On this day: Stolen dinosaur footprint recovered

By Amanda James 8 November 2013
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In 1998, a missing carnivorous dinosaur footprint stolen from a sacred Aboriginal site was recovered.

A 120-MILLION-YEAR-OLD dinosaur footprint was among a series of fossils illegally removed from a sacred Aboriginal site in Broome, WA in the mid-90s. The footprint was recovered on 30 December 1998, its thief charged thereafter, while another invaluable fossil remains missing and shrouded in mystery.

The theft of fossilised dinosaur footprints highlights the competition and crime that surrounds possession of some of the oldest artefacts in history — artefacts sought after and traded by collectors, prized by researchers and worshipped by Aboriginal people.

“The subject of illegal fossil trading has not been taken very seriously by the law,” says Dr Henk Godthelp, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who works to intercept the trade of protected fossils from Australia overseas. If caught, the fines illegal fossil traders face will be much less than the amount of money, usually hundreds of thousands of dollars, which the traders could make from selling the prints.

Illegal fossil trading

The fossils recovered in 1998 included ancient human footprints from a secret site in the Dampier Peninsula and a single large Megalosauropus broomensis footprint from a sacred site near Broome on the north-west coast of WA. The human footprints have been dated at 7000 years old, while the dinosaur footprint is an estimated 120 million years old.

Whereas bones provide information about what a dinosaur may have looked like, trackways can show how a dinosaur moved, rested, stalked and looked after their young. “To remove one or two takes away precious information from the complete data set,” writes palaeontologist Dr John Long in his book The Dinosaur Dealers, which investigates international fossil smuggling.

This 1997 heist was the second blow in two years to the scientific community, which still hopes to recover rare stegosaurus prints stolen from another site, near Broome, in 1996. Unlike the 1996 robbery, the perpetrator of the 1997 crime was caught. Michael Latham, a member of the Aboriginal community in Broome, pleaded guilty to the theft of the dinosaur and human footprints. His punishment: two concurrent sentences of two years in jail.

Stegosaurus prints still at large

Though the 1998 charges marked a victory in stolen fossil recovery, the community was no closer to solving the mystery of the stegosaurus tracks stolen in 1996. These prints are thought to be the only evidence of the stegosaurus in Australia. Police were unable to link the two thefts.

“We have intelligence that those prints were collected to order,” says Henk. He says that some people believe that a private collector commissioned a thief to take the stegosaurus prints and may have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire them. For fossil dealers and private collectors, says Henk, possessing prized dinosaur fossils is a “bit of an alternative to collecting artwork. We can only hope that the extraction was successful and that the prints were undamaged,” he says. “Collectors don’t have the same level of expertise to extract the fossils as palaeontologists do.”

The missing stegosaurus prints have caused dispute between the Aboriginal people who govern the site in Broome, and palaeontologists who study the prints. “It was controversial because it’s an inter-cultural thing,” says Mike Archer, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales. “There was a presumption that a researcher had taken [the prints] away for study, based on the logical assumption that the prints were worthy of study and that palaeontologists collect fossils.”

The major market for dinosaur fossils is in Europe, the U.S., and Japan and there are no international laws to govern the fossil trade. “While it might be illegal to export fossils from Australia, it may not be illegal for a different country to import the fossils,” says Henk.