The World of Fossil Smuggling

There have been many recent palaeontological findings, such as new dinosaurs and perfectly preserved specimens, from places such as China and Mongolia. These countries do not allow fossils to be exported and taken from them, and this has led to a lot of fossil smuggling and theft.

This could lead to a slow decline in new understanding in palaeontology; museums will obviously not display or even have in their archives illegal fossils. In order for a fossil to make it on display in any museum, it must be backtracked to origin. Any dodgy dealings along the way will not be tolerated and the institution will reject the specimen if it is found to be illegitimate. Museums are filled with equipment and researchers, so illegal fossils aren’t investigated as well as they should be if at all. Many collectors that buy stolen fossils will not care about the science behind it- simply its exotic origin and appearance.

Also, in the countries where fossil laws are strict, skilled government palaeontologists are appointed to carefully excavate newly discovered fossils, where they can then be removed properly and studied in depth. Fossil smugglers will very often hurry to remove the fossil from the ground, as to not get caught, and damage the specimen. This means that important features of the animal can be greatly damaged.

Furthermore, selling fossils (if you get the good ones) can get you millions of pounds, whereas giving them to science will get you credit and possibly your name on the scientific paper. To a lot of people, the latter is not that important and a couple of million is hard to say no to. Recently, a commercial fossil dealer had been taken to court for importing several fossils into the USA; namely a Tarbosaurus. This creature comes only from Mongolia, which forbids fossil export. When the dinosaur came up in an auction catalogue, the Mongolian government pressed charges. This dealer is now in a lot of trouble for customs violations relating to the value and stated identity of the objects being imported.

Vital information about the fossils can also be lost along the way with smugglers. The smugglers want keep quiet the place of origin of the specimens, for obvious reasons, and that means that all geological history is taken from that animal. It’s like taking a phrase out of context; all you are left with are the bare bones with no understanding as to where they come from. Boring as geology can be, it is incredibly important, almost the foundations of palaeontology, as it allows us to understand what the Earth was like when these creatures were alive.

Finally, a small tale that sums up why fossil smuggling can be so detrimental to science: In 1999, National Geographic published an article on the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. The article was titled: “Feathers for T. rex?”. It showed the ‘new discovery’ of Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, which had actually been smuggled out of China and brought by the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah for $80000. The funny part is that it doesn’t exist- the fossil was a fake- a mish-mash of several species of Microraptor and Yarornis. No one knows if this fake was meant to be a scientific fraud but it was more likely to have been created to take the fancy of an unsuspecting fossil collector.

And that’s why you should never smuggle fossils, kids!GE DIGITAL CAMERA


‘The Week’ magazine, March 2013 issue


About danniteboul

Palaeobiologist at the University of Portsmouth- Undergrad 20 years old Follow: @danniteboul
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