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 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.
August 16, 2012
Ankylosaurs can be frustrating dinosaurs. In life, armor covered the bodies of these dinosaurs from snout to tail, but those bony adornments often fell out of place between the death and ultimate burial of the ankylosaurs. Reconstructing an ankylosaur, therefore, requires that paleontologists not only figure out the articulations of the bones but also the arrangement of the armor. Every now and then, though, researchers discover one of these dinosaurs with some armor still in place. According to an in-press Acta Palaeontologica Polonica paper, ankylosaur expert Victoria Arbour and colleagues have just identified one such specimen from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia.
The dinosaur in question is most likely a specimen of Tarchia–an ankylosaur that could grow to about 26 feet long and, like many of its close relatives, carried a tail club. Rather than being a brand new find, though, this Tarchia was originally discovered in 1971 during the Polish-Mongolian Palaeontological Expedition and was sent to the Geological Museum in Oslo, Norway in 1998. Now, after over three decades, the dinosaur gets its time in the scientific spotlight.
What makes this Tarchia so significant isn’t the completeness of the skeleton. Only the left side of the back half of the body, including most of the tail, is preserved. What’s special is that parts of the dinosaur’s armor are still in place, including triangle-shaped bits of armor along the dinosaur’s slender tail and impressions of the tough sheaths that covered some of the armor in life. Indeed, the bony armor of dinosaurs was not exposed to the outside but was covered in a hard keratinous coating–horns, claws, plates and spikes were all covered in this, often making weapons sharper and ornaments more expansive.
While such soft tissue fossils are relatively rare, Arbour and her co-authors follow what paleontologist Phil Bell recently suggested on the basis of hadrosaur skin impressions–that preserved soft tissue impressions such as these might eventually be useful in distinguishing between different genera or species of dinosaur. In fact, this may be particularly important in cases like this exceptional ankylosaur. While the specimen is most similar to other specimens of Tarchia, it also differs in some minute tail characteristics. Are the differences the result of growth or individual variation, or could they be signs of a previously-unrecognized species? Detailed comparisons of skin impressions, in addition to skeletal differences, may help paleontologists winnow down the possibilities. We just need a better collection of ankylosaur soft tissue traces first.
Arbour, V.M., Lech-Hernes, N.L., Guldberg, T.E., Hurum, J.H., and Currie P.J. (2012). An ankylosaurid dinosaur from Mongolia with in situ armour and keratinous scale impressions Acta Palaeontologica Polonica DOI: 10.4202/app.2011.0081
July 20, 2012
In 1994, paleontologists made a discovery that turned one dinosaur’s name into an irony. That dinosaur was Oviraptor – the so-called “egg thief” discovered several decades before, but that turned out to be a caring mother.
The story starts in 1923. In that year, an expedition from the American Museum of Natural History discovered dinosaur eggs in the Cretaceous rock of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. At the time, the paleontologists thought that the eggs had been laid by Protoceratops – a small horned dinosaur that commonly found in these deposits – but there was another dinosaur associated with one nest. The AMNH team also discovered the skull of a toothless theropod dinosaur on top of a clutch of eggs. When paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn described the dinosaur in 1924, he presumed that the theropod’s jaws were well-suited to crushing eggs, and that this dinosaur was killed in the act of robbing another dinosaur’s nest. Oviraptor seemed like a fitting name for the Cretaceous looter.
Only, that Oviraptor was probably brooding over the nest. In 1993, fieldwork at another Gobi Desert site uncovered similar eggs, and, fortuitously, same of the eggs preserved the delicate skeletons of near-term embryos. The most spectacular baby was the little skeleton of an Oviraptor-like dinosaur, curled up inside its egg. Even better, the shape of this egg matched the supposed Protoceratops eggs discovered years before. Osborn’s Oviraptor wasn’t stealing eggs, but watching over them, and this conclusion was sooner supported by beautiful skeletons of oviraptorosaur skeletons preserved on their nests, their arms spread to encompass the eggs.
But there was something else very curious about the embryo described by Mark Norell and colleagues in 1994. In the same nest, the paleontologists discovered the partial skulls of two little dromaeosaurids – sickle-clawed dinosaurs such as Velociraptor. These two tiny dinosaurs were either embryos or hatchlings, but why should they be preserved in the same nest with a totally different species?
Norell and co-authors suggested several possibilities. The baby dromaeosaurids could have been the prey of adult oviraptorosaurs, might have been trying to prey on oviraptorosaur eggs, or, after death, could have been transported a short distance into in oviraptorosaur nest. The most tantalizing possibility, though, is that one of the two dinosaur taxa was a nest parasite. Perhaps, when no one was looking, a mother Velociraptor – or similar dinosaur – added a few eggs to an oviraptorosaur’s nest, passing off her parenting duties. Then again, the scenario could have played out the other way around (although I would not envy a baby oviraptorosaur born into a family of vicious raptors).
Frustratingly, we may never know why these two species of dinosaurs were preserved together in the same nest. But I have to wonder if some non-avian dinosaurs were brood parasites. After all, some species of birds – the one lineage of living dinosaurs – sneak their eggs into the nests of other birds, so it’s not inconceivable that this behavior has much deeper, Mesozoic roots. Perhaps, as paleontologists continue to collect and study dinosaur eggs, someone will find more direct evidence of sneaky oviraptorosaurs, raptors, or other dinosaurs.
Norell MA, Clark JM, Demberelyin D, Rhinchen B, Chiappe LM, Davidson AR, McKenna MC, Altangerel P, & Novacek MJ (1994). A theropod dinosaur embryo and the affinities of the flaming cliffs dinosaur eggs. Science (New York, N.Y.), 266 (5186), 779-82 PMID: 17730398
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.