Animals

Actor Nicolas Cage Returns Stolen Dinosaur Skull

Authorities inform the star that the fossil he purchased had been illegally smuggled out of Mongolia.

US actor Nicolas Cage has agreed to turn over a dinosaur skull he purchased for $276,000, after it turned out to be smuggled from Mongolia, his agent confirmed Tuesday.

The actor bought the Tarbosaurus bataar fossil at a New York auction in March 2007 and "received a certificate of authenticity from the auction company," said Alex Schack, who represents Cage.

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In 2014, however, the Department of Homeland Security contacted the actor to inform him that a years-long investigation had led them to believe it had been illegally smuggled from Mongolia.

Once authorities determined the fossil "was indeed illegally smuggled into the US and rightfully belongs to the government of Mongolia," Cage agreed to turn it over to Homeland Security, Schack said.

Cage, who won an Academy Award in 1996 for his leading role in "Leaving Las Vegas," is an avid collector and was reportedly in competition with Leonardo Di Caprio for purchase of the fossil, according to US media.

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No charge has been filed against the actor or the Beverly Hills-based auction house, I.M. Chait.

According to the New York District Attorney's office - which announced the fossil's return but did not include the actor's name when it made the case public - the skull first arrived in the United States in Florida in 2006.

It arrived from Japan, with a customs document simply describing it as fossilized pieces of stone.

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Mongolia considers all fossils found in its Gobi desert, especially those from its Nemegt geological formation, to be government property and has banned their export.

Tarbosaurus bataar lived during the Cretaceous period and disappeared some 65 million years ago. Its first fossils were discovered at the Nemegt formation in 1946.

More than 30 specimens, including 15 skulls, have been discovered.

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New York authorities have returned several fossils to Mongolia in recent years, including a Tarbosaurus bataar dating back 70 million years.

Measuring more than 2.5 yards (just less than 2.5 meters) tall and around eight meters long, that skeleton was sold at a New York auction for $1.05 million in May 2012.

But it was seized the following month after Mongolian authorities intervened. The skeleton was returned to Mongolia in May 2013 and its Florida-based importer, Eric Prokopi, was sentenced to three months in prison in June 2014.

Actor Nicolas Cage purchased a skull from this dinosaur species,

Paleontologists have just assembled the most comprehensive family tree of meat-eating dinosaurs. Published in the journal Current Biology, the family tree reveals how diverse carnivorous dinosaurs were and how birds eventually evolved from them. Tyrannosaurs, including

Tyrannosaurus rex

, are one key group on the meat-loving dino family tree. Lead author Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences told Discovery News, "The most iconic dinosaurs of all, tyrannosaurs were more than just the 13-meter-long (nearly 43 feet long), 5-ton monster predator

T. rex

." "Tyrannosaurs were an ancient group that originated more than 100 million years before

T. rex

, and for almost all of their evolutionary history they were small carnivores not much bigger than a human in size."

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"Some of the rarest theropods (two-legged carnivorous dinos) of all, compsognathids are represented by about half a dozen species," Brusatte said. "They were small, sleek meat-eaters which ate small prey like lizards." One of the more recent finds, Juravenator from Germany, is known from a nearly complete fossil.

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Ornithomimosaurs were theropods called "ostrich mimic" dinosaurs -- for a reason. "Like living ostriches, they could run fast on their long legs and used their sharp, toothless beaks to eat a varied diet of small prey, plants, and perhaps even small shrimps in the water just like living flamingos," Brusatte explained. "A recent find in Canada showed that not only were ornithomimosaurs feathered, but they also had complex feathers on their arms that would have formed something of a wing, although they couldn't fly."

Brusatte describes therizinosaurs as "perhaps the weirdest theropods of all." "These were big, bulky, cumbersome dinosaurs that ate plants. They had fat barrel-shaped chests, stocky legs, and big claws on their arms," Brusatte said. For many years paleontologists argued about which group this dinosaur belonged to, only recently settling on theropods. This means they were fairly closely related to birds, despite their weird anatomy.

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Alvarezsaurs were among the smallest dinosaurs of all, measuring just a few feet long and weighing less than 5 kilograms (10 pounds). "Some of them had only a single functional finger on their hand, which they probably used to prod deep into the nests of bugs, which were one of their main food sources," Brusatte said.

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Oviraptorosaurs, were a group of small omnivores that were lightweight, lacked teeth and had tall, hollow crests on their skulls. The recently discovered Anzu -- the so-called "

chicken from hell

" -- came by its nickname honestly. It towered more than five feet tall, weighed more than 400 pounds, and was covered in a coat of feathers.

"Troodontids were probably the smartest dinosaurs of all, as they had the largest brains relative to their body size of any dinosaur group," Brusatte said. "Most troodontids were small, fast-running dinosaurs that probably ate both meat and plants." Among the most recently discovered of this group are the small, feathered Anchiornis and Xiaotingia, which lived in China about 160 million years ago. "They look eerily similar to birds, so much so that some researchers think they could be primitive birds rather than troodontids with wings and feathers," Brusatte said.

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Dromaeosaurids were "raptor dinosaurs" that include Velociraptor from "Jurassic Park" fame. These dinosaurs were pack hunters who wielded a sharp, hyper-extendable "killer claw" on their second toe. "One of the most recently discovered dromaeosaurids is Balaur, a poodle-sized terror from Romania which had not one, but two 'killer claws' on each foot."

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"The oldest birds, like Archaeopteryx that lived 150 million years ago in Germany, are very hard to distinguish from their closest dinosaurian relatives," Brusatte said. "Unlike living birds, they had teeth, sharp claws on their wings, and long tails." "Over the past two decades," he continued, "over 50 new species of Mesozoic birds have been discovered in northeastern China, in the same rock units as the famous 'feathered dinosaurs.' So many birds are preserved here because entire ecosystems were buried by volcanic eruptions, turning animals to stone like a dinosaur version of Pompeii."

Tiny Feathered Dinosaur Found

"The 10,000 species of birds that live today -- from hummingbirds to ostriches -- are modern dinosaurs," Brusatte said. "They are dinosaurs in the same way that humans are mammals. The classic body plan of living birds -- feathers, wings, wishbones, air sacs extending into hollow bones -- did not evolve suddenly but was gradually assembled over tens of millions of years of evolution. But, when this body plan finally came together completely, it unlocked great evolutionary potential that allowed birds to evolve at a super-charged rate." "They underwent a burst of evolution early in their history, which eventually led to the 10,000 species alive today -- more than twice the number of mammals."

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