Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Scientists Fear Fossil Bounty Hunters Will Spur Price War

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Scientists Fear Fossil Bounty Hunters Will Spur Price War

Article excerpt

SAN FRANCISCO -- Sixty-eight million years ago, Cinderella stomped around the humid swamps and forests of Montana, her 10-foot-high shoulders knocking off tree branches as she pursued small mammals and other four-legged snacks.

She was a 35-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex, the king of the dinosaurs well known to Jurassic Park fans. In her day she was Earth's leanest, meanest and hungriest fighting machine.

Nowadays her scant remains, and those of her fellow dinosaurs, are so enormously prized that they attract high prices, at potential risk to the low-budget science of dinosaur research. Complete dinosaur skeletons command prices in the millions, a temptation that encourages thieves.

Five years ago, someone sneaked into an office at the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California at Berkeley, surreptitiously opened a file drawer and swiped the sole proof that Cinderella -- as Berkeley scientists have dubbed her -- had ever lived: a 2-foot chunk of her jawbone.

Then, it appears, the thief sold Cinderella's jawbone and plaster copies of it.

The recent recovery of the fossil in Europe by the FBI renewed scientific fear that a federal proposal to open public lands to fossil bounty hunters could create a price war, blocking scientists' access to quality bones.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is studying possible impacts of letting fossil hunters sell bones found on federal lands, as advocated by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

These fossils now must be turned over to approved repositories such as museums.

"Some of us in the field of paleontology have been oblivious to this (threat) because to us, these fossils are research items, or are used in teaching or public education," said David Lindberg, director of the Berkeley museum. "And all of a sudden, we've realized we're sitting on a small Fort Knox."

A few years ago, Sotheby's auctioned off a near-complete T. rex skeleton for $8 million.

The scientific community breathed a sigh of relief when the investors turned it over to the Field Museum in Chicago, but fear that future fossil-robber barons may not show such public spirit. …

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