Case of the Smuggled Dino

With the help of a fossil scientist, a stolen dinosaur skeleton may go home again

June 20, 2012

This Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton waits to be sent home to Mongolia.

Last month, Mark Norell a paleontologist at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, came across an auction catalog. It featured a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton that was for sale to the highest bidder. According to the catalog, the dino was found in Great Britain. Norell knew immediately that something was wrong. This type of dinosaur, discovered in 1946, roamed the Earth some 70 million years ago in what is now Mongolia, a nation in Asia. And Norell also knew that in Mongolia it is a crime to send fossils out of the country. 

Norell wondered what the 8-foot high, 24-foot long skeleton was doing in New York City and why it was up for sale. The fossil scientist wrote a letter to other paleontologists. “As someone who is intimately familiar with [dinosaurs], these specimens were undoubtedly looted from Mongolia,” he said.

Norell’s letter reached the desk of Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the President of Mongolia. He demanded that the skeleton be returned to his country. Soon, American lawyers became involved in the case of the dinosaur skeleton, saying it had been smuggled out of Mongolia and illegally brought into the United States.

Saving the Old Bones

Attempts were made to stop the auction but it was too late. Someone had bid just over $1 million for Tyrannosaurus bataar. But the next day, the auction house agreed to hold on to the dino until the legal problems could be solved.

Five experts evaluated the skeleton. They confirmed  that it almost certainly was a Tyrannosaurus bataar that was dug up from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.  So this week,  the fossil skeleton was turned over to the United States government for safekeeping. It is being stored in a warehouse until a judge rules who owns it. Chances are excellent that Tyrannosaurus bataar will be returned to its home in Mongolia, where it once roamed the land millions of years ago.

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