When a bizarre fossil appeared for sale in Europe, it looked so odd it had to be fake. But a high-tech investigation introduced us to Halzkaraptor escullei – part velociraptor, part penguin
12 February 2020
DESOLATE and beautiful, southern Mongolia’s Gobi desert is a vast, treeless expanse, with few permanent settlements and even fewer paved roads. It was here, amid the crumbling outcrops of a fossil site known as Ukhaa Tolgod, that the poachers struck.
The thieves would have worked methodically, digging out a half-metre-long block of soft red sandstone containing the whitish bones of a small dinosaur. They probably doused the skeleton with superglue, a crude substitute for the substances that palaeontologists use to harden and protect fossilised bone. Then they probably wrapped the block in hessian and plaster, loaded it into a four-wheel-drive truck, and drove away, leaving smashed pieces of bone and bottles of superglue strewn across the desert.
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They had something valuable, that much the poachers knew. What they couldn’t have guessed was that it would turn out to such be a sensational dinosaur discovery. Nor could they have known the epic journey this fossil would take around the world, passing through the hands of criminals, dealers, and scientists – only to end up right back where it began, in Mongolia, a decade later.
One reason the country is such a hotbed for fossil poaching is that unlike most places, it has great tracts of exposed Cretaceous rock in areas devoid of vegetation. Dinosaur bones are abundant here, and relatively easy to find. It is impossible to say exactly how many have been smuggled out of the country since the trade began in the 1990s, …