August 5, 2009

New Technique Hopes To Track Down Fossil Thieves

A new technique might help locate looters who stole from Utah's collection of dinosaur bones, according to the Associated Press.

In addition to making off with several valuable bones, the thieves also took hidden clues about a diplodocus dinosaur that walked the Earth 150 million years ago.

"It's like pieces of a puzzle that are now gone," said Scott Williams, collections and exhibits manager at the Burpee Museum of Natural History.

The bones were taken from the site near Hanksville last fall.

Stolen dinosaur bones that are taken from federally owned land frequently end up in living rooms, black markets or private collections.

However, a new forensic technique, similar to DNA fingerprinting, might give investigators a tool in hunting the fossil thieves.

Researchers are working on methods created to match chemical signatures of elements that sink into bones during fossilization.

The new process may one day lead to a database of regional "fingerprints" used to connect bones to plundered areas. Early signs are hopeful that the method could be used in tracking those making a profit from the looted fossils, said Dennis Terry, a researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"I really hope we can make use of this to deter the ones out there really trying to make a profit from this," said Terry, who is collaborating on the project with Temple researcher David Grandstaff.

The method will continue to undergo testing in Wyoming this summer. It has been worked on since 2005 at Nebraska National Forest, which has seen its share of thievery. Thus far, results show that the testing could connect 85 to 98% of fossil samples to their initial sites.

Terry is talking with officials at South Dakota's Badlands National Park about developing a database of the park's most sought after sites.

"So often we catch people with fossils in their car or something like that but we can't prove they were collected in the park," said Rachel Benton, a paleontologist at Badlands.

Fossil theft is a normal reality for paleontologists on federal land who say the fossils have extremely rare data in trying to form the history of ancient life.

"We're not making T-rexes any more," said Vincent Santucci, who leads the National Park Service's paleontology programs.

There are also legally gathered fossils removed from private land with consent from the owner of the land.

A 150-million-year-old dryosaurus dug up on private land in Wyoming was auctioned in 2009 with a minimum bid of $300,000.

"People are making a living off of selling resources that belong to the American public," said Scott Foss, who heads BLM's paleontological efforts in Utah, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

In Utah, the losses can be spectacular, said Jim Kirkland, the state paleontologist. He is horrified that thieves will plunder a site before scientists can comb through it.

"I lose sleep over stuff like that," said Kirkland.

The last national park survey noted that more than 700 occurrences of fossil theft happened in 1995-98.

For paleontologists, there is a general feeling of helplessness. Once word gets out about a new fossil site, it will be plundered.

"You can't live there 365 days a year, 24 hours a day," said Brooks Britt, a paleontologist with Brigham Young University.

At Badlands, rangers are using remote cameras and sensors more than they used to, said Mark Gorman, the chief law enforcement officer.

He is wishing that a new law signed by President Obama in March that increased penalties for fossil burglars will start to work.

Barbara Beasley, a paleontologist at the forest, welcomes any aid in stopping the stealing.

"Anytime anyone uncovers a fossil, they are very first human to every to see that and attached to that is a major responsibility making sure we do justice to the specimen," she said.


Image Caption: Skull of Diplodocus from Bone-Cabin Quarry, north of Medicine Bow, Wyoming (1915).


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