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This fossil of a Tarbosaurus bataar was returned to Mongolia after it was poached and sold for $1 million. Fewer than a dozen of this species are in scientists’ hands.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via New York Times,

Stealing dinosaur skeletons, bone by bone

  • Article by: Alanna Mitchell
  • New York Times
  • October 26, 2013 - 5:02 PM

It is the dinosaur version of grave robbing: fossil poachers plundering a paleontological dig, frequently smashing ancient skulls and stealing valuable teeth, claws and feet.

Often, all that remain are shards of fossilized bone and a wrecked, irreplaceable scientific record. And in cases where poachers excavate an entire skeleton and spirit it away to illicit entrepreneurs or collectors, it is as if the bones, buried for millions of years, were being dug up only to be hidden away again in private collections.

“This is huge,” said Catherine Forster, a paleontologist at George Washington University who is president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. “It isn’t just one or two specimens. A fair proportion of very good fossils just disappear from knowledge, and few are ever seen again.”

And while some scientists hoped that a high-profile legal case in New York last year over the $1 million sale of a rare Mongolian dinosaur would curb the illegal digging, that does not appear to have happened. Mark Norell, chairman of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said a visit to the Gobi Desert over the summer made clear that poaching continues “in a big way.”

Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta, says he has determined that 98 skeletons of the dinosaur Tarbosaurus bataar (sometimes called Tyrannosaurus bataar) were destroyed or removed by poachers in Mongolia. Fewer than a dozen are in scientific hands, he says. And he has counted many other plundered fossil skeletons from the Gobi, including 86 ostrichlike dinosaurs. It has been illegal to remove fossils from Mongolia since the 1920s.

Although the age of the dinosaurs lasted about 165 million years, their skeletons are relatively uncommon. Only about 3,000 are known to exist. About 1,300 dinosaur species have been identified, Norell said — more than half from a single skeleton and perhaps a third from a single bone.

Paleontologists say they are not taking aim at professional fossil finders, who work within the law and dig carefully. They are calling for the patchwork of laws on dinosaur stealing and smuggling to be enforced and tightened around the world, and they are pleading with private collectors to demand proof of a fossil’s origins before they buy — just as they would question the pedigree of a painting or an antique.

Otherwise, the scientists say, valuable entries in the Earth’s book of life will be lost forever, including information about exactly where the fossils were found, what geological formation the creatures were in, how they were lying in the ground, how they were discovered and precisely when they lived, not to mention what surrounded them at death.

“I’m saying, ‘Ask for provenance,’ ” Norell said. “It worked in the art world, but it hasn’t hit the fossil world.”

The Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, a professional group for commercial fossil collectors and dealers, is also encouraging its members to educate themselves and the public on the legality of the specimens.

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