STL Science Center

STL Science Center

04 May 2018

The Scary Face

When the characteristic feature of your existence, as a fossil that is known and described in science, is that the entire legitimacy of your existence in our knowledge is tainted by potential theft and other impropriety you do not get overburdened with a lot of respect or investigation. Of course fossils are not people so the skull of Minotaurasaurus does not actually feel any shame, guilt, or worry about the provenance of its discovery or how it was whisked away from Mongolia (or wherever in Asia it originated). The people involved, regardless of their status as buyer or seller, are subjected to arguments from both sides of the controversy; factions do indeed exist that say that keeping the fossil in a private collection is as morally correct as it is to rescue a fossil from a private collection. Articles and opinions are everywhere online and in paper journals as well as in newspapers and magazines (two of these linked articles are about the same specimen). Not all of these issues arise in other countries either. The United States of America has its fair share of dinosaur fossil legal battles throughout its history; the ownership of Sue the T. rex being the most famous one that I can think of right away.

Minotaurasaurus is not a Tyrannosaurus and it is not a fossil of North America. Instead, it represents a real and, unfortunately, growing problem, even if we do not hear about it daily in the news. The skull is actually very interesting because it looks a lot like many other ankylosaurs we knew of previously and this has caused a lot of researchers, such as Victoria Arbour and Phillip Currie, have reassigned Minotaurasaurus to another taxon, Tachia kielanae. Another study upheld the original description and nothing else has surfaced since that time. Regardless, the skull is not in a museum where all of these researchers can look at the original material and come to a solid conclusion. Until it is they, and we, will have to make due with casts and character lists and some photographs to compare the skull to other animals. Description can be tricky though, so this description may be contentious for a some time to come, unless another animal is discovered and can be studied more directly.
Photograph of a cast of the holotype material. Borrowed from Victoria Arbour's blog here.

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