Feds To Seize Mongolian Tyrannosaurus Skeleton On Friday

By Amir Khan on June 21, 2012 9:08 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)

On Friday, federal officials will seize the $1.5 million tyrannosaurus skeleton that has been at the center of a custody battle for months. A federal judge signed a warrant allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations officials to seize the skeleton and hold it until a legal ruling is made.

"It's a big package we have to pick up," Luis Martinez, spokesman for ICE, told Yahoo News. "We will keep it at a government location until we can repatriate it to Mongolia. Of course that all depends on the legal outcome."

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Heritage Auctions sold the 8-foot high, 24-foot long Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton for $1.5 million to an undisclosed buyer, in May, but Mongolia, where the skeleton was found, claims the skeleton as its own property.

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," Mark Norell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, told LiveScience in May. "These specimens are the patrimony of the Mongolian people and should be in a museum in Mongolia."

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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