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.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Kayentavenator lives!

Took long enough eh?

Congrats to old forum friend Rob Gay on finally seeing his baby hit print. You may know Rob for his work on cannibalism (or lack thereof) in Coelophysis. But those of you old-guard denizens of paleontology-related forums may know him better as Guy Stabbing a Pineapple. (See portrait to the left: Rob is on the right.)

Rob helped create a very early piece of DinoGoss by leaking his own planned name for this new find on a private forum. Kayentavenator elysiae is named for the Kayenta Formation, where it was found, and for Rob's now-wife. It's a potential basal tetanuran, though some have already cast doubt on that interpretation. I'm still working on getting the paper so details will have to be left to other blogs for now. I'll leave you with this 2005 entry in my Hallucinogene series of comic-style paleo-art depicting Kayentavenator looking over a stylized southwestern landscape.