The auction of a rare dinosaur nest in Los Angeles has triggered anger and concern among Chinese scientists, who called for official action to protect valuable fossils.
"The Chinese government should set up a response mechanism to deal with overseas auctions of smuggled fossils and retrieve them through diplomatic means," Zhu Min, head of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The unusually well-preserved 65-million-year-old dinosaur nest containing fossilized eggs was sold for 420,000 U.S. dollars by auction house Bonhams and Butterfields on Monday.
Before the auction, Chinese scientists appealed to Bonhams not to auction the fossil, which they believed to have been smuggled out of China.
Wang Xiaolin, another dinosaur expert, said the auction will have "very bad" ramifications as more smugglers would risk arrest for the possibility of large profit.
"We (Chinese scientists) strongly protest against the auction of smuggled fossils," Wang said.
The U.S. media reported that the nest was unearthed in south China's Guangdong Province in 1984. The nest is believed to be that of a raptor.
It contains 22 unhatched eggs arranged in a circular pattern around the edge. Embryonic remains were uncovered in 19 eggs and one egg was removed for study. Some eggs were so well-preserved that the embryo curled inside was still visible.
The auction house has refused to reveal the identity of the buyer and the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of its new home has concerned scientists.
Earlier reports said that the original collector had hoped the fossil could be bought by a museum, but experts had warned that due to the current fervor among private collectors and limited funds of museums, the fossil was most likely to fall into private hands.
"I am worried about the fossil's fate since many collected articles have disappeared with a change or death of the owner," Xing Lida, a dinosaur expert with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said.
"The well-preserved dinosaur embryos are rare and many Chinese scientists have only seen such fossils in pictures. The fossil will lose its scientific value in the hands of private collectors, " he said.
Gerald Grellet-Tinner, a dinosaur expert at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, told U.S. media that such a fossilized nest was a "bonanza" find that could tell scientists a great deal about dinosaur growth and development.
He argued the nest should be housed in a museum in China, where it was discovered, and not in private hands.
China's law on cultural relics protection and criminal law prohibits smuggling of fossils. But the theft and smuggling of fossils out of the country is still a serious problem. Smugglers have often broken fossils to make them easier to conceal and carry. "China needs to draft a new law focusing on the protection of rare and valuable fossils, which cannot be reproduced once they are lost," Zhu said.