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Wyoming Archaeopteryx Becoming An Albatross


Bird fossil becomes albatross of sorts

CHEYENNE -- 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.

While the scientific significance of the fossil is unquestioned and its monetary value thought to be in excess of $1 million, the stealthy private acquisition of the fossil 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 the University of California at Berkeley.

But officials at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, where the fossil eventually will be on display, give assurances that it will be available for scientific study and public access. 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 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 museum can install proper security and a display case, which Pohl hoped could be ready sometime next year.
For scientists including Padian, the agreement isn't good enough.

Noting no one has seen any documents on the agreement, Padian said as long as the fossil is privately owned, there's 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."
Johnson, of the Denver museum, said he had no problem with the Wyoming museum displaying the Archaeopteryx.

"I think it's a cool opportunity," Johnson said. "I certainly will go see it myself."