Dinosaur expert Philip Currie was on a dig in the Alberta badlands a few weeks back, camping in a tent, when he learned that yet another fossil site had been vandalized.
The heartbreaking news was in an email which his wife received when she climbed high enough on a hill to get reception on her cellphone. The message said that a Hadrosaur, which had been discovered in the Pipestone Creek area near Grande Prairie in northwestern Alberta on June 15, was smashed to pieces and had been found by a crew returning to the site to carefully remove the bones.
The duck-billed dinosaur skeleton was intended to become a prized exhibit in a museum that's being built in nearby Wembley, Alta.
But now the specimen is just another unrecoverable piece of the Earth's history and paleontologists are thinking twice about security at their sites.
"Paleontology isn't what you would call one of the heavily financed sciences around. In a lot of cases we're working on a shoestring," said Currie. "We have enough trouble getting enough money for the plaster and burlap to wrap the specimens, let alone to have to pay overtime and video surveillance and whatever else.
"In other cases, where we know there's a problem, we'll actually put a trailer there and park people there all night and all day. But generally we tend to hope that we don't have to do that because it certainly causes other problems, including attracting attention."
RCMP say they are investigating the Hadrosaur vandalism, but don't have any suspects.
The Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative, the group building the museum, says it is at least the fourth act of fossil poaching and vandalism in the region in the last few months.
At Pipestone Creek Park, a bone bed has been harmed, and in late May a Plexiglas cover protecting and showcasing several fossilized bones was smashed.
In June, a vertebra and several rib bones were stolen.
Currie, a University of Alberta professor and a research associate at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alta., said vandalism and theft have always been a concern for paleontologists. Crews working at dig sites try to keep a low profile to avoid attracting attention, he said, a little like a fisherman being coy about revealing the location of his favourite fishing hole.
One dig site is even located in Edmonton and while the people in the immediate neighbourhood know, few others do.
At some sites, crews count on having a good rapport with landowners, relying on them to keep an eye on the sites and report trouble, Currie said.
But the Pipestone Creek site was remote enough that they didn't believe anyone would find it, he said. Team members working on the Hadrosaur skeleton, which was about a metre long and 80 centimetres wide, encased its surface in a plaster jacket and then buried the whole thing in dirt so that it would be safe for when they returned.
'Worse than outright theft'
It wasn't enough. Currie said the email message, which came from Phil Bell, a paleontologist on the excavation project, was emotional.
"I know how nice the specimen was and how excited we all were when we were uncovering the bones in the first few days," said Currie, who was working at the site when the specimen was discovered.
"It's almost worse than outright theft, because if it's outright theft you kind of hope the specimen has survived and will end up somewhere decent at some point.
"But when you just see vandalism where things are destroyed, you just get this horribly sick feeling, because there's just nothing you can do about it. All the information is lost, not to mention the specimen itself.
"It's just a terrible, terrible feeling."
At the time, Bell called the destruction "a tragedy."
"Not only for our science, but for the whole community that will benefit from the new museum," Bell wrote in a blog post.
While there's a lucrative global black market for fossils, Currie said the specimens usually aren't from Alberta. Taking fossils out of the province has been illegal since the 1970s and the fines are steep, which deters smuggling. Much of the world's black market fossils are coming from Mongolia where, despite similar laws prohibiting exports, many have made their way out of the country hidden in mining trucks, Currie said.
That doesn't mean there aren't professional fossil hunters in Canada, but Currie said they aren't as common and aren't always as adept. In the late 1980s when dinosaur eggs were discovered in southern Alberta, Currie said people were chartering helicopters and posing as agricultural inspectors to try to find where the dig was taking place. One man tried to sell what he thought was an Alberta dinosaur egg to experts in Utah, but it turned out to be a rock.
On another occasion, Currie said a dig team returned one morning to a dinosaur skull they were extracting at Knee Hills Creek near Drumheller to find that all the teeth had been removed. The culprit was eventually caught several years later when police raided a home for drugs and found one of the teeth.
Currie said it's possible that whoever smashed the Hadrosaur was hoping to sell the specimen, but clearly wasn't professional enough despite the effort to uncover it.
"They really didn't know what they were doing. They were incapable of taking the bones out in whole pieces, so it's hard to imagine it's theft for the purpose of sale. It's possible it's theft for the purpose of souvenirs."
He guesses the vandals are likely people who are poorly informed about the scientific value of the fossils. Or they may not appreciate the people doing the science and are trying to make a statement by destroying something.
But in the case of the Hadrosaur, Currie thinks it was people who got together for a party, didn't even think about it, and weren't even aware of the law protecting fossils.
"As a professional, you feel absolutely sick when you walk up to one of these sites and you see the destruction."
Public education about the law is one of the best defences, Currie said. People who have been caught tend to have been turned in by members of the public.
It is illegal under the Historical Resources Act to alter, mark or damage paleontological specimens. Offenders face up to $40,000 in fines or a year in prison.
"People are generally aware of the value of these things and what the laws are. And they keep their eyes open for us and that's the strongest protection we can get in most cases."