things worse, as it confirmed that underground fossil dealers could command hefty sums for museum- or university-worthy specimens. (This issue came to the fore again last year when it became known that paleontologist Jorn Hurum and the University of Oslo paid almost $750,000 for an exquisitely preserved fossil primate named Darwinius.) There are a few cases in which owners of purchased specimens do the right thing—like when the owner of the first known Raptorex skeleton, Henry Kriegstein, donated it to a museum in Inner Mongolia, where it had been illegally excavated—but for every act of generosity there are innumerable instances where money wins out. Indeed, in especially remote places, fossils are often yanked out from under paleontologist’s noses and wind up in a wealthy buyer’s showroom.
Aside from such controversies, Sue has provided paleontologists with a wealth of information about Tyrannosaurus rex. Just do a literature search for Sue’s official institutional identification—FMNH PR 2081—and you will find a stream of papers on subjects ranging from the animal’s arm and neck biomechanics to how the gigantic theropod grew as it aged. Sue has been a boon to researchers, and no doubt will remain so.