Thursday, June 24, 2010

Nyctosaurus Lost

Above: Private fossil dealer Rob Frithiof, just before Harrison Ford sucker punches him and Coronado's Cross nearly falls off the deck of the ship. Photo by Aaron Huey from Smithsonian Online, see link below.

Last month I covered an appearance by the famous giant-crested Nyctosaurus specimens in the Brazos Valley Museum in Texas, displayed along with a piece of my artwork (for which I was neither compensated nor, more importantly, notified). These crested specimens were first described by Chris Bennett in 2003. In his paper, Bennett noted that the specimens were in a private collection, usually shunned by scientists when describing new species; what if, after the initial description, other researchers are not allowed access to the specimens? Without the possibility of further independent study, the specimens are effectively lost to science.

In a way, we're lucky Bennett did what he did, because knowledge of these spectacular finds has inspired a mini-surge of research into pterosaur crest dynamics and function, as well as brought attention to the otherwise little-known Nyctosaurus, bringing it out from under the shadow of its contemporary cousin Pteranodon as arguably the more charismatic pterosaur. But private collections are private collections, and Bennett's worst fears have come true, according to a recent post on the blog.

Apparently, a little while ago, one of the crested Nyctosaurus specimens (KJ1 and KJ2 in Bennett's unofficial numbering scheme, KJ1 shown at right, photo by mavra_chang) showed up on eBay. We're talking the actual specimen here, not a cast (I'm not aware if any casts have been made of these guys). [Update 7/31/2012 - see comments below; apparently, casts have been made and distributed for at least KJ1]. It was snapped up by an unknown buyer and is currently lost to science. Pterosaurologist Mark Witton, who writes for the blog, didn't say what happened but noted that the other KJ specimen has also "dropped off the radar completely."

The KJ specimens were owned by Rob Frithiof, a real estate developer and part-time fossil collector based out of Texas, who organized the Brazos Valley exhibit (news story here) before the specimens were sold. Presumably, Frithiof, in a fit of pique after watching the first 10 minutes of Last Crusade one too many times, decided that "it belongs in a museum" and placed them there for a few weeks before auctioning some of the most interesting and impressive pterosaur specimens ever known off to some anonymous highest bidder. Frithiof was already infamous in the paleo community for his discovery and subsequent litigation over the juvenile tyrannosaur specimen "Tinker", over which he was cleared of all charges and retained ownership of the phenomenally important fossil. As of 2006, Frithiof had sent Tinker to a private prep lab in Pennsylvania to be prepped and mounted, but the lab went out of business, and the fossil is still sitting in storage as far as I know--also effectively off limits to science, but at least we know where the thing is.

You can read more about Frithiof in this Smithsonian article from last year. You'll never read anything about the crested Nyctosaurus specimens ever again, except in the context of history, unless some eBay buyer with too much money on his hands decides to heed Indy's famous plea better than Frithiof did. And so it goes.


  1. It's heinous. Utterly. Thanks for writing this, Matt.

  2. Sadly, a third specimen of the crested Nyctosaurus is now probably also lost to science. The specimen represents just the crest itself, but is notable for bearing seemingly more complete rami than the KJ specimens. Although this completeness and therefore the actual length of the rami may prove difficult to fully asses as the specimen has been removed from the original matrix.

  3. Matt, speaking of sold specimens, what ever happened to that Alioramus skull that was sold on auction in New York that was something like 80% fake that you posted about a while back? Any idea if the buyer demanded his money back? Did the auction house ever get any flack? Just curious.

  4. @Anonymous:
    I haven't heard any updates in that case, but I doubt the buyer would be able to claim a refund for buying a heavily reconstructed specimen. This is actually very common, especially in the private fossil market. Many fossil sellers take specimens of unknown (to science at least) completeness and enhance them to seem complete. Generally, the buyers will want to display these fossils in museums or private collections, and museums routinely complete partial specimens with "fake" remainders. Look at the often mis-interpreted case of the "Brontosaurus" with the wrong head--it wasn't the head of a different dinosaur, but a 100% fabrication based on known relatives at the time. This practice is still routine in museums.

    I'd go as far as to say it's a bit naive for someone to be shelling out that much money on such a too-good-to-be true, perfect specimen with no crushing, distortion, or breakages, and expect it to be 100% real. Whether the person could have been mislead about how much was real, I don't know, but typically you'd want to get it appraised beforehand anyway.

  5. Jeezus. I don't much care for private collectors, but to sell the thing on eBay to an unknown buyer? That's incomprehensibe. Donate the thing to a museum!

    I'm also surprised that more crested Nyctosaurus material hasn't turned up.

  6. @Zach
    Yeah, though good pterosaur remains from the Niobrara are hard to come by. Not remains in general, just good ones. I was kind of surprised to learn when working on the Pteranodon wiki article that no really good skulls are known for that genus at all, and even the shape of the beak has been largely guesswork (which is why it varies so much in reconstructions) only relatively recently confirmed as up-curved and ridiculously pointy by some isolated distal jaws.

    Given the severely broken state of one of the known crested Nyctosaurs, I also wonder if crests have been found but unrecognized or mistaken for disarticulated bits of wing or something.

  7. Not very accurate Matt. Frithiof is a very decent person who is doing a very legal business. Both KJ1 and KJ2 are still in the Brazos museum and are scheduled to be there for the next 2 years. KJ1 was sold to person who is constructing a museum. KJ2 is still for sale. Most private collections are eventually donated to a museum. Mark at

  8. Have to agree with anonymous. Commercial paleo naysayers apparently have no appreciation for the time and expense involved in field work. Without a payday why expend the effort unless you are independently wealthy to begin with and are just doing it for a hobby? I can assure you few commercial operations are getting rich. Most are just making a living while providing specimens for private collectors as well as museums, assuming they are willing to pay a fair price to compensate the collector for his time, effort and materials.

    Also, museums need to clean out their own basements. Museum of the Rockies, Denver Museum, BYU among others have warehouses full of field jackets dating back to the 1800's which they will never get to and the specimens will continue to degrade on the the dark...never to be seen, studied or appreciated. Commercial operations don't have that luxury. We need to keep the lights on and pay the bills rather than sucking off the public teat with grant applications.

    Anonymous is also correct in stating that most private collections are eventually donated to museums once the old man dies and the widow wants that stuff out of the house.

    Commercial preparators also, generally, do a much better job on prep, reconstruction, molding and casting. Visit Tucson during the fossil show sometime. You might find yourself impressed with the quality.

    Just sayin.

    Todd Hoelmer

  9. I recall reading a discussion a while back about the unknown
    whereabouts of the fancy antlered Nyctosaurus specimens described by Chris Bennet in 2003. I'd heard they were up for sale online and, lo, one of them has recently been reposted at everyone's favourite online auction.

  10. @Keilcash85
    Cool! Good to know there are casts floating around, at least (though usually these aren't considered good enough to substitute for the actual specimens in any future scientific studies).