Fossilizing

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It happened by chance. A flat tire, a strange rock, a full skeleton right there, in his property, under his house. Bernardo had a degree in zoology, but he never pursued an academic career and never finished his PhD in vertebrate paleontology mostly because of his ambition. He was very competitive and he had lost several positions in the academic race to his peers. He ended up getting involved with illegal fossil dealers, faced a lawsuit and risked imprisonment. His academic career was over and he decided to invest his time and money in small country resorts. He had three of them. One located by a beach and another in the mountain countryside, near the place where he was building his new house. He had another house near the beach resort, but he had to leave it to his ex-wife.

He knew the area was rich in fossils. He paid a very low price for the land because of his contacts in the illegal fossil trade years ago. There were also several mining facilities around, but most of the area was protected for environmental reasons and any kind of extraction was illegal. So he wasn’t really looking for anything when it happened right under his garage.

At first, he didn’t care too much about it. He knew it wasn’t just a rock. It was certainly a giant pterosaur bone. Hollow and yellow, it had been preserved in a limestone nodule that was sliced when his driveway was built last week. The bone was cracked, hollow, fragile, but sharp enough to cut a 10-centimeter hole in his front left tire. He searched for more fragments among the rocks and sand that were removed a week ago, and collected tens of small rocks, which he spent an afternoon trying to assemble. The bones were hollow, but too big for a local pterosaur. It was certainly a new unknown species in that area.

In a week he increased the excavations and discovered that there were many more nodules. The bone he had found was actually a neck vertebra, but the whole creature was probably there. Most of the material needed to be treated in acid to extract the bones, but it was extremely well preserved. And the most important of all, it was an extremely valuable discovery, not only for the fossil market, but also for paleontology. Giant pterosaurs of that kind were known only from North America, Europe and Asia, and those were all flattened and fragmented low quality specimens. This specimen was very well preserved. He could sell it for millions or return to academia with a vengeance. Or both, he thought. Fossil commerce was illegal anywhere in the country, but it happened all the time, everywhere. He just needed to work with people who he could trust. It might take many months to extract the skeleton in such a way that its contents could be inspected. He could secretly sell it to a Japanese or Chinese institution. They are always hungry for fossils. And then he could be the first to describe it in an academic paper. His academic career would be stained among his local peers, but it already was, and his international academic ambitions were higher. He didn’t know that much about pterosaurs, but he could learn, and team up with some foreign paleontologist who would be more than interested in the partnership. And of course, he would be rich.

Since he didn’t know who to trust, he dismissed all his workers and worked alone for four weeks. The rocks were very heavy, and the work was very hard, but Bernardo was obsessed. As he dug he made plans, took notes in his mind about all the details of his new project. He already knew who to contact, how to do it, when to do it. He had lost weight, his food reserves were almost over and the rainy season was starting, which meant that it would be difficult for the supermarket to deliver anything at his place, since the roads were very bad. He was aware of all that, but he couldn’t stop.

It rained all night, and in the morning the hole where he was digging out his skeleton was full of water. He spent four hours pumping all the water out, but then it rained again. Next day, he pumped the water out again, and finally saw it in all its glory. The larger nodule had cracked and the rain moved the other half away. The rain washed away the mud and the full skeleton was exposed. It was beautiful. It was practically intact. It was probably the most well preserved pterosaur skeleton ever found. He could sell it for at least 50 million. He was so excited that he entered the hole even though it was half full of water. He leaned on the rock. He kissed it. He was in love.

But the rock was still moving. It was cracked open vertically in half, like an egg. Because of the rain and the mud, the smaller half started sinking into the ground, and the other, where the fossil was, possibly because of Bernardo’s weight, began to lean towards it, closing the cracked rock once more. Bernardo noticed that the rocks were moving and decided to get out quickly, but he slipped and his foot got stuck between the two rocks under the water. He tried diving under water to release his boot, but it started raining again. The water rose very quickly. When he finally set his foot free, the giant rocks moved once again and Bernardo was sandwiched between them with his pterosaur.

It rained for several weeks, and the mud and rocks that were around the hole eventually covered it up again. When the rainy season was over, the driveway was covered with grass and no signs of the hole could be seen. Bernardo was never seen again. His employees were interrogated, and investigation was conducted but his body was never found. The Paleontological Society published a short note about him when his ex-wife donated the house to the Science Foundation.

 
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