Amateur Palaeontologist facing Theft charges over “Raptor” Fossil

The raptors, or to give them their scientific name the dromaeosaurs are typically, small, swift, bipedal dinosaurs and the name raptor is translated as meaning “robber or thief”, perhaps an apt description for these little dinosaurs.

It is easy to imagine a sharp-eyed Velociraptor seizing the opportunity when a Protoceratops has left her nest unguarded, to rush in and steal an egg.  Ironically, a “raptor” fossil is at the centre of allegations of fossil theft in the state of Montana, USA.

Dinosaur Fossil

In the late autumn of 2006, Nathan Murphy, a well-known and highly regarded amateur palaeontologist and fossil collector took a specimen of a small, dromaeosaur to be studied at his local dinosaur study centre – the Dinosaur Field Station.

Mr Murphy had identified the fossil bones as belonging to a new type of dromaeosaur, a turkey sized animal that he had nick-named “Sid Vicious”, after the infamous punk rock singer.  If Mr Murphy owned the rights to this fossil, then it could prove to be an extremely lucrative discovery, as there would be a considerable amount of money to be made selling casts to museums and private collectors.  However, Montana State law enforcement officers now accuse Mr Murphy of theft as the specimen had been discovered several years earlier, not where Mr Murphy claimed to have found it, but on private land and this means that “Sid Vicious” actually belongs to someone else.

Montana is one of the largest States in the USA.  Although it is sparsely populated, it is extremely important to palaeontologists with an absolute treasure trove of Mesozoic fossils, many of which are dinosaurs from the Cretaceous.  Montana is famous for its hadrosaurine (duck-billed dinosaur) fossils, the State fossil is Maiasaura (Maiasaura peeblesorum), a medium sized hadrosaur whose remains along with a nesting colony were discovered in Montana in the 1970s.

Investigation by Federal Authorities

In the Autumn, after a long investigation by the Federal authorities, Mr Murphy was charged with the theft of the dinosaur fossil.  It seems that this specimen had been discovered many years earlier, at a different location from the one Mr Murphy first claimed.  The raptor fossil had been found on land belonging to somebody else and Mr Murphy had attempted to deceive the true owners keeping any monetary gains associated with this find.

A trial is scheduled for March, but it may not be required if Mr Murphy pleads guilty to the charge of theft.  He had claimed the fossil was found near Saco, Montana, some 25 miles from where it was actually discovered a few years earlier.

Whatever the reasons for Mr Murphy’s deception, whether intended or not, the real tragedy is that the lie about the specimen’s discovery means that palaeontologists will have difficulty in studying the surrounding strata.  The provenance of the fossil has been lost.

It is easy to see where the conflict between science and fossil collecting for profit can arise. Such are the stakes in terms of monetary gain and prestige.  Unfortunately, the science of palaeontology is the real loser in instances such as this.  A valuable specimen cannot be researched properly because of the deception and important scientific information concerning this little dromaeosaur has been lost.

Dinosaur Fossil

Dinosaur fossil bone close-up (how do fossils form?)

Even the smallest dinosaur fossil can be significant when studying ancient prehistoric life.

Picture credit: Everything Dinosaur

Commenting on the case and the difficulties of separating science from commercial fossil operations, Dr Robert Bakker, the eminent American palaeontologist commented:

“You need a Chinese wall between them”.

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