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The stolen dinosaur

The stolen dinosaur
 
   
   
   
   
 
 

WHEN I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, my guide asked me what I wanted to see. Along with the cultural heritage, I mentioned my interest in natural history. I knew the Cretaceous landforms of what is now the Gobi Desert had been deposited at the boundary of a desert and lush forest, where huge dust storms often buried the dinosaurs. It was a dramatic time here during the late Cretaceous, making the Gobi Desert one of the world’s richest areas for dinosaur fossils.

Museum entrance

Museum entrance

Dougie knew where to take me. We reached the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs with a huge sign out the front suggesting this was a huge place. It turned out the museum itself was very small, but what it lacked for in size, it made up for with the quality of its specimens.

Just inside the entrance I bought a ticket (paying extra for being a photographer which seems to be a common theme in Mongolia these days – perhaps as a way to weed out the smartphone selfie crowd), or perhaps due to the common but unfounded theory around the world that photographers who carry big cameras are richer than everyone else.

Once past the ticket area we climbed the steps with some very realistic life-sized model dinosaurs on either side.

One side was a Saichania (meaning beautiful one – though I thought it was very ugly) with its menacing club at the end of its tail for defence only. It is a form of herbivorous Ankylosaurid. It had an armoured shell of bones on its body to keep it safe from predator attacks. It was found in the Gobi Desert near the southernmost part of the country. It was normally a slow-moving herbivore, a bit like a cow, but it could really spring to action when needing to defend itself. These were around during the late Cretaceous between 83 and 80 million years ago.

Model dinosaurs

Model dinosaurs

On the other side was a medium sized carnivore, probably a juvenile Tarbosaurus looking rather menacing being very realistically sculptured.

The stairs led into the main gallery, very dark and tall. In the middle was a circular display with the skeletons of two carnivorous dinosaurs. The large one stood particularly menacing. The other was an obviously herbivorous duck billed hadrosaur.

Main exhibit

Main exhibit

The larger specimen was a complete juvenile Tarbosaurus Bataar. It is a very close relative of the tyrannosaurus rex living around 70 million years ago, but it was classified as a new species as it had proportionally shorter arms (very tiny), a narrower skull and more teeth than the tyrannosaurus. Its name meaning “alarming lizard” from Tarbosaurus and “hero” from Bataar. This species has only been found in Mongolia, with most specimens coming from the remove Nemegl Valley in the Gobi Desert.

Tarbosaurus and

Tarbosaurus and
hadrosaur

Apparently this specimen was stolen about a decade ago and ended up in the hands of a fossil hunter from Florida. How one illegally smuggles such a large specimen through heavily militarised borders like the USA boggles the mind, but somehow he had done that, and smuggled all sorts of other specimens into Florida before advertising them for auction when he was caught and convicted following objections from palaeontologists.

The Tarbosaur was returned in time for the museum’s opening in 2013. This is the first museum in Mongolia dedicated to dinosaurs, set up as a research centre and to inspire more locals here to become palaeontologists, to discover more of the ancient ecosystems isolated from other parts of the world during the Cretaceous. It also replaces the old Museum of Natural History which the building is at serious risk of collapse.

Saichania skull

Saichania skull

Surrounding the main exhibit were a few smaller exhibits of dinosaurs mostly still in the rocks they came from. This included an Oviraptosauria unearthed in the south western Gobi Desert in 1976. It is a heavily feathered dinosaur (especially in the wings) closely related to the velociraptor standing about a metre tall and even more bird like. There were two specimens. One was a jumble of bones as they had been discovered. The second was a fully assembled skeleton showing its billed mouth and a bony crest on its head. It was very similar to the Australian cassowary, now regarded as the closest living animal to the dinosaurs.

Oviraptor

Oviraptor

There was a skull of a Pronocephale, a small pachycephalod distinguished by its solid bone skull and straight neck allowing it to pack an enormous punch when headbutting any predators. These armoured dinosaurs were incredibly well built given most of them were docile herbivores, but this gave testament to the ferocity of the Tarbosaurus and other predators they had to tend with.

Prenociphalalod

Prenociphalalod

This was followed by a baby dinosaur having been buried not long after hatching. After this was a cabinet of two protoceratops skulls found in the northern Gobi Desert. It was a small dinosaur with a large crest of bone extending from the back of its neck standing about a metre high.

Protoceratops skulls

Protoceratops skulls

The next cabinet had the remains of two ornithomimidae discovered in the north-eastern Gobi Desert in 1890. These were young specimens of an omnivore standing up to three metres high living around 99-86 million years ago. The name suggests this is very similar to a bird, and its skeleton very closely resembled the modern birds, apart from the wings being stunted arms.

caption

Two ornithomimidae

The following cabinet had a collection of dinosaur eggs carefully laid in a circle. They would have perhaps been carefully arranged on the nest by its mother.

Nest of dinosaur eggs

Nest of dinosaur eggs

A few more glass cabinets contained a few more specimen before we headed upstairs where a creepy lady was constantly watching us no doubt wanting to protect their exhibits perhaps as a result of their star specimen being stolen.

Tabrosaurus skull

Tabrosaurus skull

The mezzanine floor contained a few more exhibits in glass cages. The first being the skull of the Tarbosaurus Bataar. The narrow face had lethal teeth, easily able to slice its way through the thickest of skin. This was another specimen the American smuggler had taken out of Mongolia. It had gone to auction and actors Nicolas Cage and Leonardo Di Caprio had both bidded for it with Nicolas winning with a bid of $275,000. He didn’t suspect anything at the time as he was provided a certificate of authenticity. Upon learning it had been smuggled out of Mongolia he agreed to return it. The Tarbosaur downstairs had been expected to go for nearly 2 million dollars, so it was a good thing the smuggler had been caught before it had been sold.

Saichania rib cage

Saichania rib cage

The next cabinet had an ancient turtle whose fossilised remains had been discovered in the Gobi Desert. A few more cabinets contained the remains of various species still encased in the rock they had come from, showing how difficult it is for the palaeontologists to find and unearth them.

caption

Ornithomimidae

Upon looking at all the exhibits, we headed back down to the main display with the creepy lady still following us at a distance. With one last look at the sensational Tarbosaur specimen, we headed back out to the modern world some 70-80 million years after the time when they had been alive.

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20 September 2016

 

Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia

 

47°55'23"N
106°54'17"E
1420m ASL

 

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