Home News Stories 2005 March The Case of the Missing Dinosaur
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The Case of the Missing Dinosaur

The Case of the Missing Dinosaur
How We Put the Pieces Together

Archaeological dig site with Allosaurus skull inset


It was no ordinary crime. The “victim” was more than 16 feet tall, weighed several tons, and died some 150 million years ago.

A skeleton of an Allosaurus—the largest and most ferocious meat-eating dinosaur of the Jurassic age—had been illegally dug up on federal land in Utah. When we got wind of it, we opened a case. Why? We have the ticket on theft of government property.

Our challenge? First, find the skeleton. Then, gather proof linking it to the Utah theft.

How'd we track down the skeleton? That was the easy part. Someone overheard a man at a bar bragging how he'd made a ton of money digging up a fossil that ended up in a Japanese museum. With some investigative legwork, we found both men. They talked—told us exactly where they'd dug up the dinosaur as well as the name of the Pennsylvania fossil dealer who hired them for the job.

Now, to the scene of the crime. In Utah, we put together a team of experts to gather evidence at the site: a special agent, five members of our Salt Lake City Evidence Response Team, two paleontologists from the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a BLM agent, and an assistant U.S. attorney. They hiked several miles up the western edge of the San Rafael Swell Mountain Range (see photograph) and found the exact spot of the dinosaur dig.

Good news for us: the poachers were sloppy. They left fossil fragments in the ground along with soda cans, cigarette butts, and more. We collected soil samples and other evidence and excavated more than 30 pounds of fossil fragments.

Across the Pacific, more good news: Our agents and other experts traveled to Japan, where government officials offered to help. They allowed us to examine the skeleton, interview witnesses, and collect evidence.

In the end, it all came together nicely. The fossil fragments from Utah fit the skeleton in Japan like missing pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. They also matched the unique color and texture of the skeleton in Japan. And our lab analysis showed the soil we collected at the dig site was identical to bits of dirt still clinging to the skeleton.

Case solved...and justice served. Faced with this evidence, the fossil dealer pled guilty to receiving stolen property in 2002 and was fined $50,000—the largest amount ever in a fossil theft case. Unfortunately, too much time had passed to take the poachers to court.

End of story? Hardly. In partnership with the BLM, we're doing more fossil theft investigations today than ever before. They've led to five major prosecutions so far...and have helped prevent further poaching.

Just another way we're working to protect our nation...and its rich heritage.

Photo of the Allosaurus skull courtesy of the National Park Service.