Friday, May 18, 2012


If you would like to help save the Mongolian Tyannosaurus and other important dinosaur specimens slated for auction on Sunday, please go to
and electronically sign the petition.  The dinosaurs will appreciate it.




Heritage Auctions, a large auction house in New York City, has a number of dinosaur fossils going on the auction block this Sunday.  A number of these are spectacular, including a complete skeleton of the giant Asian predator Tyrannosaurus bataar. But there are problems because there is evidence that at least some of the specimens were illegally collected and smuggled out of Mongolia, a country which prohibits the export of such objects.  The Mongolian government is alarmed and has stepped in.


Mr. Elbegdorj Tsakhia, President of Mongolia, in a strongly worded statement, has directed his government to investigate the origin of the specimens.

The office of the President of Mongolia, Public Relations & Communications Division

President of Mongolia is concerned that T-Rex skeleton may belong to Mongolia

President Elbegdorj Tsakhia talked to Minister of Education and Science, Mr.Otgonbayar calling his immediate attention to a dinosaur issue.

International science news on rare Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton to be auctioned on Sunday in NYC raised this alarm in Mongolia because the Heritage Auction website did not name the country where the T-Rex was found. The President of Mongolia, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, instructed Minister Otgonbayar to find all the information on the origin and route of the T-Rex fossil and to send an urgent appeal to the Heritage Auction for disclosure of this information before the Sunday auction.

If the T-Rex “uncovered in the Gobi Desert” originated in Mongolia, President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, said that it was illegal to auction the T-Rex and the fossil must be returned to Mongolia.

President Elbegdorj also called the international science community to help identify the origin of the T-rex and to alert the Mongolian government of any illegal international trade of Mongolian fossils.


The Mongolian Academy of Sciences has written to Heritage Auctions pointing out that some of the specimens were without a doubt stolen from Mongolia and that others are highly suspect, and asking that there auction be halted. 


May 18, 2012

To Heritage Auctions:

I am writing you at the request of Elbegdorj Tsakhia, the President of Mongolia.  He has asked me to inquire on the country of origin for the specimen of Tyannosaurus (aslo known as Tarbosaurus) bataar (lot 49315) which is scheduled to be auctioned by your company this Sunday, May 20, 2012.  I am the director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs and also serve as the New York representative of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.  Based on our experience in the studying the collecting of Mongolian dinosaurs, and on the information provided by your company with other specimens to be auctioned this Sunday, we strongly suspect that the Tyrannosaurus specimen, as well as several others you intend to auction, came from Mongolia.

Mongolian law prohibits the export of fossil specimens, and if this specimen did in fact come from Mongolia, we we strongly urge you not to auction this specimen because it would then have been acquired and exported illegally.  In fact, information on your website indicates that two of the tyrannosaur teeth (lots 49318, 49320) came from the Nemegt Formation, which is only exposed in Mongolia.  Thus these specimens were acquired and exported illegally.  We also strongly suspect that the ankylosaurus skull (lot 49317) came from Mongolia, and the troodontid , may have come from Mongolia as well (lot 49318).

The auctioning of such specimens fuels the illegal fossil trade and must be stopped.  If you could provide detailed information on the provenance(s) of these specimens, I will then pass on this information to the President of Mongolia.  I strongly urge you not to auction the two, illegally exported tyrannosaur teeth from Mongolia.  I strongly urge you not to auction the other specimens we have indicated until their legality is fully resolved.  Even if the owner indicates that they did not come from Mongolia, we suggest that you investigate this matter closely as sometimes collectors falsify information or documents to make illegal specimens appear "legal". In the meantime, the best approach would be an open dialogue with the government of Mongolia and other interested parties in order to find an acceptable resolution to this problem.  If it is eventually determined that these specimens did not come from Mongolia, it would be prudent for Heritage Auctions to consult the laws of the country of origin because many countries now prohibit the export or sale of such specimens (China is one example).  Thank you for your prompt attention in this matter.


Bolortsetseg Minjin, Ph.D.
Director, Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs
New York Representative of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences


Dr.Mark Norell, a world-renowned dinosaur specialist at the American Museum of Natural History who has worked extensively on Mongolian dinosaurs, has written the following open letter concerning the origin of the specimens and issues of legality.


17 May 2012

Dear Sirs-

It is with great concern that I see Mongolian dinosaur materials listed in the upcoming (May 20) Heritage Auctions Natural History catalogue. For the last 22 years I have excavated specimens Mongolia in conjunction with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. I have been an author on over 75 scientific papers describing these important specimens. Unfortunately, in my years in the desert I have witnessed ever increasing illegal looting of dinosaur sites, including some of my own excavations. These extremely
important fossils are now appearing on the international market.

In the current catalogue Lot 49317 (a skull of Saichania) and Lot 49315 (a mounted Tarbosaurus skeleton) clearly were excavated in Mongolia as this is the only locality in the world where these dinosaurs are known. The copy listed in the catalogue, while not mentioning Mongolia specifically (the locality is listed as Central Asia) repeatedly makes reference to the Gobi Desert and to the fact that other specimens of dinosaurs were collected in Mongolia. As someone who is intimately familiar with these faunas, these specimens were undoubtedly looted from Mongolia. There is no legal mechanism (nor has there been for over 50 years) to remove vertebrate fossil material from Mongolia. These specimens are the patrimony of the Mongolian people and should be in a museum in Mongolia. As a professional paleontologist, am appalled that these
illegally collected specimens (with no associated documents regarding provenance) are being are being sold at auction.


Dr. Mark A. Norell
Chairman and Curator
Division of Paleontology


Time is short and it is uncertain whether or not the fossils in question will be auctioned. The auction is scheduled for Sunday May 20th at Heritage Auctions, Center 548 (548 W. 22nd Street, between 10th Ave. and West Street).  The specimens are on exhibit for for viewing on Saturday: 10:00 AM ET - 3:00 PM ET.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

MOTHER’S DAY 2012: Celebrating Ancient Sharks, Superfoetative Viviparity, and the Earliest Record of Sibling Rivalry

Montana, 318 million-years-ago. Red line is the equator and the black line marks 10 degrees north latitude.  Yellow circle is the site of the Bear Gulch Limestone.

Montana winters were certainly nicer during the Late Mississippian period some 318,000,000 years ago. Montana was much warmer --- it was only 12o north of the equator and over half the state was covered by shallow, warm, tropical seas.  Although the skiing and snowboarding was non-existent the surfing was vastly improved.  Of particular interest to this post is an area in central Montana that during Mississippian times was a shallow bay, only 40 meters deep and 15 km long.  Today the sediments deposited on the floor of this bay are known to geologists and paleontologists as the Bear Gulch Limestone (BGL) and those rocks are world renowned for their truly spectacular fossil record . 

The fossil bearing beds of the Bear Gulch Limestone.

The Bear Gulch Limestone occurs in repeated layers that separate well so it is not surprising the fossil beds were discovered by local ranchers who were quarrying it for ornamental building stone.  Although only discovered in 1977, the BGL has yielded about 130 species of fish, some 65 of which are chondrichthyans, the “cartilaginous” fishes, such as primitive sharks, rays, and holocephalans. 

Because most of their skeleton consists of cartilage rather than bone, and cartilage has a much lower fossilization potential, a great deal of  the fossil record of sharks looks like this.....

.... little more than shed and isolated teeth.  The spectacular fossilization in the BGL, preserves not only cartilaginous skeletons but soft internal tissue as well as skin. Thus it is no wonder that the Bear Gulch Limestone is one of our best windows onto life of the Mississippian. 

And it’s because of that remarkable preservation that we turn to the Bear Gulch Limestone and two of its primitive fish to celebrate Mother’s Day 2012.  


Harpagofututor and the Joys of a Large Family

The spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei), a living holocephalan.

Harpagofututor is a primitive member of the Holocephali, a group of still living cartilaginous fishes.  They are known by a variety of popular names (rat fish, chimaeras) and most of the 34 living species inhabit deep sea environments, with a few species preferring shallow water.  Although an ancient lineage, originating some 400,000,000 years ago, holocephalans remain poorly known to the general public.

Sexual differences in Harpagofututor.  Top is a female.  Bottom is a male.  Arrows point to the head appendages characteristic of males of this species of fish.

Harpagofututor is not a particularly large fish, reaching a maximum size of 165mm (~7in).  It has an elongate, eel-like, body and is known from numerous specimens. This fish comes in two forms, one with a “normal head” and the other with two large cartilaginous appendages projecting from the top of the skull in front of the eyes. Each appendage is jointed at mid-length and there is a moveable ball and socket articulation with the top of the skull.  The end of each appendage was a long thin fleshy extension bearing numerous small hooks. The two forms are otherwise quite similar and these striking differences are due to sexual dimorphism, with the male using the appendages for display or to hold onto the female during copulation, as do some living holocephalans.

The unadorned skull of a female Harpagofututor.

The skull of a male Harpagofututor, showing the large, paired, jointed, cartilaginous appendages (colored red) that moveably articulate with the top of the skull.
However, Harpagofututor was thoughtful enough to confirm this suspicion of sexual dimorphism by having two unornamented specimens preserved with embryos inside the body cavity, confirming them as female.  Sometimes the fossil record plays nice.  

The number of embryos preserved is 4 in one specimen and 5 in the other. Within each group one embryo is distinctly larger (based on skull size), with the skull length of the largest approaches that of adults. Thus it would appear that Harpagofututor young were born live (known as viviparity) and at a large size. This would give the newborns a distinct advantage in obtaining food and surviving.

A pregnant female Harpagofututor. A. Fossil with mass of embryos in abdominal area circled in yellow.   B. Line drawing of A.   C. detailed drawing of the five embryonic skulls.  Note range of size of skulls.  Scale bar = 1 cm.

The larger individuals in each female are clearly at a more advanced stage of development than its litter mates.  This is most likely due to superfoetation, where a female carries multiple litters and the young exhibit distinctly different stages of development.  Thus what we are seeing are young that came from eggs fertilized at different times.  This might be due to separate copulations after separate ovulation events, or from a female storing sperm from only one copulation and using it to fertilize eggs from different ovulation cycles.  In some of the female specimens with soft tissues preserved, sperm receptacles are present, suggesting that female storing of sperm occurred in Harpagofututor.  

A second pregnant Harpagofututor. A. Photo of Specimen.   B.  Line drawing of A, showing embryonic skulls.  C. Photo of  largest of the embryonic skulls.  D. Line drawing of two embryonic skulls. Scale bar = 1 cm (in mm).
Harpagofututor is the only known case of superfoetation in the fossil record. It has evolved numerous times in boney fish but this is only the second known record for cartilaginous fishes.  The other is that of a living whale shark carrying 300 young at three different developmental stages.  

So now knowing a little bit about the morphology and biology of Harpagofututor, you can better appreciate the meaning of the name, which is derived from harpagos, grappling hooks, and fututor, copulator, in reference to the secondary sexual apparatus of the males of this species.


Old Womb Tooth and the First Sibling Rivalry

The other star of this post is Delphyodontos  and we only know of it because of the spectacular fossilization found in the BGL. Only two Delphyodontos specimens have been described in the scientific literature, and both are very small, although larger, newly discovered specimens are currently under study.

One of the two known specimens of Delphyodontos.  Note preserved fecal sac at the back of the abdomen. Total length 29mm (1.2 in).
Delphyodontos is a primitive cartilaginous fish.  The two described specimens measure 35mm (1.4 inches) and 29mm (1.2in) respectively. Its shape is peculiar, with an enlarged abdomen, poorly developed fins, and an arched backbone.  These features indicate that Delphyodontos was relatively helpless and not capable of swimming. However, these features are also characteristic of a fetus. The known specimens are most likely spontaneously aborted late term fetuses.

What is even more intriguing than its body shape is its teeth. The upper and lower tooth plates are compressed, blade like, and bear tall cusps.  This tooth structure is adapted for slashing and piercing.  That's unique for holocephalans for all other known members of the group, both living and fossil, have crushing tooth plates.  Although Delphyodontos adults have not yet been described, it is highly likely that they had crushing teeth as well.  So what would a Delphyodontos fetus need such teeth for?  In addition, there is no evidence of a yolk sac or umbilicus, so what was the fetus feeding on? 

Drawing of the piercing, slashing teeth of Delphyodontos.
The answer comes from the smaller specimen, in which a large fecal mass is preserved in the back of the abdomen.  Since these small, fetal fish were not capable of swimming yet show a fecal mass in the gut, they must have been feeding inside the female before birth.  There are, surprisingly, food sources within the mother, notably other eggs. Such intrauterine feeding is known in living cartilaginous fishes, where the yolk sac is absorbed early in development and specialized dentition is used to open egg capsules and consume the contents.  In some cases, the mother shark provides a steady supply of unfertilized eggs as a food source. The fetus of some modern intrauterine feeding sharks show an expanded foregut, as in Delphyodontos.

So as peculiar as Delphyodontos looks, its features give us insight into its biology, even before birth.  And if eating the other eggs sharing the uterus with you isn’t sibling rivalry, then I  have no idea what is. 

Even though every blasted dinosaur species has been fleshed out multiple times, this is the only available restoration of Delphyodontos and shows the overall embryonic shape of the specimens.

Hopefully, knowing about the biology of Delphyodontos gives you a better appreciation of its name, which is derived from delphyo, womb, and dontos, tooth.

I wish all my readers a happy 2012 Mother's Day.  Go ahead, give mom a hug and a kiss and, if you feel like it, gobble down a couple of eggs in memory of old Delphyodontos.  

But stay tuned for my Father's Day post.  I already have it plotted out.  


Paleogeographic map,  BGL outcrop, photo of male and female Harpagofututor, and photo of Delphyodontos specimen (some modified): Fossil Fishes of Bear Gulch

Drawings of male and female skulls of Harpagofututor (modified):  Lund 1982 (below).

Two pregnant Harpagofututor specimens (modified): Grogon and Lund 2011 (below)

Drawing of jaws and teeth of Delphyodontos (modified): Lund 1980 (below)

Delphyodontos flesh restoration:


Fossil Fishes of Bear Gulch.

Grogon, E.D. and Lund, R. 1997. Soft Tissue Pigments of the Upper Mississippian Chondrenchelyid, Harpagofututor volsellorhinus (Chondrichthyes, Holocephali) from the Bear Gulch Limestone, Montana, USA.  Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 71 (2): 337-342.
Grogon, E.D. and Lund, R. 2002. The geological and biological environment of the Bear Gulch Limestone (Mississippian of Montana, USA) and a model for its deposition.  Geodiversitas 24(2): 295-315.

Grogon, E.D. and Lund, R. 2011. Superfoetative viviparity in a Carboniferous chondrichthyan and reproduction in early gnathostomes.  Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 161: 587-594.

Hagadorn, J.W. 2002. Bear Gulch: an exceptional Upper Carboniferous Plattenkalk. In Bottjer, D.J., Etter, W., Hagadorn, J.W., & Tang, C.M. (eds.) Exceptional Fossil Preservation: A Unique View on the Evolution of Marine Life. New York: Columbia University Press: 167-183.

Joung, S.J., Chen, C.T., Clark, E., Uchida, S.W., and Huang, Y.P. 1996. The whale shark, Rhincodon typus, is a livebearer; 300 embryos found in one ‘megamomma’ supreme. Environmental Biology of Fishes 46: 219-223.

Lund, R.  1980. Viviparity and intrauterine feeding in a new holocephalan fish from the Lower Carboniferous of Montana. Science 209 (4457): 697-699.

Lund, R. 1982. Harpagofututor  volsellorhinus new genus and species (Chondrihthyes, Chondrenchelyiformes) from the Namurian Bear Gulch Limestoine, Chondrochelys problematica Tarquir (Visnean) and their sexual dimorphisms. Journal of Paleontology 56(4): 938-958.