The Cleveland Plain Dealer has an interesting article on a specimen of Tarbosaurus bataar that was to be exhumed in Mongolia last year by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology. Tarbosaurus may be the sister genus to Tyrannosaurus, and some argue that they belong in the same genus. When Ryan first found the specimen in 2005 poachers had already taken the skull, hands and feet. The remaining parts would still have been the largest Tarbosaurus specimen in North America but Ryan’s crew was not prepared to extract it that year, and he was not able to get back in 2006. When they returned in 2007 all of it had disappeared.
This story illustrates some of the modern political and cultural consequences of moving fossil specimens out of developing countries. This specimen would have been transported to Cleveland for study and then eventually returned to Mongolia, unlike earlier times when the specimen would not have been returned. Because Mongolia is tightening its export controls to limit poaching it will be harder to move research specimens out of the country in the future. Local paleontologists hope to develop research facilities in Mongolia itself so that these specimens can be studied there.
Cleveland knows this process well – perhaps the most famous fossil specimen ever, Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), was brought back to the Cleveland Museum by Donald Johanson in 1974 and all casts of this specimen around the world are made at the museum. The originals, however, were given to the Ethiopian National Museum nine years later. Her remains were recently on tour in the United States, which produced some controversy back in Ethiopia.