Friday, July 11, 2014

Dinosaur Fossils Seized in New York Returned to Mongolia

The fossils of more than 18 dinosaurs were repatriated to Mongolia Thursday after a joint investigation by federal prosecutors and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unearthed an illegal bone collector’s cache.

Among the treasures from the Cretaceous and Cenozoic eras were a pair of twenty-foot-long Tyrannosauruses, a Labrador-sized Protoceratops and a family of birdlike Oviraptors.

“It’s a haul sufficient to stock a natural-history museum,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara of the “vast inventory” of fossils reclaimed from commercial paleontologist Eric Prokopi.

He was sentenced last week to three months in prison for his role in the illegal trade of more than 30 fossils.

In addition to the two Tyrannosaurus Bataar—slightly smaller cousins of the Tyrannosaurus Rex—Mongolian officials took several prehistoric turtles, a composite fossilized egg, and several Gallimimus, ancient ostrichlike reptiles best known for their dramatic CGI stampede in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

“They’re very, very important,” said Dr. Mark Norell, who heads the paleontology division of the Museum of Natural History and has spent 25 years in the Gobi desert finding fossils. “They will make a real difference in the way that we understand not only these animals, but dinosaurs world-wide.”

Thursday’s ceremony was the second time in as many years a Tyrannosaurus skeleton has been returned to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capitol. When the U.S. repatriated its first Tarbosaurus skeleton last May, the 70-million-year-old fossil became a minor national celebrity, inspiring a colorful children’s book.

Though it took time, the children’s book explained, “In the end the American judge made a decision that the dinosaur Tarbosaurus bataar must be sent back to his country along with all of his friends.”

“The fossils that we’re returning today don’t belong to any private collection or any one owner, they belong to the people of Mongolia,” noted James Hayes, Special Agent-in-Charge for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations office in New York.

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