Dinosaur Skeleton sold at Auction was Obtained Illegally

The Tyrannosaur skeleton sold at an auction in New York on Sunday May 20th was obtained illegally from Mongolia, experts claim.  The Tyrannosaur specimen, an eight metre long, mounted fossil skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar (otherwise known as Tyrannosaurus bataar due to its close affinity to the North American super predator), was sold for the sum of $1,052,500 USD (£630,000), but the sale has proved controversial as the unauthorised excavation and removal of fossil material from Mongolia, where the fossil was assumed to have originated from, has been illegal for fifty years.

To read about the specimen up for auction: Tyrannosaur fossil goes under the hammer in New York

A team of North American and Mongolian palaeontologists who were given access to the fossils, safely secure in storage after the sale, have pronounced that this dinosaur was taken out of Mongolia, most likely within the last decade.

Mark Norell, a palaeontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, who was one of the first to speculate on the validity of the sale commented:

“We have pulled a lot of them out of the ground [Tyrannosaur fossils] and seen a lot of others come out of the ground, and in our professional opinion it is from Mongolia.”

As well as American Museum of Natural History staff, Phil Currie, from the University of Alberta and an authority on Tyrannosaur remains from China and Mongolia was called in to study the fossil bones.  The two Mongolian palaeontologists agreed with their North American colleagues, this particular Tyrannosaur came from, most probably, the Nemegt Formation, of Upper Cretaceous aged strata, found in the Mongolian portion of the vast Gobi desert.

The Controversial Tyrannosaur Specimen

Out of Mongolia – probably in the last ten years or so

Picture Credit: Heritage Auctions

To read more about the controversial auction: Tyrannosaur Bites Back!

Team members at Everything Dinosaur, signed a petition to try to prevent the sale of the specimen in the first place back in May, a spokesperson for the UK dinosaur company stated:

“We were confident that the specimen had come from Asia and if that was the case then we concluded that in all likelihood this specimen had been obtained illegally.  It should not be sold but returned to the Mongolian Government as it is the property of the  Mongolian people”.

The specimen was put up for auction by a UK based private collector, it is not clear how this finding will affect the sale of the mounted specimen.  An anonymous bidder paid more than $1 million USD for the Tyrannosaur, but this was on condition that the sale was approved by a U.S. court.  Earlier on in the proceedings, the Mongolian President intervened and tried, unsuccessfully to prevent the auction going ahead.

An advisor to the President stated that following this investigation:

“I have no doubt that the Tarbosaurus bataar will be returned to Mongolia.”

This would be the outcome that staff at Everything Dinosaur would like to see. The fossil specimen being returned to Mongolia where it, and others like it can be studied by that country’s scientists.  Hopefully, this development will send a strong message to fossil poachers about excavating and selling specimens on the black market.

The New York auction house that handled the original sale, Heritage Auctions; has co-operated with the investigation and has been keen to distance itself from any alleged illegal practices.

Co-Chair, and Co-Founder of the auction house, Jim Halperin said in a statement:

“It would be premature for us to comment on a palaeontological opinion we have neither seen nor had time to study.  Heritage will continue to assist the on-going efforts to achieve a fair and amicable resolution.”

Just how do palaeontologists determine the origins of a specimen when it has been prepared and removed?  There are a number of tell-tale clues that experts can follow to help them identify the origins of a particular dinosaur fossil, or indeed  any fossil vertebrate and to a large extent fossilised invertebrates too.

When bone fossilises, especially in a fossilisation process called permineralisation, the organic bone is replaced by inorganic minerals from the surrounding sediment.  The white to beige colour of the fossils match those of other Tyrannosaur specimens taken from the Nemegt Formation.  Whilst scientists can not pinpoint the exact location, the colour and hue of the bones can indicate a general location.

The palaeontologist identified twelve specific characteristics of the fossilised bones that confirmed their initial thoughts that this was a Mongolian Tarbosaurus bataar.  Subtle anatomical differences and slight differences in bone shape (morphology) help scientists to distinguish between genera and species.

The “clincher” for the scientists was the discovery of tiny fragments of reddish sediment material in the cracks and fissures of the bones.  These are particles from the surrounding matrix from the excavation site.  The unique chemical “thumb print” of this sediment can help palaeontologists to provide a more exact guide as to the original fossil location.  Scientists are working on a “sediment map” that would allow all dinosaur specimens to be “tagged” by the mineral composition of their matrix, steps have already been taken to build up a database so that palaeontologists can confirm the authenticity and origins of dinosaur fossils.

As Professor Currie pointed out, the stubby arm length made it clear to him that this specimen was definitely a Tarbosaurus.  Tyrannosaurus rex, regarded as a close cousin of Tarbosaurus may be famous for having short arms, but Tarbosaurus bataar had proportionally shorter forelimbs.

The poaching of fossils out of Mongolia and neighbouring China is a growing problem, especially when the price paid for dinosaur fossils is considered.  There are strong regulations in place with fines and prison sentences for those smugglers who are caught, but when dinosaur fossils sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds, the rewards for the illegal traders can be very high.

Professor Currie went on to explain that based on his own experiences of fossil hunting in Mongolia, the T. bataar specimen was most probably subjected to two rounds of poaching.  He stated that unskilled poachers often will take the teeth and the claws off a specimen, leaving or destroying the rest.  The teeth and claws are the most valuable and portable parts of a specimen such as this, they can be sold on to collectors or even can find their way into traditional Chinese medicine cabinets.  This Tarbosaurus  bataar was missing most of its claws and teeth.

Professor Currie then added that in his opinion, the remainder of the specimen was removed by excavators with more skill, but even so, the job was not well done with a lot of damage evident on the fossil bones.

He commented:

“There is a lot of restoration done on the bones to make them look good, but when you look closely at it you can see there is a lot of plaster restoration towards the ends of the bone, a lot of the processes [protrusions] are broken or chipped off and gone.”

Most palaeontologists would like the fossil skeleton returned to Mongolia, permitting this specimen to be studied along with other Tarbosaurus remains.  However, the fate of this particular Late Cretaceous predator remains uncertain.  With the high prices paid for dinosaur fossils and the relative poverty of these who live close to the Nemegt Formation, the problem of illegal excavation and smuggling of fossil material is likely to persist for some time.

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