Dinosaur Poachers Are Stealing Fossils, And It’s Hurting Science

Scientists say that without these skeletons, they’ll never fully understand how dinosaurs evolved

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Mike Shaver

Usually poaching means hunters going after rhinos or elephants for their valuable ivory. But there’s another type of animal poacher out there: the fossil poacher. These fossil hunters cater to private collectors who buy up fossils and hide them away, where scientists can’t study them.

Alanna Mitchell of the New York Times explains that not all fossil finders are fossil poachers:

Paleontologists say they are not taking aim at professional fossil finders, who work within the law and dig carefully. They are calling for the patchwork of laws on dinosaur stealing and smuggling to be enforced and tightened around the world, and they are pleading with private collectors to demand proof of a fossil’s origins before they buy — just as they would question the pedigree of a painting or an antique.

The urge to sell fossil finds is understandable — these bones can be extremely valuable. In 1997, the Chicago Field Museum paid $8.36 million for the most complete T. Rex skeleton ever found. Last year, there was a case in court over a rare Mongolian skeleton that sold for $1 million, to a private collector. And that urge has also promoted fossil hunters to muck up some of the most famous fossil sites in the world. But scientists say that without these skeletons, they’ll never fully understand how dinosaurs evolved.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway
A Tiny Fossilized Treasure