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Opinion: The case of the stolen dinosaur

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Let’s go back to June 22, 2012 for a moment—the day the U.S. government arrested a dinosaur.

The dinosaur itself had not done anything wrong, of course. The creature known as Tarbosaurus bataar has not walked the Earth in 70 million years. Humans have never had anything to fear from dinosaurs like Tarbosaurus, but even in death they can still cause quite a stir. This particular dinosaur, as it turns out, was stolen.

Fossil bones belonging to Tarbosaurus, a close relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, have only ever been found in Mongolia, where the dinosaur was first discovered in 1946. Mongolia long ago enacted laws which prohibit the removal of Mongolian fossils to other countries. So when Heritage Auctions announced in 2012 that it planned to sell a nearly complete Tarbosaurus skeleton in New York City, paleontologists quickly realized the dinosaur must have been stolen and smuggled from Mongolia.

The dinosaur was sold at the New York auction, but before it could be handed over to the buyer, it was seized by the U.S. government. It was returned to the Mongolians in May of this year. The man who brought the fossil to the auction house, Eric Prokopi, pled guilty to stealing and smuggling the dinosaur into the United States. A happy ending for this case, perhaps, but also a glimpse into a serious and increasing problem for American science.

Americans have long seen the value in dinosaurs. In the days of the Wild West, paleontologists like Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Marsh used everything from disparaging journal articles to dirty tricks to beat one another at fossil collecting. As a natural resource, fossils certainly rank higher than oil, coal or natural gas in the mind of an American child. Paleontology is an American institution.

But these days, paleontology is threatened by that other American institution, the free market. Involvement of private fossil hunters has always been a part of the science. Fossil hunters were paid by paleontologists to procure dinosaur bones for study. Now, however, private buyers are interested in the dinosaurs as well, and are able to offer collectors a better price. Given the relatively recent lucrative nature of fossils, the landowners who once provided scientists with free access to Western fossil beds are only taking offers from the bone hunters who can pay.

Paleontologists often claim that private hunters do not have the expertise to collect fossils in a manner constructive to science. Furthermore, the fossils themselves are of little use to scientists if they are bought and hoarded by private, wealthy individuals and never displayed to the public. The rising price of fossils has led to very serious concerns as to whether museums can afford to purchase genuine dinosaur bones. In 1997, the Field Museum in Chicago needed support from McDonald’s and the Walt Disney Company to pay $8.36 million for a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton called “Sue.” It’s the most any museum has ever paid for a dinosaur, and probably ever will.

That’s just the open fossil market, of course. No one can know for sure what scientifically valuable finds are lost in the black market. Dinosaurs are routinely stolen, smuggled across borders, even fabricated from several different fossils and passed off as genuine. Only on occasion is law enforcement able to catch on and stop the sale of these illegal dinosaurs, as in the case of the stolen Tarbosaurus.

Paleontology has a lot to teach us still about the history of the Earth, evolution and extinction, and scientists cannot do their work effectively if the dinosaurs they study are constantly gobbled up by rich people with an interest in owning something old and cool. It is vital for American policymakers to devise a strategy to protect these fossils, not only to keep them in the careful hands of scientists, but also to keep them open to the public. American museums should be able to afford fossil displays that will capture the imagination of their visitors and hopefully keep them interested in science.

Science, imagination and the American heritage. That is what’s at stake when dinosaurs are stolen.

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