The Second Life of Mongolian Fossils

To undo a legacy of fossil poaching, Mongolian paleontologists are working to make recovered specimens part of their national identity.

Fossils of two Ornithomimidae dinosaurs
A recovered and repatriated Ornithomimidae fossil at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs (Lydia Pyne)

In downtown Ulaanbaatar, on a pedestal in the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs, stands a 70-million-year-old Tarbosaurus bataar dinosaur from the southern Gobi Desert. In 2012, the Tarbosaurus was very nearly sold at auction in New York, despite such a sale violating Mongolian law as well as a temporary restraining order by a U.S. federal judge in Dallas. Five years and 6,000 miles later, that very same dinosaur fossil found itself back in Mongolia, now an icon symbolizing Mongolian and American efforts to combat the illicit fossil trade in Central Asia. As I walked through the dimmed entry hall backlit with the museum’s name in lights, it occurred to me that the long-dead and almost-trafficked dinosaur has a lot of life left to live.

Ever since the 1997 sale of Sue for a then-unprecedented $7.6 million, fossils have proven to be an extremely lucrative luxury market. For buyers interested in owning prehistoric natural objects, dinosaur fossils like skulls and complete skeletons can add an impressive bit of the Cretaceous to their portfolios. In the 21st-century high-end collectors’ market, fossils from Mongolia and China, in particular, are challenging the international community’s ethical response to fossil trafficking. Ever since the return of that first Tarbosaurus, thanks to the Herculean efforts of the Mongolian paleontologist Bolortsetseg “Bolor” Minjin, dozens and dozens of other dinosaur fossils have been seized by ICE and sent back to Mongolia.

“Sending the fossils back” is really just a new beginning for these repatriated fossils.

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Through the efforts of Bolortsetseg and other fossil activists, the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, a nonprofit organization in Ulaanbaatar, works with U.S. and Mongolian agencies to help return Mongolian fossils before they eventually go on display at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. Bolortsetseg and her colleagues consider education and outreach, as well as museum curation, to be an integral part of Mongolia’s successful fossil-repatriation program, whether through new dinosaur museums in Ulaanbaatar or driving a mobile museum with casts of fossils to rural parts of Mongolia.

At the museum, the fossils are important objects that teach visitors about Mongolia’s deep natural history and paleo past. According to UNESCO, the Gobi is the world’s largest “fossil reservoir.” Scientists have discovered something like 80 different dinosaur genera in the desert from over 60 known fossil sites. Although other parts of the world, like the Rocky Mountain region in the western United States and Canada, have spectacular fossils, those found in the Gobi are particularly prized because the fossils are so well preserved, allowing researchers to see tiny details on the fossils, like marks of blood vessels and nerves. The spectacular preservation also means that the Gobi can boast an inordinate number of fossil species, both large and small, plant and animal, all of which offer scientists the opportunity to study ancient ecosystems.

The Tarbosaurus bataar fossil that was recovered from a New York auction in 2012 (Lydia Pyne)

For decades, Russian, Polish, Chinese, and American paleontologists have come to the southern stretches of the Gobi’s arid Nemegt Basin to excavate dinosaur—and other—fossils. (The interest in the area traces back to the 1920s, when the American Museum of Natural History explorer Roy Chapman Andrews showed the world Mongolia’s fossil-rich deposits, including the first example of dinosaur eggs.) The first Tarbosaurus fossils were discovered in the 1940s and the species was officially named by Soviet paleontologist Evgeny Maleev in 1955; the Tarbosaurus bataar is an evolutionary cousin to the well-known Tyrannosaurus rex. By the time Tarbosaurus started hitting American auctions in the 21st century, however, it was long understood in the scientific community as a uniquely Mongolian dinosaur (despite some specimens being found in China) thanks to its uniquely Mongolian geological context.

The Tarbosaurus that sparked Mongolia’s repatriation revolution stands eight feet tall, measures 24 feet from tail to snout, and arrived back in Ulaanbaatar in 2013. Both the Tyrannosaurs and Tarbosaurs are apex predators, sporting fierce teeth and meme-ically comic forearms—both are some of the most charismatically identifiable species of the late Cretaceous, striking a perfect balance of awe and inspiration to museums and collectors the world over.

As with most countries, it is illegal to remove fossils and archaeological artifacts from Mongolia and sell them in private markets. Having legislation on the books that prohibits the sale of fossils is one thing. Being able to enforce that legislation is another. Money talks and there are immense amounts of it to be made with buyers willing to pay top dollar for something as stunning as a dinosaur skeleton. (“[The Tarbosaurus] can fit in all rooms 10 feet high,” the auctioneer added when the original Tarbosaurus fossil was going under the gavel in 2012. “So it’s also a great decorative piece.”) The repatriation of the Tarbosaurus bataar in 2013 gave Mongolia and the paleontological community some Tarbosaurus-like teeth to pursue the possibility of recovering other smuggled fossils.

For artifacts and fossils, repatriation has long been a way of ceding social authority and acknowledging a country’s right in assigning an object’s value, be it scientific or cultural. For the fossils to connect with their audiences, they need to be defined as something more than just “returned”—they need to be shown, studied, talked about, and valued.

When the Tarbosaurus bataar arrived in Mongolia in 2013, Bolortsetseg spent two weeks curating an exhibit that showcased the fossil and the efforts to have it returned to Mongolia. The exhibit was a sensation as visitors queued for hours to see the fossil. The exhibit piqued public curiosity and reintroduced dinosaurs to Mongolia’s national identity. The Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs soon dedicated itself to bringing public awareness to repatriated Mongolian dinosaurs. The museum operates out of Ulaanbaatar’s old Lenin Museum, now repurposed and renovated with shiny new display cases, snazzy illustrations, detailed maps of paleontological sites, placards describing the science behind the species, and a fossil-themed gift shop. In 2013 alone, 22 more trafficked dinosaurs were repatriated—each dinosaur sent back home reinforced precedent for other fossils to follow. As visitors to the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs walk up the building’s old marble steps to the second floor, the plethora of trafficked fossils—and the scope of the smuggling problem—quickly becomes apparent. The fossils on display are simply the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the number of fossils smuggled out of Mongolia.

Since 2013, other dinosaur-museum spaces have been built to highlight Mongolia’s fossil heritage. At the Hunnu Mall on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, for example, visitors are welcomed to the small museum with the truly spectacular
“Amazing Dinosaurs From Mongolia” exhibition, sponsored by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences Institute of Paleontology and Geology. From my bench perch on the Hunnu Mall’s second floor, I watched visitors circle the full-size dinosaur displays and then follow the decal dinosaur footprints to the museum’s exhibition. Some of the Hunnu Mall’s dinosaurs are real fossils with museum catalog numbers clearly visible, like the giant plant-eating sauropod Opisthocoelicaudia skarzynski; some are replicas, like the Tarbosaurus bataar that stands in front of the first-floor escalator backlit by a Coca-Cola advertisement. Most shoppers pause, look at the dinosaurs, take some selfies, and go on about their business.

A Tarbosaur fossil replica on display at the Hunnu Mall (Lydia Pyne)

There is little doubt that these repatriated fossils have an important role to play in educating a new generation of local dinosaur experts. Mongolia does not currently have a graduate training program in paleontology—for either the science or curation of fossils. During summer months, Bolortsetseg and the ISMD volunteers drive a 40-foot Winnebago through remote parts of Mongolia to introduce kids to Mongolia’s deep geologic history. (The dino-mobile was previously owned and subsequently donated by the American Museum of Natural History, which also used it for fossil-outreach projects.)

In 2016 alone, more than 30 fossils were recovered from U.S. auctions, ranging from a nest of dinosaur eggs, to a Protoceratops skull (similar in size and anatomy to a Triceratops), to an entire turkey-sized Psittacosaurus skeleton. The fossils recovered from 2016 occupy the second floor of the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs’ exhibit hall, with plaques from ICE that commemorate the joint efforts to halt the illegal smuggling. Based on U.S.-Mongolian efforts, seven additional fossils from Europe joined the burgeoning collection of returned dinosaurs currently housed at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs.

At the Central Museum, I watched visitors point out the ICE certificates to each other. As tourists tried to figure out the best angle to photograph the Tarbosaurus on its pedestal, museum guides told and retold the story of its triumphant return.