Image: American Museum of Natural History

After a decade-long absence from the institution where it was first unveiled, the extraordinary fossil of a 200-million-year-old winged reptile dubbed Icarosaurus siefkeri was returned yesterday to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. A Californian benefactor bestowed the ancient beast after having purchased it last month at an auction in San Francisco.

The fossil was discovered about 40 years ago by three teenage boys poking around in a New Jersey quarry. One of them, Alfred Siefker, eventually brought it to the museum, where it could be properly cleaned and studied. The fossil turned out to be one-of-a-kind, its small, delicate skeleton nearly completea rare occurrence, considering its great antiquity. Moreover, studies of the specimen conducted in the 1960s revealed a specialized anatomy that pushed the origin of winged vertebrates back by about 10 million years. Icarosauruss elongated ribs, AMNH paleontology curator Michael J. Novacek explains, supported a thin membrane that enabled the animal to glide from tree to tree, much like the modern draco lizard from Indonesia does today. "Icarosaurus was gliding around prehistoric New Jersey before the earliest pterosaurs and 80 million years before birds took to the air," he remarks.

The fossil remained in the custody of the museum until 1989, when Siefker reclaimed it. But recently he decided to sell Icarosaurus through the auction house of Butterfield & Butterfield. As a result, paleontologists feared that the fossil would wind up in the hands of a private collector, forever lost to science and to the public. Fortunately, retired California businessman Dick Spight stepped in. After winning the bidding at $167,000--barely half what the appraisors had expected--Spight donated Icarosaurus back to the museum. Researchers are clearly pleased that the fossil has returned to what they see as its rightful home, but the fact that such a scientifically valuable fossil ended up on the auction block in the first place strikes a bitter chord. People shouldnt be allowed to have these fossils in their homes, insists Kevin Padian of the University of California at Berkeley, noting that even Third World countries have stricter laws than the U.S. does.

In honor of its homecoming, Icarosaurus will be on display at the AMNH starting October 7."This is really a piece of our natural heritage that belongs to everyone," commented AMNH president Ellen V. Futter. "Once again this rare fossil can be studied by researchers and displayed for the public to enjoy."