Utah dinosaur sold to Japan

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In September 2001, newspapers in Utah publicised an upcoming lawsuit which alleged that the defendants stole the skeleton of a meat-eating dinosaur, Allosaurus, from a site on Bureau of Land Management property in Utah, and later sold the specimen to a Japanese museum for US$400 000. Allosaurus was a 12-metre long theropod, whose remains have been found at several late Jurassic sites throughout Utah and Wyoming. Although some species are well known, there are still ongoing scientific studies of Allosaurus which makes any new discovery an important one for scientists trying to figure out just how many different species of Allosaurus roamed around North America 180 million years ago.

The defendants, Barry and April James, claimed that they legally bought the skeleton from a Utah fossil dealer, and had the paperwork to prove it. Mr James, a teacher with a master's degree in vertebrate palaeontology, and his wife run a company called 'Prehistoric Journeys', which sells fossils and fossil replicas to museums. In addition to the charges of theft, Federal prosecutors filed a US$2.1 million civil suit against the Jameses, arguing that the couple hired someone to excavate the dinosaur skeleton. They contend that Barry James first heard about the dinosaur in 1991, when a Rocky Barney took him to the excavation site. There, the two discussed removing the fossil, including the legality of removing fossils from Federal land.

'A professional excavation by legitimate palaeontologists would have taken six months. Instead, amateurs using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows dug it up in nine days,' said Don Johnson, head of the FBI office in Salt Lake City. Investigators say the fossil is worth US$700 000, but that James bought it for a mere US$90 000 and sold it for US$400 000.

The Japanese museum that bought the specimen did not know it was an illegal export, and was not charged.

Other Allosaurus bones had previously been stolen from a very famous fossil site, the Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry in Utah. This quarry, first worked in 1927, was designated a natural landmark in 1967 and is now under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. In September 1996, someone broke into the visitor centre at the quarry and stole specimens of Allosaurus as well as the large sauropod Apatosaurus. In October 1996, the Emery County Sheriff's Office and the Bureau of Land Management offered a US$5000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person or persons involved in the theft.

Our visit to Utah was the perfect opportunity for me to interview Dr Scott Sampson. Scott is one of North America's up-and-coming young dinosaur palaeontologists. A veteran of many field expeditions, he cut his professional teeth excavating and studying the great horned dinosaurs in Montana, naming several new genera including Einiosaurus and Achelousaurus. His expeditions to collect and study Gondwana dinosaurs in South Africa and Madagascar have resulted in some spectacular finds which have proved crucial to our understanding of dinosaur biogeography. Among his teams' discoveries was one of the most perfectly preserved theropod skulls found to date, Majungatholus, which featured on the cover of Science magazine on 15 May 1998 (Sampson et al. 1998).

Scott had only just taken up the position of Vertebrate Palaeontology Curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History. He gave me a tour of his collections, pointing out all the great material he had to work with that had been collected from Utah. He then showed me some of the original bones collected from the new sites in Madagascar. These included another spectacular new find, a dinosaur with a whorl of protruding teeth at the front of its mouth, Masiakosaurus knopfleri, named after Mark Knopfler, whose music the field team loved. This was a beast so bizarre that its reconstruction made the cover of Nature magazine (Sampson et al. 2001). When I held this beautiful lower jaw, a 68-million-year-old bone that came from a large, lurking predator, the first thing I noticed was the absence of most of the teeth. Two teeth were still preserved in their sockets and the rest of the jaw was in pristine condition, so where were all the teeth?

Scott told me that they had a National Geographic film crew with them during the excavation of this dinosaur. It was late in the afternoon and the sun's light was rapidly fading, but they didn't want to take away all the bones until filming was complete. The plan was to wait until first light next morning, film the bones in situ, then remove the specimens and wrap them up. To their surprise, the next morning they found that the lower jaw, which only the night before had been resplendent with all its razor-sharp serrated teeth, was now almost toothless! All but two of the teeth had been forcefully removed from the jaw.

Who did this? Scott could only tell me that a certain French fossil dealer, who had had previous dealings in Madagascar, had been spotted in the nearby town when they were there. The most likely explanation is that somebody paid some of the locals to remove the teeth from the jaws. We can't point the finger at anyone in particular as having been behind this theft, but the desecration of a carefully excavated site, discovered by a professional team and about to be recorded on film for all posterity, is to me morally repugnant. Scott told me he wasn't too happy about it either at the time.

I asked Scott how the commercialisation of fossils had affected his regular palaeontological field work. He said that some of his old sites were becoming less accessible to work. Commercial dealers now paid landowners generous fees to allow them to search, fees the government institutions couldn't match, so they couldn't dig on the sites they had been working for years. In some cases commercial diggers are paying landowners for digging rights to newly discovered sites, thus denying scientists access to the sites. One example is that of a newly-discovered Cambrian site in southern Utah which is yielding beautiful fossil arthropods and soft-bodied fauna, similar in quality to the famous Burgess Shale site in British Columbia and Chengjiang in Yunnan, China. Unfortunately, because the land is privately owned, the site is now under the control of dealers and the material is being collected without scientists being able to study the site first hand. The potential loss of important scientific information here is enormous, as dealers search mainly for commercially valuable specimens, ignoring microfauna or insignificant-looking, scrappy fossils, which can sometimes be juveniles (larvae), representing the growth stages of the adult forms. Such specimens are invaluable in helping to determine evolutionary lineages through studies of growth variations in species.

Scott expressed his real concern about this situation to me, but shrugged his shoulders when I asked him what could be done about it. 'Nothing,' he said. The laws in Utah clearly favour the landowner above scientific endeavour. I thanked Scott for his time, and for lunch, and took a stroll through the beautiful campus of the University before heading back to the hotel.

I looked up the online catalogue of the dealers that were selling material from the southern Utah Cambrian site. I was amazed at what was on offer. For US$12 999 (as at March 2002) I could buy a complete specimen of the giant Cambrian arthropod Anomalocaris. This beast, first recognised from the Burgess Shale site, has been found recently in Australia, but there are very few relatively complete specimens. This being so, I believe that the sale of these specimens should be restricted by law until the full scientific significance of their site of origin has been properly documented. If this is not done, the context of the specimen within its stratigraphic framework, an intrinsic part of its value (to a scientist at least), remains unknown.

As I was finishing this book I received an email from Scott (27 March 2002) adding a final footnote to the situation in Utah.

Just found out yesterday that one of our new sites in southern Utah was just vandalised, with some bones stolen. This is a real tragedy since the site is producing a single disarticulated skeleton of a new ceratopsid and thus will be a Holotype specimen. The authorities think they know who it is and will try to go after him . . .

I was deeply saddened by Scott's email, but at least the perpetrators may be caught before they destroy too many more sites.

My interview with Scott would have to be my last for the time being, as my leave had run out. I headed back to Australia; Alan and the team were bound for South Dakota and some more interviews.

Fred and Candy Nuss love fossils. They seize any opportunity they can to get out and search for them, and look forward to finding that elusive big dinosaur skeleton. They have already found one partial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton and the skeletons of two oviraptorosaurs, both on private land in South Dakota.

The team went out to the dig site with the Nusses. Driving through the eroding badlands of South Dakota, they could almost smell the dinosaur bones coming out of the gullies and creek beds. The Hell Creek Formation is a Late Cretaceous rock formation (around 65-67 million years old) that represents the most accurate record we have of the end of the reign of dinosaurs. It was a time when the giants, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and the mighty duck-billed hadrosaurs, roamed a landscape full of ferns, pines and early flowering plants, such as magnolias.

Fred and Candy both have day jobs, but since they began serious fossil prospecting they have found some very valuable specimens. Alan asked Fred why he loved fossil hunting.

I have a day or so of walking . . . approximately where I'm standing here, you can see how honeycombed the piece [bone] is, a sure sign of a Mr Rex or Mrs Rex. Everybody wants a T. rex. And, if we get lucky a little bit, we'll find where this piece comes from, and there'll be three or four more, which will lead us to ten more, which leads us to 50 more, and after a hundred bones we'll have

30 per cent of the animal. Everybody's looking and everyone wants to make a million bucks.'

Fred did find a partial T. rex skeleton some years ago. It made him reflect on his life, and he spends most of his time now as a professional dinosaur hunter. His biggest discovery to date is two oviraptorosaur skeletons.

Oviraptor was a small, toothless dinosaur first discovered in the 1920s by the Roy Chapman Andrews expeditions at the famous Gobi Desert sites in Mongolia. It had a crested head and its skull was about the size of a baseball. The first skeletons were found surrounded by broken dinosaur eggs, and the assumption was that these dinosaurs had probably stolen the eggs to eat them, hence the name Oviraptor (egg stealer). When the American Museum of Natural History expeditions led by Mark Norrell went back to Mongolia in the 1990s, they found more skeletons of Oviraptor associated with complete, undamaged eggs. It was then discovered that the dinosaurs were brooding over their own nests. These finds gave us one of the most remarkable insights into dinosaur behaviour.

Fred and Candy Nuss' skeletons were of a much bigger beast, something more than three times the size of the Mongolian species. On reflecting how one lucky find can change your life, Fred said:

A lot of people say 'Oh Fred, you're lucky' but, you know, you don't find them sitting at home or sitting around in a field or looking out the pickup, you just gotta do it. Sometimes you wonder why you're even doing it. Everybody else is in the modern world and I'm still digging in the dirt.

It gets under your blood and you just enjoy it. Sometimes you don't get anything but there's always next year, God willing.

It's just one afternoon over one hill, underneath one rock, can change it. Of course, if you get hit by a rattlesnake that can change it too.

The skeletons were of a giant Oviraptor-like dinosaur and the Nusses brought in their friend Mike Triebold, a fossil dealer based in Colorado, to help them prepare and market the specimens for sale. Mike put in countless hours of detailed preparation.

'This is a composite of the two skeletons that Fred found,' he said, standing next to the towering resin skeleton in his workshop. And fortunately what the first one didn't have the second one did have and they were almost exactly the same size.'

Mike didn't want to discuss the price put on the specimens. As they represent a new genus, the buyer will have naming rights to the new dinosaur. Alan asked Fred about the value of the specimens and how he felt about their being sold.

We've had it priced at [US] $960,000—for the two Oviraptor skeletons and one reproduction, standing, and we would like these to be donated here in the United States, because of the good scientific value that they have, and to be studied here.

There are certain things in the fossil business that you want to respect, the science. And those things are scientific, they're exciting. I mean people can learn something!

Mike Triebold had this to say about the significance of the oviraptor skeleton:

From the scientific standpoint, it's important. And from the marketing standpoint it has great potential too. So both of these things in one skeleton is a real coup. And this has it. That's why it's the chicken from hell!

It's easy to see why Mike dubbed the specimen 'the chicken from hell'. It has very bird-like features, yet its large size and sharp curved claws definitely give it that Nightmare on Elm Street look. When I first saw it in Tucson, it made me drool. It would be a great specimen to study, one which could certainly tell us a lot of new things about dinosaur evolution.

Alan asked Mike Triebold what he wanted for the specimens.

It doesn't matter where the money comes from, whether it's a private donor to a museum or if it's a private purchaser of the specimen, or if it's a museum with their own patrons who purchase the specimen. The most important thing is they end up in a permanent repository where they would become part of the world's body of knowledge of dinosaurs. That's important to us.

A final word from Mike Triebold about the amount of time and effort that professional dinosaur dealers must put in to get a specimen ready for sale: Mike told Alan of a Triceratops skeleton that took some 15 000 man hours, from the time of its discovery in the ground, for the fully-prepared, mounted skeleton to be ready for sale.

'Well, put a pen to that and that's got to sell for a lot of money or you'll go broke in a hurry,' said Mike. In a later statement he said, 'Actually I did a calculation one time and on a typical elephant-sized dinosaur we make about as much as the local car repair shop.'

Most of us work a standard 37.5 hour week in Australia, which would mean investing eight years exclusively on one specimen that you then must sell to recover your investment of time and money in getting it ready for sale. At say a minimum professional salary of around AU$40 000 per year that's AU$320 000 before you've started to think about preparation materials and field costs (add another AU$140 000 for resins, vehicle hires, casual salaries, tools, metal framework and welding, and so on), so the specimen would have to sell for at least AU$460 000, just to break even. Add to this the value of all the time and effort expended in finding the thing, and the fact that you have a complete skeleton of a real dinosaur, and its value as a specimen becomes a complex issue.

A final reflection. When people ask me how much a fossil is worth, I sometimes ask them to reflect for a moment on the effort that went into collecting it. After twelve expeditions to the remote Kimberley district in Western Australia, I have found only one specimen of some species of fossil fishes. Add up the costs of twelve field trips to the Kimberley, vehicle hire, my salaried time and the preparation costs involved (time, chemicals and technical assistants' salaries), and that's your base cost for possibly getting a specimen of one of those rare species, if you are lucky.

Alan and the team were now heading for China, home of the world's largest black-market industry in fossils. It was risky business probing into the collection and illegal export of specimens, as it soon became clear that some powerful people were involved in fossil smuggling.

Chinese Fossil Frauds

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  • verdiana
    Why are dinosaur bones honeycombed?
    9 years ago

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