Rocky Landing for Winged Fossil Display

Associated Press Writer

A rare and prized fossil of the feathered archaeopteryx -- thought to be Earth’s first bird -- has become something of an albatross to the small Wyoming museum that will be the first outside Europe to possess such a specimen.

The scientific significance of the fossil is unquestioned and its monetary value is thought to be in excess of $1 million, but its stealthy private acquisition has drawn scorn from some scientists.

“Ethically, in our profession, if a specimen is not in the public domain, its scientific worth is about zero,” said Kevin Padian, a curator of paleontology and professor at UC Berkeley.


But officials at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center & Dig Sites in Thermopolis, where the fossil eventually will be on display, give assurances that it will be available for scientific study and accessible to the public.

They acknowledge that the situation of ownership is not perfect, but they say it is better than not having the fossil available at all to study.

“If you can show me what’s wrong with that, I’m more than happy to put it back in a bank in Switzerland,” said Wyoming Dinosaur Center owner Burkhard Pohl, who brokered the sale of the fossil from one private owner to another.

Pohl has refused to release any details about the sale, including anything about the new owner or the financial aspects of the deal.

The archaeopteryx was a bird-like creature about the size of a crow, with teeth, a lizard-like tail and wings. It lived about 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. Many scientists consider it the first bird because it had wings and was the first fossil found with feathers.

Only 10 archaeopteryx fossils are known to exist -- all in Europe.

The specimen heading to Thermopolis is the newest and among the most complete. About a foot square in size, it is encased in a slab of limestone dug up in Germany.

It is now housed at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, where it will stay until the Thermopolis facility can install proper security and a display case, which Pohl hopes could be ready next year.

The fossil underwent an initial examination by scientists at the Senckenberg Research Institute last year.

“The skull is the bestpreserved one of all archaeopterygids and the only one that is exposed in dorsal view,” the scientists wrote in an article for the journal Science. In addition, the “wing and tail feather impressions are well preserved,” they said.

The initial analysis bolstered theories that the archaeopteryx evolved from dinosaurs because the specimen’s feet clearly showed toes with the same characteristics as those of dinosaurs. It also dispelled theories that the animal had feet adapted for perching such as those of modern birds.

The fossil was found in Bavaria about 30 years ago, said Scott Hartman, science director at the Wyoming museum. It was kept in a private collection unknown to scientists for years until the original owner died and his widow decided to sell it, he said.

The Senckenberg Museum was interested in the fossil but couldn’t afford to pay the asking price, Hartman said.

Although Pohl would disclose neither the price sought nor the amount paid, Kirk Johnson, chief curator of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, said the rarity and completeness of the skeleton led him to believe “it must be worth millions. How many, I don’t know.”

The German museum contacted Pohl, a native of Germany and longtime fossil collector who had worked with Senckenberg researchers on items he had found.

While vacationing in Wyoming in 1993, Pohl, a veterinarian in Switzerland at the time, became so enthralled with the rich dinosaur fossil beds around Thermopolis that he moved to Wyoming, bought a ranch and helped build the museum.

Pohl succeeded in finding someone to buy the archaeopteryx fossil and make it available to scientists by lending it to the Thermopolis museum. There were other unidentified parties interested in buying the specimen who might not have been as willing to do so, he said.

Pohl has refused to release details of the negotiations or the agreement with the new owner, except for provisions that he says guarantee that the fossil always be available for public display and study even if the current owner should die or sell it or if the Wyoming museum closes.

But for scientists such as Padian the agreement isn’t good enough.

Noting that no one has seen any documents on the agreement, Padian said that as long as the fossil was privately owned, there was the possibility it could be taken away from scientific study by the owner or the owner’s heirs.

“That means no one can check previously published statements about it,” he said. “So the science of the specimen becomes questionable.”

Fossils owned by public institutions and museums, however, will always remain in the public domain, he said.

“If the curator croaks, it’s still going to be there,” Padian said.

Hartman said the issue was more of a “media controversy than a real one” because most scientists hadn’t voiced similar concerns.

It is fair to question how a fossil of such scientific and monetary value will be cared for in a small, private museum in Wyoming, he said.

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center, located in a town of 3,100 people in central Wyoming, is being careful to take all legal and security steps necessary to make sure it is protected from theft, fire and other dangers, Hartman said.

Opened in 1995, the Wyoming Dinosaur Center is the state’s first facility dedicated to excavating, preparing and displaying dinosaur bones discovered within the state. Historically, most of the dinosaur fossils dug up in Wyoming were shipped out for display in other states and countries.

The Thermopolis museum now displays more than 200 fossils and 30 mounted full-size skeletons, including about 24 dinosaurs. It attracts about 27,000 visitors a year. By contrast, the much larger Denver Museum of Nature & Science attracts more than a million visitors annually.

The museum is looking to expand its 12,000 square feet of display space so it can show more dinosaurs and is making records on the specimens it has more accessible to researchers.

Hartman said 18 or so scientists, including “some noted paleontologists” he would not identify, were on a list to study the fossil when it goes on display in Thermopolis.

Officially, the fossil is on loan to the Wyoming museum.

Pohl said it was possible the Wyoming specimen could be displayed on a temporary basis at other museums.