Fossil Wars

Read a National Geographic magazine article about the fossil trade, and get information, facts, and more about the big business of dinosaur bones.

Fyodor Shidlovskiy and Mike Triebold don't know each other from a hole in the ground, but they share an undying passion for long-dead and buried beasts.

Each summer Shidlovskiy mounts a safari of men, buses, trucks, amphibious vehicles, planes, helicopters, and riverboats and ventures onto the tundra of northeastern Siberia. In the extended Arctic daylight, he and his team spend weeks at a stretch recovering the bones and tusks of woolly mammoths, the lumbering precursors of today's elephants that until about 10,000 years ago wandered the bitterly cold steppes alongside our own fur-clad ancestors.

The best of his finds he restores (with auto body filler and varnish) and assembles into complete skeletons. Bones and tusks of lesser quality he has carved into chess sets and knick-knacks. The least valuable are ground into powder for use in traditional Chinese cures. Eventually everything is sold, mostly in Hong Kong and the United States.

Shidlovskiy (Fyodor to his friends, and everyone quickly becomes a friend of this joyful, effusive Russian) invited photographer Lynn Johnson and me to join him on an expedition. It was to be more than your run-of-the-mill Siberian mammoth quest, he promised: A hunter had tipped him to the whereabouts of an intact baby mammoth skeleton, the rarest of the rare, and he'd love to have us come along to record what promised to be an important find. Hours before dawn on a balmy August morning, we met Fyodor outside his tony, pink-brick apartment building in Moscow and prepared to set out on his latest escapade.

Two months earlier and halfway around the globe, Mike Triebold kissed his wife, J. J., goodbye at their custom-built log house in the shadow of Colorado's Pikes Peak, hopped into a convoy of four-wheel drives, and with four of his guys headed north. They were bound for the sleepy cow town of Roundup, Montana, where I would meet them. Triebold, too, was anticipating something extremely rare—a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex. Walter Stein, Triebold's field manager, had recently discovered a single rib poking out of concrete-hard sandstone on private land Triebold had leased for fossil collecting. The prospect of connecting that bone to the rest of a young T. rex had Triebold wired and dragging heavily on his Kools.

For Shidlovskiy and Triebold, hunting down and digging up the extremely dead is life's great joy. Besides the thrill of discovery, old bones provide them with a comfortable livelihood. In fact—with the going price for a nicely turned out T. rex pegged well into the millions, and a fully articulated mammoth selling for a quarter million or more—very comfortable.

Shidlovskiy and Triebold are members of a small fraternity of freewheeling men (almost exclusively) who excavate fossils and sell them for profit. I spent months tracking commercial fossil dealers and investigating their trade, not just in Siberia and Colorado, but also in Morocco, northeastern China, Montana, and the Dakotas. I discovered that some dealers are careful collectors and honest businessmen; others are disreputable and brutish, ripping bones from national parks and other protected lands and selling them for a quick buck. Still others, particularly in developing countries such as China and Morocco, are peasants striving to ease their painful lives with whatever they can claw, quite literally, from the earth around them.

During my travels I witnessed some of the damage that unscrupulous or untrained dealers do. In northeastern China I watched pick-swinging farmers hack rock slabs containing the remains of ancient birds and fish with little more concern than they gave to plowing their fields. I saw smuggled and fake fossils sold as legitimate in the United States, which strictly prohibits the excavation and export of fossils from government-owned land without a permit, but has no law banning imports—even when they've been smuggled out of their originating country.

I also watched commercial dealers excavate fossils with exquisite care, cleaning away the detritus of eons with delicate dental-style tools and keeping finely detailed records of their discoveries. Yet academic paleontologists, more than a dozen of whom I interviewed around the world, tended to tar all dealers with the same brush—as greedy yahoos and enemies of science, a charge I came to see as undeserved.

Which is not to say that every dealer runs an aboveboard business. Much of the fossil trade is in cash, and international sales often involve bribes to customs officials and police. The clandestine nature of such transactions makes it impossible to put a dollar total on the worldwide trade, but educated guesses from dealers and scientists suggest that it runs into the tens of millions of dollars each year.

The bone market boomed in the late 1980s, when dealers from Japan, flying high on an economic bubble, started buying up some of the biggest and best U.S. fossils and installing them in new museums back home. The Japanese spree drove prices beyond the reach of most American scientists and museums, which couldn't compete at auctions without the help of lavish benefactors or corporate backers. The price run-up hit an all-time high in 1997 when the McDonald's Corporation and the Walt Disney Company, in a show of marketing genius, chipped in to help Chicago's Field Museum buy a Tyrannosaurus rex known as Sue for a staggering 8.36 million dollars and put it on display for the world's kids to see. The sale was a media sensation and alerted landowners across the western U.S. to the market value of the bones buried on their property. Once seen mainly as scientific curiosities, fossils were now potentially lucrative commodities.

One result is that rural property owners increasingly are turning their backs on scientists, who depend on free access to fossil sites. (Commercial dealers, by contrast, commonly pay landowners a percentage of their profits. Mike Triebold says he's paid as much as $76,000 to one rancher.) Relationships between scientists and farm families they've visited each summer for decades have dried up in rancor.

As with any commodity, price is driven by demand, and in today's booming market, fossils compete with fine art for the attention of the super rich. Just as industrial barons of an earlier time bid for Great Masters, wealthy fossil fanciers such as Bill Gates, Nicholas Cage, and Charlie Sheen, to name a few, compete in New York and California auction houses for the most eye-popping specimens. Such fossils often end up in the oceanfront great rooms of the grandest Pacific coast mansions.

Paleontologists lament that once specimens disappear into private collections, they're lost to scientific study. But dealers are quick to point out that most of the world's great museums are full of important fossils donated by collectors. Indeed, many museum collections were purchased from profit-minded men (and the occasional notable woman) who went out to the Wild West of the United States, the barren wastelands of Siberia, the burning deserts of Mongolia, or the mild-mannered forests and coastlines of their own countries, and gathered the bones, teeth, and horns they found there.

Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, America's two leading paleontologists in the latter nineteenth century, both paid dealers to find the vast array of fossils they used to wage their furious "bone wars" for primacy in the field. Half a century earlier Mary Anning, a little-educated Englishwoman who grew up in a destitute family beside the coastal cliffs of Lyme Regis, collected spectacular Jurassic fossils that she sold to scientists and noblemen throughout Europe. After she died in 1847, she was lauded as "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew."

Today's scientists say less flattering things about fossil dealers. But the opinion of scientists was far from Fyodor Shidlovskiy's mind as he bundled us aboard a chartered bus parked alongside his home. The driver ground the gears into place, and we rolled off on the first leg of an 8,000-mile (12,875-kilometer) haul by road, air, and water. Shidlovskiy's blue eyes, magnified behind wire-rimmed glasses, glittered with excitement.

Among us were Shidlovskiy's good friend, the Reverend John Wood, a loquacious, big-game-hunting Baptist preacher from Waco, Texas, and Wood's prominent physician neighbor, "Doctor Joe" Cunningham. They were there mainly for the adventure. (A few months later they would ship crates of medical supplies from Waco to a poorly supplied Siberian clinic we visited.)

After a 14-hour bus drive we arrived at Yoshkar Ola's derelict air base, where Fyodor hustled us onto a banged-up Russian border patrol cargo plane. This once worthy warhorse had no seats other than a few benches, no cooling, no heating, and no toilets. Already on board, to our surprise, was a cluster of Siberians living in Moscow who'd heard that Fyodor was going to their hometown and could they hitch a ride? "Fyodor just doesn't know how to say no," Wood drawled admiringly. The good news was that our gracious host had shoved a case of vodka under the pilot's seat. Less encouraging was that the pilot and navigator enthusiastically joined in the toasting as bottle after bottle made the rounds.

Eight time zones, nearly ten flying hours, and one case of vodka later, the screaming plane shuddered to a halt on the broken airstrip at Cherskiy, a no-longer-bustling port town on the Kolyma River, in the autonomous Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya) high above the Arctic Circle. Bladders bursting, backs aching, we gingerly disembarked and fell into the bear hugs of Sergei Zimov and his wife, Galia. The Zimovs operate a tundra-monitoring scientific station outside the nearly deserted town. Sergei, an ecologist, plays host to scientists and the occasional commercial bone collector, like Fyodor, to help withstand post-perestroika privation.

Russian paleontologists are so hard-pressed that some succumb to stealing fossils from their own museums and selling them. In 1999 a complete woolly rhinoceros skeleton, as large as an SUV, was disassembled and removed from the Yakutsk State University Mammoth Museum, where it was on display in a room adjacent to the director's office. Fyodor recovered the fossil and returned it to the museum. This act, he said, won him an official open-ended permit to collect and remove fossils in Sakha and established his self-anointed reputation as "Emperor of Siberia," which he delights in calling himself.

After a day of R & R at the Zimovs' camp, we pulled on hip boots (in summer the spongy tundra above the permafrost layer can behave treacherously like quicksand) and clambered onto an orange and blue Mi-8 helicopter Fyodor had chartered. We choppered 200 miles (320 kilometers) north across broken tundra to the Arctic coastline. Our first stop was a rough wooden shack alongside a snaking stream, where two of Fyodor's men and a black-and-white dog named Nelson had spent the past two months. They had collected an array of mammoth bones and tusks, which they loaded into the rear of the helicopter. Next we took off for a spot a few miles beyond, on a towering, eroded coastal cliff.

Fyodor and one of his men, Anatoly Borischuk, slithered down the black muck of the cliff face to a narrow ledge, where Borischuk earlier had spotted an adult mammoth skull about the size of a washing machine. A crew member tossed down a rope, which Fyodor threaded through the eye sockets, and all hands helped haul the skull up and into the chopper.

Our final stop for the day was the village of Andryushkino. As our helicopter clattered to the ground, a shouting throng flooded out of their concrete-block houses to greet us, smiles creasing their broad Asian faces. The villagers, members of the Yukaghir minority, survive by herding reindeer. Some augment their limited income by gathering fossils for Fyodor, even though taboos warn against disturbing the mammoths. He pays them in cash, snowmobiles, boats, outboard motors, and most recently, laser disco equipment for a new recreation center.

A wooden sled hauled by tractor came scraping toward us, heaped with skulls, pelvises, ribs, tibias, and femurs. The bone pile was crowned with a mammoth skull and twin golden tusks tall enough to shelter an NBA star. With this booty stuffed into the helicopter, the human cargo settled onto the bones of our choice for the ride back to Cherskiy.

Late the next night we drove down to Cherskiy's dilapidated port. Stumbling over rusting beams and smashed glass, we boarded a government-owned channel-marking ship for a 480-mile (772-kilometer) trip on the Kolyma River. The hunt for the baby mammoth was finally on.

As the sun set on our second day out, we anchored near the fossil site and went ashore in powerboats. We trudged clumsily in our hip boots to a shallow mud pit. There lay the large femur and a few other bones that Fyodor's man had discovered. Alas, the tributary stream that had gurgled just feet from the burial site when he made the find, only weeks before we arrived, had dried up. Russian fossil hunters customarily use pressurized water to wash away the earth entombing mammoth bones. Now the only possible water source was a tiny pool a hundred yards distant, which meant that Fyodor would need more hose. A full day was lost as another of his men sped back to Cherskiy in a small boat. When he returned, he was carrying old canvas hoses from the town's fire department and a generator for Fyodor's portable pump.

At last the long-awaited excavation began and continued around the clock for the next 48 hours. By late afternoon of the second day, the pool was nearly dry and men strained to augment the flagging flow, scooping out shovelfuls of muck as dense as chewing gum. To everyone's frustration, they uncovered only a few more bones. The youngster either had been killed at another location and part of its remains dragged by predators to this place, or over the millennia bits and pieces had been washed away by rain and melting snow. We left, Fyodor dejected.

But not for long. A few hours after setting sail back toward Cherskiy, we dropped anchor at a three-cabin settlement festooned with drying fish like silvery pennants and guarded by ferociously barking sled dogs. The previous summer Fyodor had recruited the hunter-fishermen who live here to gather whatever bones they came across, mammoth or otherwise. Now he had to rouse one of the men, sprawled in a drunken stupor on the pebble-paved riverbank. (Alcoholism is common among the lonely hunters of the tundra.) After a few cups of steaming, sweet tea, a wanly grinning Valeriy Petrov led us to a space beneath one of the log cabins, where he and his friends had stashed tusks and bones.

Fyodor estimated the haul at over a thousand pounds and offered the men the equivalent of $16,000, which they snapped up. He handed over a thick stack of rubles and promised to deliver a snowmobile and an outboard motor. The bones were ferried out to our ship, and we resumed the overnight run to Cherskiy. As the boat gathered speed, Fyodor began sorting through the bones, selecting out the mammoth fossils and blithely pitching rejects into the river.

About 20 minutes later we were hailed and boarded by four men wearing Environmental Protection Committee patches on their camouflage windbreakers. When confronted with a charge of poaching fossils in Kolyma National Park, Fyodor jauntily assured the officers that their concern was misplaced. Anyway, couldn't they use a new outboard motor? Not only that, but if they would collect bones for him in the future, he'd take good care of them. The erstwhile defenders of the land thanked their new benefactor profusely, pumped his hand, hopped back into their speedboat, and departed.

Turning to his bemused American onlookers, Fyodor flung his arms up in mock horror and cocked his head to one side. "Russia!" he said.

Mike Triebold's expedition to central Montana was considerably less daunting, at least in getting to where we were going. After a restful night at the Best Value Inn on Main Street in Roundup, I joined Triebold and his crew for a jouncing, hour-long ride in a pickup over prickly rangeland, eventually passing through a barbed-wire gate. As the men unloaded a pneumatic jackhammer and other tools, Triebold walked me over to a raw scar in the brown sandstone. It had been dug from the side of a jagged mound as high as a two-story house. Barely poking out of the rock was what could have been a bone in a standing rib roast, festively wrapped in aluminum foil for protection. Triebold said it belonged to a youthful dinosaur and was "float," meaning it wasn't connected to any other part of the buried skeleton.

That lone bone was the latest of a collection Triebold and his crew had recovered since they began digging at the site the previous summer. Triebold, who's been chasing fossils for more than 20 years, had reason to believe that the rest of the skeleton was buried in the mound. That meant that he and the crew would have to remove as much as ten feet (three meters) of overlay before reaching the level where the animal might be. The digging commenced: the roar of a gasoline generator and the staccato outbursts of the big hammer interspersed with long periods of nothing noisier than small chisels scratching at the sandstone. Great black thunderheads boiled above us and wind-whipped sand lashed our eyes. By the time the thunderheads had damped down the dust and temperatures dipped in the late afternoon, Triebold's crew had seemingly made no progress. Shoving back his floppy hat, he decided to call it quits for the day. I was disappointed. He seemed not to be.

"The ground is the hardest I've ever worked in," he said in a flat, midwestern twang, "but I've got a good feeling about this."

Six months later, after Triebold had turned up a good portion of the skeleton, he sent me an e-mail:

"Very exciting news: One of the rib fragments has clear [T. rex] serrations across it. ... We believe that this is the first direct evidence of rex-on-rex violence. Now, the big questions are these: Did a pack of Nanos [Nanotyrannus] kill and start eating the juvenile rex, then get chased away by a scavenging adult T. rex, which finished off the carcass? Or did the adult T. rex kill and eat the juvenile in an act of cannibalism, leaving only the scraps for the Nanos after the adult T. rex had its fill? Or did the juvenile rex get killed by the adult rex in a territory battle, and did the carcass then get eaten by the pack of Nanos? We will be looking for more clues as we prepare the specimen."

Along with cleaning and stabilizing the skeleton, Triebold carefully mapped the site and preserved all collateral fossils. This level of detailed data by a commercial dealer was a key factor in a decision by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh to buy a first-of-its-kind oviraptorosaur from Triebold and Fred Nuss, the fossil hunter who discovered it. The provenance was excellent, and scientists would have access to the site where the specimens were found. Carnegie is not alone: Other U.S. museums are turning to dealers for fossils.

Carnegie's deal with Triebold infuriated some paleontologists. "We wouldn't do it," says Kevin Padian, curator of paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley. A dead-serious scientist with a deceptively pixieish face and a mop of curly gray hair, Padian charges that dealers don't take the necessary pains in establishing fossils' taphonomy—the placement in the ground and the effects of the surrounding soil on the fossilization process. "This work has to be done by experts, and an expert is someone who understands the scientific value, not the dollar value."

At the heart of the commerce-versus-science battle is how vast or how limited the Earth's supply of fossils may be. "No one who thinks of conservation can think in terms of a resource being endless," says Padian. Triebold's response: "There's certainly no shortage of invertebrates; they're practically inexhaustible. And vertebrates? Even T. rexes aren't unique anymore. Simply put, fossils are not rare."

In a back room tour of the American Museum of Natural History's paleontology collection, department chair Mark Norell walks me through row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with fossils seemingly beyond count, many still in their plaster "field jackets." "Most are awaiting preparation and have not yet been studied," Norell acknowledges. "This is common in pretty much every museum in the world."

While it's true that many fossils are abundant, others are unique. Or as James Kirkland of the Utah Geological Survey put it to me, "Not all fossils are created equal. Some are worth scientific study, but many are not."

One possible solution, Padian says, may lie in dealers and academics exploring together. The scientists could keep the originals for study while the commercial people would produce high quality casts, which most museums and private collectors consider more than adequate. This would give science access to a broadened range of specimens and make material legally collected from government lands available to the private market in the form of casts.

Still, having spent many days with the two sets of stubborn protagonists, I suspect it will be a very long time before they seek each other out. Just how long might it take? We may all become fossils first.

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