Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tarbosaurus Musings - Thoughts on purchasing fossils

I remember many of the daydreams I had about becoming a paleontologist when I was a child. Their general theme was of me wandering across barren landscapes for days on end, sometimes with a trusty packhorse - depending on how young I was, it may have been a magical talking horse, but let's not dwell on that part - and finally stumbling across that complete skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex at the last possible moment. Not once in my imaginings did lawyers, restraining orders, and the illegal fossil trade cross my mind.

Legal battles involving fossil custodianship are part of the harsh, time-consuming reality for paleontologists. The most recent incident to highlight this issue is that of the auction of a skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar (lot 49315) in New York City a month ago by Heritage Auctions. For a summary of the situation, check out Dinosaur Tracking on the page. Also, check out the blog Pseudoplocephalus for a breakdown of why Tarbosaurus bataar is not Tyrannosaurus rex.

For my summary, here it is. Heritage Auctions and the seller originally claimed the fossil was both legally collected and legally imported into the United States. Mongolia's President Elbegdori Tsakhia and the Mongolian government hired a US legal team and claimed that, if the specimen was one of Tarbosaurus, they are known only from Mongolia. Therefore, it was illegally removed from Mongolia, and should be removed from the auction process and returned to its rightful country. Finalizing the sale of the specimen was halted through restraining order. The specimen was examined to determine its origin, and it was indeed a specimen of Tarbosaurus and had originated from Mongolia. This means the specimen was collected without the legal permission or knowledge of the Mongolian government. To date, the Manhattan US Attorney has filed papers requesting forfeiture and the seizure of the Mongolian Tarbosaurus specimen, and the specimen is now in custody

Sadly, the theft, looting, and illegal sale of Mongolia’s natural heritage occurs on a regular basis, according to Dr. Philip Currie in his recent article in New Scientist. The commercial dealing of fossils, especially vertebrate fossils, is a contentious subject among some paleontologists. The Code of Ethics for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is very clear on the subject of how professional paleontologists (who are members) should treat the commercial trade of vertebrate fossils: the only sale of a fossil that should be supported is that which brings a vertebrate fossil within the public trust (to a museum, university, or research center). This is very different than someone purchasing a dinosaur skull so they can have an interesting (and expensive) conversation piece in their private residence.

The Shaman's view? I am not going to discuss here the pros and cons of commercial fossil operations (perhaps that will be a subject for a later post), but I personally find the sale of vertebrate fossil specimens by individuals/companies to other individuals repellent and unethical. Unless fossil specimens for sale are directly destined for museums, universities, or any other institution that holds in trust the history of the planet, no one individual has the moral or ethical grounds to either sell or buy a fossil.

As aesthetically beautiful as fossils are, fossils are not art. Fossils were not created by any one person's hand. Fossils are not the intellectual property of any one person or group of people. The rules that apply to the art or antique world do not apply to fossils any more than they apply to a migratory bird. The care of that bird, and fossils, is the responsibility of everyone. Both the bird and fossils are the property of no one. They are citizens of the world.

Sociopolitical boundaries were not laid out with fossils in mind, and it is just chance that fossils lay within the sociopolitical boundaries that they do. Where they do occur, it is up the municipality, region, province, country, and international laws to protect the right of these fossils to remain citizens of the world, and every nation has their own success and failures in terms of fossil stewardship. Laws and public education are the only tools available with which to protect fossils from selfish acts of profiteering. I believe that one of our duties as paleontologists is to give voice to the voiceless fossils, like the Lorax speaking for the defenseless trees. Like the Lorax, it sometimes feels as though we are losing the battle for right against the might of greed and ego. I applaud the efforts of the Mongolian government in not only taking their responsibility as fossil stewards seriously, but also for bringing this issue to light in the most public way possible: using the US legal system to interfere with large amounts of money changing hands for goods and services obtained through less than honest means.

I cannot see how personally owning a fossil is about anything more than a matter of ego. As Gatekeeper of a collections facility, I take a pride in the stewardship of the collection that I manage. The responsibility of its current and future care falls on my shoulders. However, I cannot state this next point strongly enough: I, and no one who works, manages, or funds the facility, owns the fossils within its walls. We are merely caretakers, caring for the shrine to our history and keeping scientific vigil until passing the responsibility to the next caretaker.

I admit that I purchased a theropod tooth from a rock shop. I was in elementary school and on a road trip to Drumheller, Alberta with my parents.  

A photo of my shame, now donated to our institution's Educational Program.

My thought processes regarding the purchase were simple. I saw it, I liked what I saw, I could afford it, so I wanted it for my own. I was quite Gollum-esque about my purchase: I'm sure I held it and stroked it as though it were the One Ring for the rest of the trip. Hindsight has offered me this other deeper observation on my ego: was I subconsciously thinking that this was as close as I was going to get to my dreams of being an actual paleontologist for decades? Perhaps I wanted a tangible link to the future I hoped to have.

I cannot speak for the motives behind the Fabulously Rich who are willing to pay six or seven figures for rare fossils. Perhaps their thought processes are no different than those of the six-year old Shaman: it's cool and they want it. Perhaps they do it simply because they can. There are a myriad of ways to fan the flames of ego, and having fossils available as high-priced goods attracts the attention of large wallets.  It could also be that they too want a tangible link to a childhood dream of roaming the desert in search for historical treasure. Are they unaware of the rampant looting and theft that it takes to get fossils, such as those of Tarbosaurus, to auction? Is this a way they feel they can contribute to paleontology and their love of history? And, if they do know about the damage done by the illegal fossil trade, do they care?

If their motives are altruistic, there are many ways in which the wealthy can make a positive, legal, and ethically sound impact in paleontology that will outlast that of purchasing a single fossil. For example, billionare David Koch donated a large sum to the Smithsonian Museum because is a longtime fan of their dinosaur hall. Other avenues open to philanthropy include establishing research chairs and operational endowments, funding legal excavations of a dinosaur skeletons through the museum of choice, and providing capital funds to modernize fossil preparation and collections facilities. 

These are the contributions that not only go down in history, but are above reproach legally and morally. Sometimes these are the contributions that save small research programs (or large programs that have recently faced cutbacks) from going extinct. I hope the Tarbosaurus incident will encourage those that would privately purchase fossils to reconsider how they want to contribute to paleontology. I hope that one day all the time, energy, and funds used to counteract the negative impact of the illegal fossil trade will be used to further the care and discovery of our planet's natural heritage.

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