Associating Fossil Bones to their Surrounding Matrix may Prevent Thefts

A new technique that ties fossil bones to their site of origin may help deter raiders of dinosaur dig sites.  With the number of incidents of looting on the increase, then this new “finger printing” system that helps identify the source of any fossil put up for auction may act as a deterrent for would be thieves.

The theft of fossil bones and other ancient relics from dig sites is an increasingly common occurrence.  Thieves recently stole several important Sauropod fossils from a dig site in the state of Utah, this particular dig site held the fossilised bones of a young Diplodocus that lived 150 million years ago.

Commenting on the theft, Scott Williams the Collections and Exhibits Manager at the Burpee Museum of Natural History stated:

“It’s like pieces of a puzzle that are now gone”.

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that these fossils will ever come to light again, stolen fossils end up being sold for large amounts of money in a black market of illegal fossil sales.

However, a new fossil identifying technique being pioneered in the USA could give state officials and regulators the edge when it comes to tracking down fossil thieves.  Scientists are testing a number of methods designed to chemically match a fossil with naturally occurring elements that seep into the bones during the fossilisation process from the surrounding matrix.  Although the work is in its early stages, the techniques could help identify the unique “chemical fingerprint” of a fossil site and help link any fossil bones up for auction to a particular site.  Using this information it would be possible to determine whether the bones and other relics had been obtained for sale by legal means.

Testing on the chemical analysis of fossil matrices is continuing in the western United States.  So far, results indicate these new methods could tie 85% to 98% of fossil samples back to their original sites.  The theft of fossils from a dig site is extremely frustrating for the palaeontologists, not only are valuable fossils removed but often the sites are damaged as the thieves recklessly dig out the bones.  Valuable information is being destroyed or lost, limiting the amount of information a fossil site can yield.

Vincent Santucci, the Head of the National Park Service Palaeontology Programme put it succinctly when he stated:

“We’re not making T. rexes any more”.

Although the impact of the recession has dampened down the prices paid for rare fossils at auction, dinosaur bones, especially those of famous dinosaurs such as T. rex or Triceratops still fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.  Wealthy private collectors keen to add a “prize specimen” to their collection will gladly pay a high price to obtain a rare and precious dinosaur fossil.

In Utah, which is rife with dinosaur quarries and regularly the source of newly found species, the losses to scientific knowledge can be dramatic, commented Jim Kirkland, the state palaeontologist.  He said he’s terrified that vandals will hit a significant site before scientists can meticulously go through it.  Hopefully, this new labelling technique that associates fossils with a particular site will deter any would be thieves and looters.  With several hundred reported incidents each year, any new method of helping to preserve dig sites and protect fossils is most welcome by the scientific community.  The new mapping techniques, in association with stronger legislation could help protect many important palaeontological sites, helping to preserve them so that they can be properly studied.

With looting and even vandalism of fossil sites on the increase, let’s hope that this new technique provides an effective deterrent.

Author: Mike (ezine compliance)

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