A dinosaur with a strange, bristly tail set paleontologists abuzz last week after grainy photographs of the fossilized creature began crisscrossing the Internet. Scientists yearn to know more about the fossil--which may have been smuggled out of China--and examine the specimen firsthand. But the tantalizing e-mail attachment said nothing about its whereabouts, and the few who know aren't telling.
The beast in question is a psittacosaur, a primitive horned dinosaur that grew to between 1 and 2 meters long. What makes this specimen unique is a tuft of what look like long, hairlike filaments on the end of its muscular tail. The significance of the filaments is not clear, but at their most profound they might be an ancestral characteristic of all dinosaurs. Speculation began around 20 August, when Michael Schmidt, a fossil dealer in Edmonton, Alberta, forwarded color photos of the specimen to some members of the DINOSAUR Internet mailing list. Schmidt says he obtained the pictures from a partner in France who knows both the buyer and seller and who wants to remain anonymous.
Paleontologists are viewing the fossil cautiously in light of doctored specimens that have been illegally exported from China in the past, such as Archaeoraptor (Science, 22 December 2000, p. 2221 ). The psittacosaur appears to have come from western Liaoning Province in China, an area with a wealth of feathered dinosaurs and other exquisitely preserved fossils about 125 million years old (Science, 12 January, p. 232 ). Paleontologist Zhou Zhonghe of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing believes that the psittacosaur was smuggled out of China a few years ago. It's now rumored to be in a German museum. Probably because of its shadowy history, no researcher has formally described, or even announced, the specimen at a conference or in the literature.
Those who are now seeing the photos for the first time are exasperated. "All we have are pixely JPEGs that we're all trying to zoom in on and not seeing anything," says a frustrated Larry Witmer of Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens. "It's not how I want to do science." But until the mysterious fossil comes to light, he says, all he and his colleagues can do is try not to think about it.