Bones of Contention: Disputed Dino Is Judged a Frankensaurus

Just as this dinosaur specimen, a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, went up for auction on May 20, a question arose as to whether or not it was taken illegally from Mongolia.
Just as this dinosaur specimen, a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, went up for auction on May 20, a question arose as to whether or not it was taken illegally from Mongolia. (Image credit: Wynne Parry)

As if being a fearsome, 70-million-year-old predator wasn't enough, the dinosaur at the center of an international ownership dispute is being called a Frankenstein.

The reason: Attorneys maintain that the fossilized skeleton is made up of bits from multiple dinosaurs belonging to the same species. In response, the federal judge in the case referred to the dinosaur as a kind of "Frankenstein model" of dinosaur parts, according to media reports from Wednesday (Sept. 5).

This description is intended to thwart an attempt by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan to take possession of the dinosaur and send it to Mongolia. Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia and paleontologists have maintained that the fossils were taken illegally from that country.

The attorneys making this "Frankenstein" argument represent the Florida fossil dealer Eric Prokopi, who imported and prepared the fossils before attempting to sell them at auction.

Before it went up for auction on May 20, the dinosaur was advertised as a 75 percent complete specimen. Prokopi's attorneys, Peter Tompa and Michael McCullough, are arguing that the 75 percent includes bones from more than one individual dinosaur of the same species, Tarbosaurus bataar, an Asian relative to the North American T. rex. The remaining quarter of the dinosaur is made from plastic molds from other fossil specimens, they maintain. [Paleo-Art: Stunning Illustrations of Dinosaurs]

Here's why they are making this argument: Mongolian law does not allow for the private ownership of fossils, which are considered state property (although Tompa and McCullough question Mongolian law in this regard).

North American and Mongolian paleontologists involved in the case have indicated that all complete or clearly identifiable fossils from T. bataar have come from within Mongolia. However, fragmentary remains possibly belonging to this species of dinosaur have been found elsewhere, including China and Kazakhstan.

"If we are not talking about a complete dinosaur, and they do acknowledge parts of the dinosaur have been found in other countries, then guess what, they have a problem," Tompa told LiveScience.

He and McCullough aren't just attacking the Mongolian origin of the fossils; they also hope to undercut the legal basis for the U.S. Attorney's case.

Although Mongolian officials say their law was violated, the effort to seize the dinosaur must be based on U.S. law. The U.S. Attorney's office says it has the right to take the dinosaur because Prokopi falsely described the fossils when he imported them from England. [Album: A Tarbosaurus Travels from Auction to Court Room]

Tompa and McCullough are saying the fossils came in to the United States in multiple shipments, not as one, as the U.S. Attorney's office maintains.

On its surface, the description of the dinosaur as a composite appears to conflict with how the dinosaur was marketed before it went up for auction on May 20.

In its catalog description, the auction house that offered the dinosaur for sale, Heritage Auctions, billed it as "an incredible, complete specimen. … The body is 75 percent complete and the skull 80 percent."

The description does not refer to the fossil skeleton as a composite or as coming from a single animal. As it turns out, this lack of specificity is telling.

"The T. bataar's completeness, with a body of 75 percent real bone, is very rare for a dinosaur. In even rarer cases where a dinosaur fossil was demonstrably derived from one animal, auction houses will typically proclaim that fact in their catalog descriptions," said David Herskowitz, who directed the auction for Heritage Auctions, in a statement. He noted that nearly all skeletons sold are composites.

Heritage spokesman Noah Fleisher later clarified: "If we are comfortable that we can DEMONSTRATE that all the fossils come from a single animal, we will note it as such. Therefore, if we don't note it as such, it either means (1) the specimen is a composite, or (2) we aren't confident enough that we can prove it isn't a composite. Also, every bidder that Mr. Herskowitz spoke to before the sale, including the winning bidder, was fully aware that the T. bataar was a composite."

At the May 20 auction, the dinosaur was sold, pending the outcome of the Mongolian's legal challenge, for $1.05 million to an anonymous bidder.

After the tentative sale, North American and Mongolian paleontologists examined the fossils and determined that, yes, indeed, they did belong to the species in question, T. bataar, solidifying the Mongolian claim. The paleontologists' reports, however, do not address the possibility that more than one individual dinosaur was represented.

"I did not see any indication that the T. bataar skeleton came from different individuals, although clearly some elements were casts, not actual bones," Bolortsetseg Minjin, one of the Mongolian paleontologists to inspect the fossils, told LiveScience.

Mark Norell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History who contributed to the investigation but who did not have the chance to examine the dinosaur up close, said he could not offer an opinion as to whether or not the dinosaur was a composite.

"It is irrelevant," Norell said. "Whether it was one animal or whether it was several, exporting a single bone from Mongolia is against the law."

The assistant U.S. Attorney in the case, Martin Bell, maintained that the paleontologists had concluded  that the fossils belonged to a single dinosaur, and Bell said the government was reluctant to take Prokopi's description at face value, according to Reuters.

The case returns to court in December. 

Follow Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.