Monday, April 14, 2014

Fossil Commercialism and the Threat to Paleontology, Part 2: The Rebuttal

Hello, Dear Readers!

A rebuttal commentary to the Shimada et al. (2014) paper in Palaeontologia Electronica entitled "The greatest challenge to 21st century paleontology: When commercialization of fossils threatens the science" has arrived! Larson and Russell (2014) have provided an article in support for commercialism in vertebrate paleontology entitled "The benefits of commercial fossil sales to 21st-century paleontology." Please take a moment to read the article before continuing to read this post.

To start with my comments, I think it is a well crafted rebuttal that goes through the history of commercialism in paleontology, and highlights some of the best-case scenarios where everything worked out in the best interest of the fossil resources and the depository of public knowledge. It (mostly) avoids the more reactionary responses that one usually sees on the paleontology-related list servers, and calls for greater co-operation among all parties involved with the care of fossil heritage resources. That being said, there are a few pits into which the logical framework of this article falls, and they are pitfalls that, in my opinion, do nothing to further the discussion of how to resolve the seemingly diametrically opposed positions of commercialism vs. conservation.

1. The "We've Always Done It This Way" Argument.
The commercial sale of vertebrate fossil heritage items is nothing new to the realm of vertebrate paleontology. Famous fossil collectors such as the Sternbergs were commissioned by museums to collect and prepare fossil specimens. This is well-known paleontology history for North America. While the situation back in the early days of the establishment of vertebrate paleontology collections produced a mutually beneficial relationship between academia and commercialism, it is just that: history. As the science of paleontology has evolved over the last century, so too must the commercial operations evolve. They have, to an extent: some scientifically important specimens do end up in public repositories. However, the day that the icon of the dinosaur world, Tyrannosaurus rex, went for sale at public auction for $8.3 million, was the day that people started associating fossils with swimming pools full of money. Gaining access to private lands in the US became prohibitively expensive for researchers. Poaching on federal lands increased. As quoted from a federal employee in the Washington Post article (link above):

“After Sue sold, it was truly frightening,” said Vincent L. Santucci, a National Park Service geologist who spent years investigating fossil poachers. “You heard people saying, ‘I’m going to give up my blue-collar job and move out West to find my million-dollar dinosaur.’ And it was worth the risk doing it on federal lands because of the economic rewards that might be gained.”

This is the mentality that associating dinosaurs (or any vertebrate fossil) with dollars now engenders: the get rich quick dream, the quest for the quick buck. This was likely the mentality behind the three examples outlined by Larson and Russell of ill-conceived attempts at making money off of fossil heritage resources: the illegally smuggled Tarbosaurus (one of my posts on the subject here, full of great links), the bill “HB 392", and the attempted public auction of the fossils within the Sternberg Collection at the San Diego Natural History Museum (the link provided in Larson and Russell leads to an error page on the museum's website: either the SDNHM removed the page or there is a typo in the link.) An item that was not highlighted by Larson and Russell was the "Dueling Dinosaurs" controversy, where a specimen that was speculated to be of scientific importance (a long read, but worth it) was offered at public auction at the low low estimated price of $7-$9 million (but generously offered to natural history museums before the sale for $15 million).

If the good working relationship envisioned by Larson and Russell involves North American museums spending on one specimen the same amount that could generously fund a multi-year field project, a collections renovation, several student scholarships, or educational initiatives, that vision is unrealistic.

I am still anxiously waiting for a reply on this issue to be made by our European vertebrate paleontology colleagues. As Larson and Russell point out, some governments purchase fossils directly from collectors. While no dollar values are provided, I speculate that the European commercial fossil dealers are not pricing the fossils they sell so high that academic institutions cannot afford this practice.

If commercial paleontology is to have a positive future in North America, there cannot be a "the sky's the limit" mentality to fossil sales. Either attitudes towards the buying and selling of our fossil heritage will have to change, or there will have to be regulated price caps on commercial fossil heritage items. Those items will have to be independently assessed prior to sale for their scientific value. We cannot rely on the dewy-eyed sentiment of "those were the good ol' days" to frame the conversation on the conservation of our fossil heritage.

2. Ad Hominem Strikes Again.

This particular line from Larson and Russell stood out:

"Shimada et al. (2014) stated: “We therefore consider the battle against heightened commercialization of fossils to be the greatest challenge to paleontology of the 21st century.” We believe, on the other hand, that the demonization and marginalization of a specific portion of the paleontological community is the result of misunderstanding, misplaced entitlement and simple intolerance."

Ah, welcome home, Ad Hominem attacks! You must have been homesick for this debate to show up again so soon, but I can honestly say that we did not miss you at all.

Misunderstanding is fine. Misunderstandings happen due to miscommunication, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster knows there has been no end of miscommunication in this debate. However, Larson and Russell attempt to deflect criticism towards commercialism in paleontology by saying the critics are entitled and intolerant. In essence, that commercialized paleontology is being unfairly picked on.

Newflash: science is ALL about the criticism. Science is critical of everything. Science does not wear rose-colored glasses and ignore issues. Scientists spend their entire lives having their work critiqued. Criticism is not the same as "being demonized." When I get a paper back from review, the reviewer was not intolerant and entitled, and my paper was not demonized. All that happens with criticism is that flaws are brought to our attention. Pretending those flaws do not exist, and trying paint criticism of those flaws a personal attack only serves to deflect the path of the constructive dialog that PE is trying to encourage. There are problems. How do we fix them?

3. Stop Lumping Private/Avocational Collectors with Commercial Paleontology.

This happens in every discussion I have seen regarding the flaws with the current way in which commercial paleontology is conducted in North America. Someone inevitably says that those entitled and intolerant academics are trying to kill hobbyist or avocational paleontology.

The issue with private fossil ownership in terms of owning a scientifically valuable specimen that is going to be researched is one of archival continuity. I'm going to pull this directly from one of my previous post on commercialism and private ownership in vertebrate paleontology:

"'What are the issues with scientifically important specimens being in a private collection?'
When you are a museum with a public-trust fossil archive, you are in essence making a pledge that you will do everything in your power to ensure that the fossils under your care will remain in the public trust. Public trust means that anyone who wants to do serious research on these fossils will be able to find those fossils 10, 100, even 1000 years from now. A private person isn’t likely to be around 100 years from now. There is no guarantee their descendants will be as interested in fossils as were Gramps or Gramma. There is no guarantee these fossils will be donated to a museum after the passing (or passing interest) of the initial purchaser. This is one way in which fossils are “lost to science” when they are privately purchased. It’s too easy to lose track of privately purchased fossils because there is no accountability for their whereabouts. There is no tracking system for scientifically important fossils outside of a museum setting."

This, in my opinion, is an easy fix, but it will require new regulations and resources. Create a paper trail for avocational collectors using existing natural history museums. Create a Citizen Repository Network.  This is a system that I one day hope to implement for our natural history repository. It was inspired by the Qualicum Beach Historical and Museum Society paleontology collections created and managed by Graham Beard, one of the shining examples in British Columbia of enthusiasm for and the proper management of fossil heritage resources. I once told our local paper that if everyone had the same mentality towards fossils as Graham, there would be no need for fossil protection laws. Another example are the volunteers of my institution. The bulk of our Triassic marine vertebrate collection would not exist were it not for these volunteers, many of them children. In fact, one of our holotypes, Rebellatrix, the fork-tailed coelacanth, would not have been described were it not for a volunteer collector who was 13 at the time she discovered the specimen.

I want to explicitly state that, as an academic paleontologist, I do not in any way confuse avocational collectors with the multi-million dollar price inflation that is displayed during the auction of a high-profile vertebrate fossil. If the issue of archival discontinuity were resolved, citizen archivists could house scientifically important specimens.

Larson and Russell (2014) provides a useful historical perspective on commercial paleontology in North America, and does briefly describe how commercial paleontology is managed in other parts of the world. However, this opinion piece falls into the previously dug pits of misdirected arguments. It does not offer any solutions to the current flaws in the commercial system they wholeheartedly praise. In fact, they do not directly address the issues of archival discontinuity and over the top prices to which vertebrate fossils and their researchers face in the commercial system.

I hope that more opinion pieces continue to be submitted to Palaeontologia Electronica, because a meaningful dialog has not yet been reached, but maybe this is the very start. I hope we'll get there.

Strange Woman


  1. "I hope that more opinion pieces continue to be submitted to Palaeontologia Electronica, because a meaningful dialog has not yet been reached, but maybe this is the very start. I hope we'll get there."

    This blog post COULD have been a start at a meaningful dialog.

  2. So basically you think fossils are extremely valuable and therefore should be reserved to the so-called "qualified" people only. If this is not entitlement and intolerence I don't know what it is!!

    The reason the T-rex price is so high is because of its scarcity, which is caused by regulations and misinformation that you advocate. If there is no taboo of putting up T-rex for sale, and relaxed laws allowing fossil hunting in federal land, the supply of T-rex fossils would be much greater and therefore push the price down.

    Years after years, hundreds of thousands of fossils are weathered, eroded and destroyed in the wild because there is no incentive to dig them up while at the same time you "professionals" can't do it either. Paleontologists are too few, and as you said, too little funding and shrinking job market. So how about a free, self-sustaining work force digging these fossils up for the mankind? Wouldn't that be wonderful? And yes they are called fossil collectors, who you so happy to demonize.

    Without commercial operations, the pathetic rate of extravation by "professionals" cannot keep up with the natural destruction rate of fossils.

    The problem with people with your kind of mentality is you want something you think is very valuable for zero cost, by introducing government regulations. This is immoral and digusting.

  3. "So how about a free, self-sustaining work force digging these fossils up for the mankind? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

    Yes it would...especially if these fossil collectors truly appreciated what they found and donated specimens to museums or worked with museums on expeditions. Instead many members of this "free, self-sustaining work force" you speak of would rather hoard everything for themselves or profit from sales.

    I agree that everyone has the right to enjoy and learn from these specimens. I'm sure many people would love to own the original Mona Lisa or The Starry Night...but the originals belongs in a museum where everyone can see/study them. But you can buy your very own print or replica as you exit through the gift shop! Similarly with fossils, 3D printing and casting costs are significantly coming down and replicas are quite easy to get.

    Want to really help paleontologists? Volunteer to help find and protect fossils. Want a little something for yourself? Ask your local museum about getting casts or 3D prints!