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Forensics for filched fossils

stolen dinosaur bonesDinosaur bones are going missing all over the country—presumably stolen from the field, labs and even museums. And filched fossils can bring in tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market. But even when caught with the bones, would-be thieves can rarely be accused with certainty. It’s a big fossil-filled world out there, and one Hesperonychus femur can look pretty similar to the next.

But researchers are getting closer to a system that would allow ancient fossils to be identified using a unique DNA-like reading, according to an Associated Press report today.

The system would allow paleontologists to test for the prevalence of rare earth elements in just about any fossil and determine where it came from, the AP reports. “So often we catch people with fossils in their car,” a paleontologist at the frequently looted Badlands told the news wire service, “but we can’t prove they were collected in the park.”

Those behind the project, including Dennis Terry of Temple University in Philadelphia, hope to construct a database that will include the unique chemical identities of each fossil site so that suspect fossils can be traced back to their origins—a prehistoric provenance of sorts.

Other efforts include more cameras and sensors, noted the AP, such as those being installed in the vast Badlands area, as well as stricter punishment for fossil poachers, which were included in a law signed by President Obama this spring.

But for those who have already had their sites compromised or specimens stolen, future forensics may hold little hope. An exhibits manager who had important bones from a young Diplodocus go missing in a Utah Bureau of Land Management site expressed his frustration to the AP: “It’s like pieces of a puzzle that are now gone.”

Image of Triceratops skull, originally published in 1899 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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