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Wyoming museum defends custody of fossil
Courtesy of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center This fossil of archaeopteryx is considered significant because it shows a view of the skull not seen previously. It was found in Germany encased in a slab of fine-grained limestone and was purchased from a private party by an anonymous collector.

THERMOPOLIS - A plan to bring a rare, scientifically valuable dinosaur fossil to a private collection in Thermopolis has become the focus of debate among some scientists concerned about research-ers' access to the specimen.

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a privately owned collection and exhibition hall in Thermopolis, has negotiated a permanent loan of one of only 10 existing archaeopteryx fossils.

About the size of a magpie, the feathered archaeopteryx lived about 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period. It is a key species in showing the link between dinosaurs and birds, their evolutionary descendants.

The archaeopteryx bound for Thermopolis is perhaps the best specimen yet found, and according to a recent article in the prestigious journal Science, some researchers are concerned that it is headed for an obscure, private collection.

"We're a small museum, and not every paleontologist is familiar with us," said Scott Hartman, science director for the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. "They were concerned until they found out who we were, and that's natural.

"We've contacted them and addressed all these concerns with people who've raised them publicly," Hartman said. "I think we managed to convince most of them we're not going to put the specimen in any danger."

Hartman said that after upgrading its security system, the center plans to take possession of the fossil in late fall, when it will be on public display.

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center hosts the largest collection of dinosaur fossils and casts in the state, Hartman said. It features 10 full-size mounted dinosaur skeletons and offers public tours of active fossil dig sites.

Hartman said the fossil, which was found in Germany encased in a slab of fine-grained limestone, was purchased from a private party by an anonymous collector.

Hartman declined to confirm the price paid for the fossil, now known as the Thermopolis specimen, but he confirmed that similar finds have sold for more than $1 million.

"It's a specimen of tremendous significance, and it is great to have it here in the U.S.," said Luis Chiappe, curator of the Dinosaur Institute at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

"At the same time, I have to regret that some of these specimens are fueling the fossil trade and commerce, which is something that's hurting paleontology," he said.

Chiappe, along with Kevin Padian, curator of the University of California's Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley, was quoted in Science as expressing reservations about private ownership of the Thermopolis specimen.

Both men have since spoken with Hartman, who said he has taken pains to assure them and other researchers that the specimen will be properly handled and available to qualified researchers.

Padian said he preferred to see the specimen find a home at a public institution with a solid research reputation, something he said was lacking at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.

"Without a strong research component, they're not going to stimulate new work," he said. "But as long as they understand the best current methods of preserving specimens," the fossil probably would be well cared for.

"If we all have good intentions and good cooperation, then everything should be fine," Padian said. "My main concern is that the specimen is safe and available for posterity."

Chiappe said he had no reason to fear that the Wyoming Dinosaur Center would not properly care for the Thermopolis specimen, and that his concerns were centered more on the growing commercial trade in fossils.

He said he looked forward to learning more about the Thermopolis specimen.

"With this one, I like the view of the skull, which is interesting in that - with all the other specimens - the skull is either very poorly preserved or on a side view," Chiappe said.

"This one seems to have a nice skull you can see from the top, and that adds to our knowledge of the animal," he said.

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Also of interest to researchers are the well-preserved feet of the Thermopolis specimen, which have been described as dinosaur feet on a bird's body. They help bolster the case that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

In an article published in Science in December, researchers argued that the archaeopteryx, widely considered to be the earliest bird species, had toes more like its theropod contemporaries than modern birds.

Theropods were swift, meat-eating dinosaurs that walked on two legs, including tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptor.

"I do think that the question of theropod ancestry of birds can now be settled once and forever," wrote Gerald Mayr, who authored the Science article along with Wyoming Dinosaur Center founder Burkhard Pohl.

Hartman said he was unprepared for some of the reactions from paleontologists who objected to the center's acquisition of the Thermopolis specimen.

"It kind of caught me by surprise," he said. "There is some irony there in that the specimen had already been in a private collection and was in danger of going to another private collection," where it would not be available to researchers.

Despite the initial reservations expressed by some researchers, Hartman said he sees the publicity surrounding the Thermopolis specimen as positive for the center.

"It did open a lot of discussion with the rest of the community," said Hartman. "I don't think it was detrimental in the long run.

"Plus," he said, "it is pretty cool that Thermopolis is going to be listed alongside cities like Berlin and Munich," both homes to other archaeopteryx specimens.

If you go

Admission to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center:

$6, adults.$3.50, kids 4-13 and seniors.Free for kids 3 and under.

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