Sparito un dinosauro individuato da ricercatori del Cleveland Museum of Natural History che lo avevano momentaneamente copeto in attesa di estrarlo dai sedimenti.
Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, poses with a Triceratops skeleton that is half of a new dinosaur display at the museum. It is assumed that poachers took the Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton that was to face off against Triceratops, so a Tyrannosaurus rex will take its place when the exhibit opens Dec. 20.
Maybe I wasn’t paying attention and walked right by it, Michael Ryan thought.
Was it possible not to notice a cascade of broken dinosaur bones spilling down a hillside in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert? The burly Canadian fossil hunter had been chatting with a student, so maybe he had been distracted.
Ryan retraced his steps. He hiked back down into the ravine he remembered from a visit two years earlier, when he had first spotted the tantalizing bones of Tarbosaurus bataar, an Asian cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex, poking out of the sun-baked earth. Nope. Nothing there.
He double-checked the GPS coordinates. Dead-on. He tried the adjacent gully, on the chance he was off-target. Still nothing.
The bones were gone. Not a shard remained. The dinosaur skeleton Ryan had planned to painstakingly reassemble and feature as a centerpiece at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where he is head of vertebrate paleontology, had vanished, as if swallowed by the desert sands — another victim of fossil poaching.
“It would have been the most significant chunk of Tarbosaurus in North America,” Ryan said wistfully. “It’s sort of the one that got away.”
It’s impossible to say where the 65 million-year-old-plus bones ended up. There’s a thriving international black market for fossils, particularly those from developing countries that lack strict regulations and policing efforts. The Tarbosaurus skeleton may have been sold to a private collector (although it would have required extensive reconstruction). Or it may have been ground to dust for use in traditional Asian medicines.
Wherever the fossil is, its scientific and educational value is lost. Fewer than three dozen Tarbosaurus specimens exist in museums and research labs worldwide — an inadequate sample for researchers trying to learn about the diversity, behavior and lineage of this fearsome killer.
“If you only knew dogs or cats or kangaroos from 24 specimens, you wouldn’t have a very good picture of what the whole animal looked like,” Ryan said.
Dino Day at Cleveland Museum of Natural History
On Saturday, Dec. 20, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History will hold Dino Day to unveil its new Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. The full-size T. rex, a replica of the original fossil in Montana’s Museum of the Rockies, will be posed facing off against the Cleveland museum’s recently acquired Triceratops, the second-largest dinosaur of the Late Cretaceous Period.
The museum will hold several activities from noon to 4 p.m., including dinosaur craft-making, live animal displays at 1 and 3 p.m. featuring “Raptor Show” and “Dinosaur Descendants,” a 1:30 p.m. talk by fossil hunter Darin Croft, and a 2 p.m. T. rex roaring contest.
Activities are free with museum admission. The museum is at 1 Wade Oval Drive in University Circle. For details see www.cmnh.org
Some differences with T. rex
Tarbosaurus belonged to the therapod category of dinosaurs, whose upright-walking, mainly meat-eating members included the ancestors of birds. Scientists believe Tarbosaurus probably was from a different ancestral group, or genus, than T. rex, although some have argued they are more closely related — two species of Tyrannosaurus, one evolving in North America and the other in Asia between 70 million and 65 million years ago.
At about 16 feet tall, Tarbosaurus was slightly smaller than T. rex, and its arms were even shorter than T. rex’s tiny ones. Both used their long tails to counterbalance their huge heads. Tarbosaurus’ skull, up to 4 feet in length and filled with daggerlike teeth, was narrower than T. rex’s and had some structural differences.
The display space that a plaster cast of the Tarbosaurus skeleton would have occupied at the Cleveland museum will instead be filled with two recently acquired dinosaur replicas: the ever-popular T. rex, facing off against a spike-skulled Triceratops. The museum bought the skeletons (which are casts, not original fossils) from a reputable Canadian company. The exhibit opens Dec. 20.
It was another T. rex, also purchased legitimately, that demonstrated how lucrative the fossil trade can be. In 1997, the Field Museum in Chicago partnered with McDonald’s and Disney World to buy a fossil nicknamed Sue, the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found. The record-setting $8.4 million auction bid kept the bones in the public and scientific domain, but poachers no doubt took notice.
Not everyone in the poaching trade stands to make handsome profits. In fossil-rich but impoverished regions of China, Mongolia and Africa, some people scavenge for fossils as a means of survival, selling what they find to brokers for a fraction of what the bones might eventually fetch on the black market.
Trying to bridge a cultural divide
Because of cultural differences, lack of education or simply the economics of survival, they don’t take into account the specimens’ scientific value.
“It’s not like these guys are trying to buy a swimming pool or a second car,” Ryan said of the nomadic people of the Gobi. “They see us driving these big fancy trucks and taking the bones away. As rich Europeans and North Americans coming in there, it’s hard to say, ‘Thou shalt not do these things,’ because that’s what it appears we’re doing. They’re unaware that [a fossil legitimately acquired for research] never permanently leaves the country.”
During the several weeks each year that Ryan searches for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, he also speaks to schoolchildren, in hopes of breaking the generational cycle of poaching. He explains their country’s geologic history, its abundant and important fossils and the process of extracting, casting, studying and ultimately returning the specimens.
A young Mongolian paleontologist, Bolortsetseg Minjin, is taking additional steps to increase her country’s appreciation for its past. Last year she founded the nonprofit Institute for Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs in the capital city of Ulan Bator. Its goals are to help train more home-grown paleontologists, house a research lab to clean and preserve fossils and develop a museum to display dinosaur bones and other native artifacts.
Poachers had already been at work on the Tarbosaurus fossil by the time Ryan first came upon it in a national park in 2005. The thieves had hacked off its skull, hands and feet — the most profitable parts — leaving behind its smashed skeletal bones partially embedded in sand and stone. There were backbones, the pelvis with leg bones attached, ribs and teeth. About 60 percent of the fossil remained, plenty for research and display purposes.
Ryan’s crew that year was mostly adventure tourists, untrained dinosaur enthusiasts who pay to take part in science expeditions. They lacked the experience to excavate the Tarbosaurus in the time available, so Ryan reluctantly left the fossil in the ground. He checked on it the following year but again was committed to other work.
That return visit in 2006 may have rekindled the poachers’ curiosity.
“Whatever they can find that’s of interest to them, they’ll take” immediately, Ryan said. “But if you come back and express an interest in something else, they figure you must know more than they do, so they’re going to go back in and see what you’re curious about. I suspect that’s what happened here. Somebody either saw or reported that we spent part of a day reopening an old quarry, and they went back to see what was there.”
By the time Ryan got back to Mongolia with an experienced crew in August 2007, it was too late. “There wasn’t a scrap of bone left,” the scientist said.
Poachers left behind this empty vodka bottle at the Gobi Desert site where they possibly dug up a skeleton of the T. rex-like dinosaur Tarbosaurus bataar.
Signs of crude excavation workThe thieves did leave some clues: An empty bottle of vodka in the hole where the skeleton had been, cigarette butts and dozens of containers of super glue, which poachers pour over the broken bones so they can keep the pieces together.
In the past, Ryan and his colleagues have found crude, hand-made tools — a chisel fashioned from a sharpened engine rod; a hammer made of a rock duct-taped to a stick.
Such implements don’t lend themselves to careful fossil extraction. But there are signs the poachers are growing more sophisticated, trying to copy techniques the scientific crews use. Ryan has seen evidence of makeshift “field jackets,” the protective layers of plaster and burlap that paleontologists encase fossils in for transport. The poachers haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yet. “They put one layer of plaster on a 2-ton block [of rock and fossils] and flip it over, and all the bones fall out.”
Catching poachers is difficult even in a country like the United States, which has far more resources and manpower than developing nations. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s top priority is anti-terrorism, but a spokeswoman says it sometimes gets involved in fossil-poaching cases. Last year, ICE agents seized 22 dinosaur eggs from a Los Angeles auction house after they were smuggled from China.
A 2005 National Geographic magazine report on poaching documented that international fossil sales often entailed payoffs to police and customs agents.
But Ryan said Mongolia has recently tightened its export controls. The tougher rules make it more difficult for scientists to temporarily send legitimately collected specimens home for study, meaning Ryan will do more of his research work in Mongolia. But that’s a small price to pay, he said, if it gets more fossils in museums and off the black market.