The Second Life of Mongolian Dinosaur Fossils

A recovered and repatriated Ornithomimidae fossil at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs
Lydia Pyne

In downtown Ulaanbaatar, on a pedestal in the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs, stands a 70-million-year-old Tarbosaurus bataar dinosaur from the southern Gobi Desert. In 2012, the Tarbosaurus was very nearly sold at auction in New York, despite such a sale violating Mongolian law as well as a temporary restraining order by a U.S. federal judge in Dallas.

Five years and 6,000 miles later, that very same dinosaur fossil found itself back in Mongolia, now an icon symbolizing Mongolian and American efforts to combat the illicit fossil trade in Central Asia. As I walked through the dimmed entry hall backlit with the museum’s name in lights, it occurred to me that the long-dead and almost-trafficked dinosaur has a lot of life left to live.

Ever since the 1997 sale of Sue for a then-unprecedented $7.6 million, fossils have proven to be an extremely lucrative luxury market. For buyers interested in owning prehistoric natural objects, dinosaur fossils like skulls and complete skeletons can add an impressive bit of the Cretaceous to their portfolios. In the 21st-century high-end collectors’ market, fossils from Mongolia and China, in particular, are challenging the international community’s ethical response to fossil trafficking. Ever since the return of that first Tarbosaurus, thanks to the Herculean efforts of the Mongolian paleontologist Bolortsetseg “Bolor” Minjin, dozens and dozens of other dinosaur fossils have been seized by ICE and sent back to Mongolia.

“Sending the fossils back” is really just a new beginning for these repatriated fossils.

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Through the efforts of Bolortsetseg and other fossil activists, the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, a nonprofit organization in Ulaanbaatar, works with U.S. and Mongolian agencies to help return Mongolian fossils before they eventually go on display at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. Bolortsetseg and her colleagues consider education and outreach, as well as museum curation, to be an integral part of Mongolia’s successful fossil-repatriation program, whether through new dinosaur museums in Ulaanbaatar or driving a mobile museum with casts of fossils to rural parts of Mongolia.

At the museum, the fossils are important objects that teach visitors about Mongolia’s deep natural history and paleo past. According to UNESCO, the Gobi is the world’s largest “fossil reservoir.” Scientists have discovered something like 80 different dinosaur genera in the desert from over 60 known fossil sites. Although other parts of the world, like the Rocky Mountain region in the western United States and Canada, have spectacular fossils, those found in the Gobi are particularly prized because the fossils are so well preserved, allowing researchers to see tiny details on the fossils, like marks of blood vessels and nerves. The spectacular preservation also means that the Gobi can boast an inordinate number of fossil species, both large and small, plant and animal, all of which offer scientists the opportunity to study ancient ecosystems.

The Tarbosaurus bataar fossil that was recovered from a New York auction in 2012 (Lydia Pyne)

For decades, Russian, Polish, Chinese, and American paleontologists have come to the southern stretches of the Gobi’s arid Nemegt Basin to excavate dinosaur—and other—fossils. (The interest in the area traces back to the 1920s, when the American Museum of Natural History explorer Roy Chapman Andrews showed the world Mongolia’s fossil-rich deposits, including the first example of dinosaur eggs.) The first Tarbosaurus fossils were discovered in the 1940s and the species was officially named by Soviet paleontologist Evgeny Maleev in 1955; the Tarbosaurus bataar is an evolutionary cousin to the well-known Tyrannosaurus rex. By the time Tarbosaurus started hitting American auctions in the 21st century, however, it was long understood in the scientific community as a uniquely Mongolian dinosaur (despite some specimens being found in China) thanks to its uniquely Mongolian geological context.

The Tarbosaurus that sparked Mongolia’s repatriation revolution stands eight feet tall, measures 24 feet from tail to snout, and arrived back in Ulaanbaatar in 2013. Both the Tyrannosaurs and Tarbosaurs are apex predators, sporting fierce teeth and meme-ically comic forearms—both are some of the most charismatically identifiable species of the late Cretaceous, striking a perfect balance of awe and inspiration to museums and collectors the world over.

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SOURCE: The Atlantic, Lydia Pyne