Tyrannosaurus Skeleton Is Truly Mongolian, Experts Say

By Amir Khan on June 11, 2012 9:00 AM EDT

Tyrannosaurus
A dinosaur skeleton auctioned in the United States is at the center of a custody battle after being claimed by Mongolia (Photo: Reuters)

A relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, auctioned for more than $1 million in late May by Heritage Auctions for $1.5 million, is truly Mongolian, experts said on Friday. While a court case is still pending, the announcement means the specimen was likely removed illegally and still belongs to Mongolia.

"We have pulled a lot of them out of the ground and seen a lot of others come out of the ground, and in our professional opinion it is from Mongolia," Mark Norell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, told LiveScience.  

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Under Mongolian law, fossils found in the country are the exclusive property of Mongolia. Heritage Auctions completed the sale pending a court decision, and if a court rules that the specimen is indeed Mongolian, it would have to be returned to the country.

"There is no legal mechanism (nor has there been for over 50 years) to remove vertebrate fossil material from Mongolia," Norell said in May. "These specimens are the patrimony of the Mongolian people and should be in a museum in Mongolia."

Norell, alongside two Mongolian paleontologists, examined the 8-foot high, 24-foot long Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton, named Tarbosaurus, and said it's definitely a Mongolian specimen.

"I have no doubt that the Tarbasaurus bataar will be returned to Mongolia," Puntsag Tsagaan, senior adviser to Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, said, according to the Huffington Post. He went on to say that returning the skeleton to Mongolia would not only foster good relations between the U.S. and Mongolia but would also send a message to "bad guys, those who illegally excavate fossils and sell them on the black market."

Heritage Auctions has cooperated with Mongolian officials throughout the investigation, according to LiveScience, but would not comment on the expert's announcement.

"It would be premature for us to comment on a paleontological opinion we have neither seen nor had time to study," Jim Halperin, co-chairman and co-founder of Heritage Auctions, told LiveScience. ""Heritage will continue to assist the ongoing efforts to achieve a fair and amicable resolution."

The skeleton is approximately 75 percent complete, the experts said, but is missing teeth and claws which poachers will often remove, Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta, who investigated the specimen alongside Norell, told Livescience.

"There is a lot of restoration done on the bones to make them look good, but when you look closely at it you can see there is a lot of plaster restoration towards the ends of the bone, a lot of the processes [protrusions] are broken or chipped off and gone."

Ultimately, the lawsuit is beneficial because it brings awareness to the issue of fossil smuggling into the limelight Kirk Johnson, chief curator and vice president for research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, told LiveScience.

"The fact it is here means a law was broken," he said. "Mongolia owns all its fossils, not like the U.S., where people can dig up fossils on their private land and own them."

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