07/07/2012 05:39 EDT | Updated 09/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Vandals smash duck-billed dinosaur fossil to pieces in Alberta

GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. - Paleontologists were thrilled when they found the fossilized remains of a duck-billed dinosaur in northwestern Alberta last month.

But joy turned quickly to despair when they returned to the site near the Red Willow River a few days ago and found that vandals had smashed the Hadrosaur skeleton to pieces.

The Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative says the fossil was discovered by paleontologist Phil Bell and a University of Alberta team on June 15.

They partially prepared it for removal, then reburied it for protection until it could be fully removed later this month.

Bell returned to the site on Thursday and found the specimen — which was about one meter long and 80 centimetres wide — had been destroyed.

"We still know very little about the dinosaurs that existed up here so every skeleton is crucial," Bell said in a statement.

“Each bone is irreplaceable."

RCMP say they are investigating but don't have any suspects. They say a number of fossils had either been removed or destroyed at the site.

The group says it is at least the fourth act of fossil poaching and vandalism in the region in the last month and a half.

At Pipestone Creek Park in the region, a bone bed has been harmed, and in late May, a Plexiglas cover protecting and showcasing several fossilized bones was smashed.

In later incidents in June, a vertebra and several rib bones were stolen.

The group says the University of Alberta and the Royal Tyrell Museum are also helping in the case.

The group says it is illegal to alter, mark or damage palaeontological resources under the Historical Resources Act. Offenders may face up to $40,000 in fines or a year in prison.

Bell said the destroyed fossils are beyond having monetary value, adding that he considers them priceless.

"They are irreplaceable historical artifacts and illegal to sell," he said.

However, a Tyrannosaurus bataar fossil which U.S. government seized last month on the grounds that it is alleged to have been fraudulently imported, previously fetched $1.052 million at auction. The bones were discovered in Mongolia in 1946, and Mongolia hopes to have them eventually returned there.

In May, Bell stated in a blog post about the Mongolian case that in the last 10 years, fossils have been disappearing at alarming rates.

"Recently, it has come to our attention that the illegal sale of dinosaur fossils on the black market is reaching new lows," Bell stated on the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative's blog.

"What's worse, huge public auctions in the United States are creating a demand for these priceless treasures," he added.

Police are asking anyone with information about the latest incident to contact them.

A team of local volunteers had been organized to remove the fossil using quads and winches next week.

Bell said the Hadrosaur would have warranted a major exhibit in a new museum that's planned for the area, scheduled to open next summer in Wembley, Alta.

"It's a tragedy not only for our science but for the whole community that will benefit from the new museum," he said.

— By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton