St. Louisans present when vandalized dinosaur skeleton discovered in Alberta
When members of the St. Louis Explorers Club purchased a trip to Alberta, Canada, with paleontologist Phil Bell, they expected fascinating dinosaur excavations. Instead, they came face to face with a paleontologist's worst nightmare: the destruction of a once-perfect dinosaur skeleton.
On July 15, paleontologist Phil Bell and a team from the University of Alberta discovered a complete fossilized skeleton of a hadrosaur, a plant-eating dinosaur that once roamed the Grande Prairie region of Alberta.
Bell said hadrosaurs were a common type of dinosaur, but little is known about those from the Grande Prairie region.
After the discovery, Bell said he ran out of time to complete the excavation. He covered the bones in plastic, wrapped them in burlap and reburied them to protect them, planning to return the following week. He said this is a standard practice for preserving fossils.
The following Thursday, Bell returned to the site with St. Louis residents Sandy Peters, his wife Cindy, their son Turner and daughter-in-law Julie, who purchased the trip at an auction hosted by the local Explorers Club. When he returned to the site, the skeleton had been completely destroyed.
As they approached the site, "Bell stopped dead in his tracks and said 'Oh, no! It's been poached,'"Peters said.
"I'd never run across anything like this in my life," Peters said.
Bell said the site had been completely exhumed. The plaster jacket had been torn off and the bones were destroyed and scattered down the hill. It was evident to Bell that the vandals had spent a lot of time at the site.
It looked as though someone "took sledgehammers to it," Peters said.
Bell said this shows a complete lack of respect for the natural world.
The whole afternoon was spent picking up bones that had been scattered around the site. The skeleton can be partially reconstructed, but even the best reconstruction is not the same as a complete skeleton, Bell said.
This discovery was important because it would have given paleontologists an insight into a different ecology of dinosaurs. Finding a complete skeleton is very rare, and most of the time only a bone or a piece of a bone is found.
"This was a scientific gold mine," Bell said. "It was a real treat for us."
Peters said he and his family were devastated for Bell. "We saw a man's life focus and work ripped out from under him."
Since the discovery of the vandalism, leads have emerged. When Bell and the Peters family were walking to the site, they came across a remote campground littered with cans, bottles and even some bones, one of which had plaster on it. An article by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said a liquor-store receipt found at the campsite could help lead to the discovery of the culprits.
Bell said there have been a number of fossils in the area vandalized in the last month. He said one fossil in the Grande Prairie region was available for view to the public through a plexiglass cover. The cover was smashed, but luckily no harm was done to the bones.
Alberta has some of the strictest laws against fossil poaching. Those found illegally poaching or vandalizing fossils can face a fine up to $400,000 and a year in prison.
No one has yet been identified as the culprit, but Bell said, "Hopefully there is another ending to this story."