Psst … Hey, Buddy, You Wanna Buy a Dinosaur?

The state of the universe.
Jan. 9 2013 4:45 AM

The Million-Dollar Dinosaur Scandal

Meet the crooks, smugglers, and counterfeiters who run the most brazen fossil scams.

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The investigation revealed that the origin of the bones had been obscured by shipping them from Great Britain to the United States labeled as assorted reptile fossils. By June 22, Prokopi was identified as the dealer, and the skeleton had been seized by the United States government. Though it is still bound by red tape, the dinosaur soon may be returned home to Mongolia.

Tarbosaurus Bataar.
Tarbosaurus Bataar.

Andreas Meyer/Hemera/Thinkstock.

Sadly, the other dinosaur fossils in the same auction were sold off without much attention. Still, inspired by the controversy, paleontologist Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London halted the auction of a Tarbosaurus leg at Christie’s that was scheduled for about the same time. Barrett had noticed the leg in the window of the South Kensington auction house and contacted Christie’s, which informed the owner that the specimen was questionable. The lot was pulled from sale, and, Barrett says, is presumably still with its U.K. owner.

Such simple actions may help deter illegal and illicit fossil sales. “I'd say it's just a case of staying vigilant, helping auction houses know about the legality of the specimens they handle, and in some cases attempting to persuade owners of their responsibilities,” Barrett told me. Private owners may not even know where their prize came from, how it was collected, or whether any laws were broken in the process. Repatriation, however, is hard to enforce. Unless there’s some kind of illegal activity, such as a customs violation, Barrett said, where an illicit fossil ends up depends on the whim of the owners.

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Prokopi wasn’t so lucky. His defense crumbled as it became clear through early court proceedings that he had tried to hide the dinosaur by lying about what kind of bones he had and claiming the fossils were found and collected legally in England. Customs violations were the smuggler’s undoing.

Following his guilty plea, details about Prokopi’s dealings have started to trickle out. The Tampa Bay Times characterized him as a passionate Indiana Jones who followed his dream. What the sympathetic reporter didn’t understand, though, was that Prokopi actively undermined legitimate paleontology. He fueled a black market that robs specimens from science and the public alike.

We can’t learn anything from a Tarbosaurus that stands in a millionaire’s mansion. And contrary to what you might expect, relatively abundant dinosaurs like Tarbosaurus are important exactly because so many have been found. By comparing multiple specimens, even cutting up fossil bones to get a look at the microstructure of bone or drilling geochemical samples from them, researchers can get a better idea of how dinosaurs grew up, how they varied as individuals, and other intricate details about dinosaur biology. Dinosaur bones are not just static objects to be left on the shelf. The more individuals of a species we have, the better we can reconstruct how they lived and accurately portray the evolution and biology of these animals, whether in museum displays or movies.

Dinosaurs that make their way to the auction block are often showpieces, sold without information. The geologic context of a dinosaur—which is destroyed by fossil thieves and smugglers—allows paleontologists to properly identify the age of the animal, and the position of the bones in death can illustrate how it died or what happened to the body after death. As paleontologist Jack Horner put it in his book Dinosaur Lives, “A dinosaur out of context is like a character without a story. Worse than that, the character suffers from amnesia.”

The international market for unusual fossil specimens damages science in other ways as well. Some sellers create forgeries and chimeras. The croc-snouted dinosaur Irritator got its name because a fossil dealer glued extraneous bones to the dinosaur’s skull to make it look more complete than it was. Paleontologists were able to catch that fake, but researchers can be fooled by fancy fossils with murky backstories, as in the case of a fossil cheetah skull described in a PNAS paper that was retracted last year. The skull was artificially enhanced, and the lack of locality data meant that no one could be sure where it fit in the big picture of cat evolution.

Even the venerable National Geographic gave undue attention to a faked fossil. (I should mention that I blog about paleontology for the magazine’s Phenomena website.) In the fall of 1999, the magazine heralded “Archaeoraptor” as a significant evolutionary stage in the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. The animal seemed to exhibit a mixture of traits from early birds and their dinosaur predecessors, fitting within the pattern of authentic feathered dinosaurs that were just beginning to be described in the peer-reviewed literature.

But the origins and identity of “Archaeoraptor” were shady from the start. The fossil had been purchased for $80,000 from a commercial dealer at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and was supposed to go to the tiny Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah, run by artists Stephen and Sylvia Czerkas. They reached out to professional paleontologist Phil Currie, who contacted National Geographic to suggest a story. It quickly became clear that the fossil had been illegally exported from China. Even worse, further preparation of the slab and CT scans by fossil imaging expert Tim Rowe suggested that “Archaeoraptor” was a composite of at least two different fossils.

The Czerkases denied that their prize could be a fake, going so far as to submit manuscripts about the fossil to Nature and Science to legitimize the find, but the journals wouldn’t touch the hot fossil. National Geographic went ahead with its publication and press conference. Shortly after, paleontologist Xu Xing, an expert on feathered dinosaurs, confirmed that “Archaeoraptor” was pieced together from different animals, later identified as including the nonavian dinosaur Microraptor and the early bird Yanornis.

A few months later, after an internal investigation, National Geographic recanted and admitted that “Archaeoraptor” was a fraud. The magazine’s confession was admirable, but the hype around the controversial chimera gave ammunition to creationists and those who stubbornly insist that birds cannot be dinosaurs. Authentic, well-studied fossils have confirmed over and over again that birds are just one kind of dinosaur, but fundamentalists still trot out “Archaeoraptor” to insist that the scientific community cannot be trusted. Black market fossils can hurt science in an unfortunate array of ways.