Monday, August 5, 2013

(Commercial) Fossil Fuel

Once again I feel as though I can't take my eyes off the Internet for a second. Tuesday morning (July 30) is the first time in 24 days that I have had to thoroughly check the fossil-related news since being out in the field and being immersed in the Tumbler Ridge Aspiring Geopark Symposium.

What headlines do I see on scrolling through the news? "Clashing Titans for Sale: Dinosaur Skeletons Headed to Auction, Not Museum." appeared in the New York Times. Cue the Everlasting Head-desk.

Many dinophiles have heard of "The Fighting Dinosaurs." Discovered in 1971 by the Polish-Mongolian Palaeontological Expedition, this evocative specimen depicts mortal combat between the Mongolian dinosaurs Velociraptor and Protoceratops, and was part of a past exhibition of the American Museum of Natural History.

Besides the visual impact, fossils such as these have great scientific importance. Much of the behavior we of dinosaurs (and other extinct animals) we infer from very detailed studies of their anatomy. With modelling technology becoming more accessible, new hypotheses on dinosaur movement and behavior are being presented and tested in the literature. [Warning: Shameless ichnology plug! One of the reasons I enjoy dinosaur ichnology is because dinosaur tracks and trackways are preserved behavior: if you want to know how an animal moves and places its limbs, you cannot ignore ichnology.] Specimens such as the Fighting Dinosaurs have the potential to show us the end results of an interaction between predator and prey, and these specimens are not common.

No other specimen has come as close as the Fighting Dinosaurs to preserving the aftermath of dual death scene. A new specimen is on the paleontological radar, and, like the recently completed Tarbosaurus case (shameless link to my previous posts here and here, which also contain several links to the media reporting on the case), it is garnering attention for all the wrong reasons.

Here is the website for the specimen now known as the Dueling Dinosaurs, which contains the background of the discovery (unfortunately none of the links to the supporting documents work at the time of this posting), and some of the speculation surrounding the specimen. The specimen was discovered on private land in deposits of the Hell Creek Formation of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops horridus fame. Most of the media on this story emphasizes the purported scientific importance of the specimen. All of the media reports on the fate of the specimen: it is destined for auction at Bonhams New York on November 19, and the estimated price tag is between $7-$9 million USD.

Unlike the Tarbosaurus case, there is no last-minute restraining order or court ruling that will return the specimen to the public trust. Because the specimen was discovered on private land, it is perfectly legal in the United States for landowners to sell vertebrate fossils found on their private land. [Note: Public lands are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.] Even a specimen of Archaeopteryx caught in the act of giving live birth to a Tyrannosaurus is not be immune to being offered for sale, or from subsequently being purchased by someone with a Bag of Holding as a pocketbook.

There are two points in this particular case that raise my hackles. First, there is a great deal of speculation (a.k.a. hype) on the supposed importance of the specimen, but there is absolutely no scientific documentation to support these claims. None of the links to the PDFs lead anywhere (and as of 2pm on 05-08-13 the site is currently offline), so there is no way for a curious researcher to examine what has been collected or noted to date. A brief look at the affiliations of those making the grand statements of significance shows us that they are associated in some way with the discovery, preparation, and marketing (for lack of a better term) of the fossil. To date, there are no peer-reviewed scientific publications on the specimens. Thomas Carr, a paleontologist who does extensive work in the Hell Creek Formation, states in his interview (follow the link) that there likely will not be any scientific study on the specimen, depending on the final purchaser.
Why not? If the ceratopsian preserved in the "Dueling Dinosaurs" specimen block is indeed a new horned dinosaur, it will need a full diagnostic work-up and publication (and no, someone stating in a news article or auction house website that it is a new species does not constitute peer-review.) If the speculations are correct, it would need to be described as a type specimen. Type specimens need to be archived in a public institution (e.g. museum, university) that a) guarantees access to any researcher who wants to study the specimen and b) is committed to storing the specimen in perpetuity. I can't stress enough the importance of this last statement. If I paint "Tuxedo Cat Bathing Her Nethers During My Last Dinner Party", that piece of work may change ownership many times during its existence. It could be damaged, stolen, or lost (likely without mourning from the art community in the case of the above mentioned work).

Type materials need stability and permanence. If I designate a new type of footprint, it is my responsibility as a researcher to choose a repository that is committed to archiving that specimen for the long haul. Ideally, 100 years from now a researcher should be able to easily locate the repository for that specimen. There is absolutely no guaranteed stability to commercially purchased/privately owned fossils. What happens if the owner dies, and the specimen is not willed to a public institution, or their progeny cares not for fossils? What if it is sold and its location becomes unknown? What if it is stolen? Will it be stored responsibly? Also, how was the specimen collected? What data, if any, were documented? What will happen to the data and associated specimens encountered during the excavation of the specimen?

Second, while no laws are being broken, I have huge ethical reservations about all that has transpired in this specimen going to auction. My stance is this: fossils are a part of the history of each and every one of us. They arose, flourished, and fell long before the creatures who would inevitably develop the distinctions between private and public land evolved. No one person has the ethical right to profit from the sale of my heritage, your heritage. We all share this heritage because it is the common heritage of our planet.

"Hold on, Strange Woman!" I hear some of you exclaiming, "How is a private person owning a fossil any different from a museum owning a fossil?"

Good question. Natural history museums hold fossil specimens in trust for the people, and are staffed with people who have been trained in the art and science of fossil conservation. I can only speak for myself, but I would not have the hubris to claim that I own a single fossil within the walls of my institution. My only claim is one of responsibility. I am responsible for the long-term care of each specimen and all the data that are associated with it. I am responsible for making these specimens available for research. I am responsible for ensuring that the research done on each specimen is done with care and diligence. I am responsible for developing the interpretive material that goes out on display for the public to see. I do not (for hyperbolic example) take the fossils under my care home and stroke them covetously in the flickering candlelight. They are neither curiosities nor porcelain collectibles. They are our past.

"Hold on again, Strange Woman!" some may be puzzling, "why doesn't a natural history museum just buy the fossil? Wouldn't that be the responsible thing to do if researchers feel so strongly about the specimen going to auction?"

Ah, if only! Back in the early days of the Bone Wars and the first exploration of places such as Dinosaur Provincial Park, museums contracted commercial fossil collectors to acquire specimens for their museums. Museums are one of the many scientific institutions that are feeling the vice-grip of budget cuts, and many are struggling to retain their own academic staff and research/collecting programs, never mind finding funds to purchase specimens. The private owners have reportedly accrued over $250,000 USD in costs related to the removal of the specimen, yet the specimen has been offered to museums for a mere $15 million.

This specimen is not being sold for cost recovery. It was not offered to well-known museums at what could be considered a donation price. This is turning fossils into profit, plain and simple. And, someone will inevitably purchase the specimen, ensuring that the cycle of collecting fossils solely for profit continues.

To those who have pockets deep enough to consider dropping $6 - $9 million on a single specimen, I truly believe there are more effective ways to leave lasting impressions on society that are fossil related. Natural history museums and research programs are struggling. These very museums create the excellent fossil displays that inspire young and old alike. They inspire the next generation of paleontologists and fossil enthusiasts. There are countless imaginative ways in which to redirect the funds that go to the purchase of fossils, including:

- renovating and upgrading a public display gallery,
- upgrading and expanding a fossil repository,
- funding a chair in paleontology research,
- funding a research program,
- funding a paleontological expedition, the results of which would be scientifically studied and publicly displayed,

and many others.

I see great potential for benefactor sciences. The benefactor makes an ethical and long-lasting contribution to paleontology - paleontology that might not otherwise be done without such support. The future stability of the museum is strengthened, as well as their ability to continue with high-quality scientific investigations and public outreach. Most important, the fossils collected as a result of benefactor science are spared the fate of the fickle commercial market. This is win-win-win.

What are your thoughts on encouraging benefactor science? Any ideas?

Until next time,

Strange Woman.

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