AMHERST — A stolen dinosaur fossil trackway that might command $10,000 on the black market — but is invaluable to scientists — found a home Thursday morning at the Amherst College Beneski Museum of Natural History.
Once evidence in a 2002 poaching case on private land in Gill, the trackway was ferried to the college from Boston Thursday morning by Environmental Police Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Abdal-Khabir, who wrapped it in clothing and bedding for safe transport. “This is a public artifact and relic,” said Abdal-Khabir, standing in the basement of the museum Thursday amid a collection of dinosaur trackways — pieces of stone with two or more dinosaur prints on them — that is among the largest in the world.
“This is a great day,” said a smiling Tekla Harms, professor and chairwoman of geology at Amherst College and codirector of the Beneski Museum.
In 2002, Gill Police Chief Christopher Redmond, then an officer in the department, seized the trackway when he encountered a Chicopee man carrying bags filled with rocks and tools. The man told Redmond he was taking the rocks to build a fireplace, but an investigation revealed that he was carrying dinosaur track fossils, which he intended to sell on eBay. The man was arrested and charged with trespassing and theft of stone. The case was later continued without a finding and its records sealed in 2004.
That trackway, which contains a full dinosaur print about 14 by 9 inches and a partial print, is now on display in a hall filled with dinosaur fossils of varying sizes, many of which were found in the area.
At the Beneski Museum Thursday, Harms stood next to the trackway in the hall.
“This is our most charismatic collection,” she said. “It’s the wow factor.”
“It’s definitely the most researched,” added Hayley Singleton, the museum’s collections manager.
Singleton said the trackway is from the early Jurassic period. Researchers do not know exactly what type of dinosaur left the print, she said, but they believe it was likely from one belonging to the Eubrontes giganteus, a category of large dinosaurs that lived 190 million years ago.
Harms said the piece of gray trackway shows signs of being chiseled free, a practice that is illegal and devastating for scientific research.
“A lot of hammering was done to get to this specimen,” Harms said.
Dinosaur trackways, she noted, offer important clues that help researchers create a fuller picture of the living habits of dinosaurs. They are better studied in nature, she said, but scientists will come to view it at the museum, which gets about 30,000 visitors annually.
“It will be added to the collection that receives a lot of study,” she said.
The track was housed in a State Police office in Boston for 16 years before Abdal-Khabir, who took command of the state Environmental Police nine months ago, said he made it his mission to find a good place to display the fossil.
“It was the right thing to do for the preservation of the specimen and the betterment of the community,” he said.
National and international poaching enterprises exploit natural resources for financial gain, Abdal-Khabir said, something his department is eager to help put a stop to.
Abdal-Khabir said he was pleased that the artifact will now be in a place where experts will care for it properly and visitors can view it and appreciate it.
He chose the Amherst College museum, he said, because he want it to be enjoyed by residents in the region where it was discovered.
The 2002 poaching case led to the filing of a bill two years later by the late state Representative Peter V. Kocot, Democrat of Northampton, that would have increased fines as punishment for poaching of natural resources, though it ultimately was not passed.
Abdal-Khabir said Environmental Police officials hope renewed publicity about the ill-gotten trackway might revive interest in legislation to better protect natural resources and artifacts.
He also said the delivery of the dinosaur fossil to the museum was a first for the department. “We usually return stolen canoes, kayaks, and jet skis,” he said.