Friday, May 11, 2018

The Ivory Tower of Buying Fossils

It has been a couple of years since I've written about the commercial fossil trade and its erosive impacts (oh yes, I went there) on the science and public access of vertebrate paleontology heritage. Here's the usual scenario that inspires one of these posts:

There is media coverage of the high-profile sale of a dinosaur skeleton, and that skeleton is typically the skeleton of a theropod skeleton. There will be an opening line of "If you have Floppity Million dollars to spare, you could buy a dinosaur skeleton." Someone will be quoted as a paleontology expert. That expert will state that the skeleton is new to science, which justifies the million to multimillion-dollar price tag. There are some hazy references to the sellers and some quotes that portray how they were so excited to find such an amazing find. There is little consideration given to the future of the specimen once it is purchased.

And scene.

I was simultaneously frustrated and amused about The Guardian's "Rare dinosaur skeleton for sale - along with the rights to name species" piece. Amused because not only did it follow the tired formula of reporting on high-profile fossil sales, but it added the twist of buying the naming rights. Frustrated because, no matter how flippantly the naming of a fossil is described in the article, the realities are just not that simple. Let's get to the bones of the issue.

First, there are definite spins being played in this situation to make it appear above controversy. There is mention of charities that will receive a portion of the proceeds of the sale, but what's the amount? What percentage of that sale of 1.2 million euros is going to actually go to charities? 1 percent? 10 percent? 50 percent? Is this going to be a meaningful chunk of change, or is it the least possible buy-in for good optics?

The next spin tactic is the "fingers crossed it goes to a public display" pleading, in this case, quoted by "dinosaur expert" Eric Mickeler:

"Mickeler said he hoped the skeleton’s new owner would put it on public display.

“Dinosaur skeletons used to be bought by museums or collectors but recently there’s interest from a whole range of people. Thankfully in all the sales I have handled there’s never been one where the skeleton has ended up in a private place. Buyers like to share their pleasure, and there’s the size to consider,” he said."


While I'm pleased that every sale this person has handled resulted in the specimen ending up in a public museum, but make no mistake: that is not guaranteed. This is why the commercial fossil trade is fraught with critique: there is no guaranteed stability for fossils that are purchased by private collectors.

Museums, in general, tend to be more stable than one person or a company. Museum archives are held in the public trust: this means that the fossils (or stuffed birds, or pickled spiders, or artifacts) are being cared for by specially-trained people for all of us. Museums and archives are caretakers of our common heritage. The archives are (ideally) a stable home that will care for a fossil specimen indefinitely. Two hundred years from now, we should be able to know exactly where that fossil is stored, and hear about the new discoveries that have been made because of that fossil over the years.

This is the other key part of a museum archive: scientists will be able to see that specimen ten or a hundred years from now to make new discoveries or to update science done by older technology. For example, our head curator, Dr. Richard McCrea, spent time at the Canadian Museum of Nature archives looking at the dinosaur footprint collections made by Charles Mortram Sternberg from the Hudson's Hope. C. M. Sternberg wrote up his finds in 1932. Eighty years later, Rich was able to see the exact footprints that C. M. Sternberg saw and apply new study techniques to those very specimens. That's the kind of stability a museum archive promises.

An individual human, or family, or even a business cannot promise the same long-term stability or access. The buyer - unless it is a museum - is under no obligation or code of ethics to keep the specimen in one place. The buyer could purchase the skeleton, get their name on it (more on that below), and then resell it. The buyer is under no obligation to disclose what they do with the specimen after they buy it. 

The buyer is also under no obligation to open their home/business to scientists wanting to study the specimen. They could deny access for personal or political reasons. For example: what if a scientist thinks "Hey, this newly named Bobosaurus might actually be an Allosaurus after all, so it doesn't need a new name." The buyer, if they have their name attached to the critter, might not want to see their dinosaur name be made defunct.

This brings me to the purchase of specimen naming rights. I'll quote the handler for this situation:

'[Mickeler] added: “The rule for all scientific discoveries that are confirmed to be new, the person who owns it can give it its scientific name. It can be the name of a company or a person. Then they just add an ‘-us’ on the end.”

I do not know Prof. Mickeler: I have not heard their name through any of the other vertebrate paleontologists who I know. However, it's a comment like the one above that causes me to question their familiarity with how new specimens are named. I sincerely hope that Mickeler was misquoted because this statement ignores all of the conditions that must be met to name a new fossil specimen. I also do not know who the "unnamed paleontologists" are. I hope that they have a long, careful read of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's Code of Ethics. If they are members in good standing with the SVP, they should be familiar with Section 6:

Section 6. Commercial sale or trade - The barter, sale or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust. Any other trade or commerce in scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is inconsistent with the foregoing, in that it deprives both the public and professionals of important specimens, which are part of our natural heritage.

First, one does not simply buy a fossil specimen and then announce in a press release "I NAME THEE BOBOSAURUS!" For a name to stick to a fossil (think Tyrannosaurus rex), that fossil first must be compared to all of the similar sized and shaped fossils that are already named. If the bones are indeed different, then you can think about a new name.

Second, all of that comparison work has to be written up in a scientific paper. This paper can't just be published on my blog or in a newspaper. That scientific write-up has to be submitted to a scientific journal. That journal starts the process called peer-review, where the paper is then sent to specialists in that area of study. In this case, the paper would be sent to experts in large carnivorous dinosaurs. It is the job of those experts to pull that paper apart, identifying all of the areas that the paper is weak: faulty reasoning, leaps of logic, and opinion being stated as fact. The reviewers and the editor might agree there's not enough evidence to justify giving the specimen a new name. 

Third, more and more scientific journals are making it a requirement that specimens being published in their journal must be cared for in a public-trust archive, like a museum archive. There's a very good chance that studies of this specimen won't be able to be published unless the specimen finds it's forever home in a museum. 

Fourth, naming new fossils is more than just sticking an "-us" on the end of your name. There is a whole instruction manual for naming new critters called the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature. Names have been made defunct just over not following the naming rules. For example, you can't name your new fossil "Brentisajerkosaurus Iruleyoudroolensis" because there are rules against being a jerk to someone in a fossil name. [Apologies to anyone named Brent. I'm sure you're not a jerk.]

Fifth, there's no guarantee that your named specimen that you spent Floppity Million dollars on isn't going to be renamed on you. As my friend and colleague Dr. Andrew Farke pointed out on Twitter, there's a lot of naming and renaming that is done on theropods (a.k.a. carnivorous dinosaurs) without needing to physically see the specimen. Just because you spent money on that name doesn't mean that name is going to be used forever.

Oh, and a funny bit about the science of naming things: if you give a new name to a specimen, and someone proves that the specimen is something that already has a name, your new name can never be used again. At best, your fancy expensive name will be given the title of "nomen dubium," which means that experts doubt the validity of the name. 

The Ivory Tower and The Dinosaur

One critique I hear, invariably whenever I write or speak about responsible fossil stewardship, is that I'm an Ivory Tower socialist elitist who wants to hoard all of the fossils and make sure that no one else gets to see them because of Reasons. I have an excellent long laugh at comments like these. We are advocating that fossils be kept in the public trust for the benefit of the largest number of people possible. The private sale of fossils, with large price tags, is such a succinct example of exclusion and elitism. Only a select few benefit from the sale of a fossil. You depend on the motives of the buyer as to whether that specimen will be available to the public. If we're going to label those actions that are elitist and exclusionary, that only benefit a select few as Ivory Tower, then I cannot think of a more perfect recipient of that label than the commercial fossil trade. When your actions support turning the specimens that are our common heritage into luxury collectibles, you have abandoned all illusion that the selling of fossils is altruistic, that it is for the common good, if you aim only to benefit the few. "

What are options other than selling a fossil specimen?

Use that money to fund research programs, museum operations, and archives upgrades. A 1.2 million euro donation to a museum's or scientist's work will ensure several years of discoveries are made. Science and discovery is not something that happens without support, and that support means money. Fieldwork to exciting locations costs money. Removing a new fossil from the ground costs money. Cleaning and restoring that fossil costs money. Visiting other museums to see if your fossil is new costs money. Putting that fossil on display costs money. This might sound like justification for selling one fossil for 1.2 million euros, but the difference is that a donation to a museum has the potential to make multiple such discoveries, not just the one. A research lab would be able to train multiple future paleontologists and share the many discoveries that you funded with the world. A donation is a better bang for your buck

Another method to "make money" off of a fossil specimen is to sell replicas. Fossil replicas are wonderful! They are lighter and less fragile than the original fossil. Fossil replicas can be displayed in a variety of ways and under a variety of conditions. Fossil replicas are the same size and shape of the original fossil so they will look just as impressive. The largest benefit is that replicas are replaceable: as long as the original specimen and the molds are being cared for in a long-term archive, you can make replacement replicas. Oh, and fossil replicas are a lot less expensive than the asking price for fossils being sold at auction, so there is more chance that museums - particularly small museums - can afford to put such replicas on display for their public. The revenues of replica sales can be recycled into the mechanisms that make the discovery of fossils possible: research and archives.

I do hope that the specimen ends up in a public collection, but the data to support such a hope is mixed. I do hope that the paleontologists involved have thought past the quick flash of their promotional idea to what such actions mean for the respect of fossil heritage as a whole.

For more of my thoughts on the commercial fossil trade, please see:






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