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Famous Paleontologist's Skull Detours 'Dinosaur Hunt' : Science: Museum officials are outraged to discover that their skull specimen has been "borrowed," taken around the world and photographed for a book.

October 23, 1994|LAURAN NEERGAARD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Take some paleontologists who taste dirt to find dinosaur bones and risk their lives hanging off cliffs just to study the beasts' tracks.

Add a photojournalist fascinated with "Jurassic Park," a traveling skull and 50,000 photographs.

The result is "Hunting Dinosaurs," a journey through time told through the adventures of the world's top dinosaur scientists--but one overshadowed by a museum horrified to spot a famous human skull in the book's pages.

"What I thought was the most innocent thing has turned into a front-page scandal," said author Louie Psihoyos, referring to his "borrowing" the skull of famous paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope from a museum.

Alan Mann, a curator at the University of Pennsylvania museum that owns the skull, is furious.

"I find that absolutely scandalous," Mann fumed. "It shows an appalling lack of taste."

It all started innocently enough. National Geographic photographer Psihoyos and a colleague spent 1 1/2 years traveling the world to film dinosaur research.

One of their photos shows relics representing the Great Bone Wars, the 19th-Century race between Cope and Yale University competitor O. C. Marsh to find and identify hundreds of dinosaurs. Cope had donated his skeleton to science when he died in 1897, so Psihoyos simply checked the skull out of the Penn museum to photograph--but never returned it.

Psihoyos introduced "Ed" to dozens of paleontologists who regard Cope as a hero, while taking 50,000 photographs ranging from the dinosaur graveyards of the American Southwest to the Chinese pharmacies that grind bones into "medicinal powders."

Psihoyos and colleague John Knoebber enlarged their magazine piece into a book. They added the scientists' eccentricities--such as those of Paul Sereno, discoverer of the earliest known dinosaur, who chews sand to discern the texture of ancient riverbeds that hide bones--and such adventures as the time an entire cliff of dinosaur tracks collapsed just before researchers were to climb down them.

"We thought it would be a wonderful thing to take people on a journey through time using 40 paleontologists as tour guides," said Psihoyos, who was inspired by the success of the movie "Jurassic Park."

Publicity about the book's debut alerted the museum that its skull was missing. Mann vented his fury on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer and banned Psihoyos from the museum.

Mann insists Psihoyos' prank backfired. Cope's skull was lost 30 years ago and some other skull--with its identification number scratched out and Cope's scrawled in--was just added to Cope's skeleton, Mann said.

Then why is he so upset?

"Whether it's Cope's skull or James Smith's skull, it's our skull and it belongs here," said Mann, who had to alert Cope's family to the fiasco. "This is extremely embarrassing for us."

But Psihoyos took some 1904 scientific drawings of the borrowed skull to a San Francisco coroner this month--and the coroner pronounced this skull Cope's. Psihoyos says he'll return it to Mann soon.

The identity is important not only to Psihoyos' book, but because one of those zany dinosaur hunters decided to grant Cope's last wish and designate him the type specimen--or scientific standard--for Homo sapiens.

That caused further outrage. Cope may have been a brilliant paleontologist, but he also was a fervent racist, writing books saying Nordic males like himself topped the aesthetic and developmental scale, Mann explained.

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