Stolen fossils returned thanks to U of C prof

By Daniel Pagan

The efforts of University of Calgary dinosaur paleontology assistant professor Dr. Darla Zelenitsky helped solve the mystery of stolen dinosaur eggs. She assisted the United States Department of Homeland Security immigration and customs enforcement foil fossil smuggling.

U.S. authorities moved quickly to seize 8,100 pounds of fossilized dinosaur eggs and petrified pinecones and crabs at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in 2006. It was the largest fossil seizure to date. Homeland Security suspected the shipment was stolen due to an anonymous tip and contacted a paleontologist to help identify the stolen eggs.

Zelenitsky did her graduate and postdoctoral studies at the U of C and worked at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. She worked with other paleontologists in an international collaboration in 2005 that studied the Oviraptorid, the first dinosaur discovered with preserved eggs inside its body cavity. Her 15 years of experience were what led the Smithsonian Institute and Interpol to recommend her to Homeland Security for the case.

Zelenitsky was initially shocked when Homeland Security called her, but recovered quickly and headed to an evidence warehouse in Tucson, Arizona to take a look at the recovered fossils.

“I felt like a detective while working on the case,” said Zelenitsky. “I had to solve a mystery–where the stolen eggs had come from–by performing comparative analysis.”

Zelenitsky explained she looked at the various characteristics of the stolen fossils and compared them to eggs from South American countries in a process that took eight months. She eventually confirmed that the eggs came from Argentina.

“Some of the eggs seized by [Homeland Security] were very characteristic of a well-known Argentine nesting site that contains baby Sauropod dinosaurs,” said Zelenitsky.

She explained the eggs came from Auca Mahuevo, an Argentine fossil locality.

“This is the largest Sauropod nesting site in the world, where hundreds of nests of Sauropod dinosaurs were preserved with bones and skin impressions of baby dinosaurs,” explained Zelenitsky.

She pointed out that fossil poaching is a huge problem worldwide. Thousands of fossils are illegally exported from China and in the process lose valuable scientific information like geological location and fossil age.

Homeland Security special agent Jolanta Armstrong agreed with Zelenitsky on the scope of the fossil smuggling problem. Armstrong explained Homeland Security’s mandate to protect the American border gave it jurisdiction to investigate the fossil shipment.

“Collectors pay large amounts to acquire dinosaur fossils so there is an economic incentive for smugglers,” said Armstrong.

She added countries are working to protect cultural property, such as fossils so their heritage does not get pillaged and destroyed. The fossils seized are priceless for both Argentina and the smugglers.

“We estimated the value on the wholesale market to be approximately $400,000,” she said. “The estimations were based on the sale prices at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.”

Armstrong had strong praise for Zelenitsky, noting she is highly regarded in the international paleontology community.

“An Interpol agent, Tammy Hilburn, who is a paleontologist, referred us to Darla Zelenitsky,” said Armstrong. “With no hesitation, she adjusted her schedule, traveled a great distance and was eager to support our objective of thwarting the international trade of smuggled fossils.”

The case has a happy ending. The U.S. returned the fossils to the Argentine minister of culture and the head of the Museum of Geological and Paleontological Artifacts in a cultural ceremony in May.

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