Friday, September 28, 2012

Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan - The Prologue

Flag of Turkmenistan.
Greetings! I decided to finally organize my notes on the interesting places that vertebrate paleontology, and specifically vertebrate ichnology, has taken me over the past few years and turn them into blog posts. I'll start with my trip to Turkmenistan, mostly because I wrote journal entries with creating a blog in mind, and because it is one of the most culturally interesting places I have ever visited. Also, I want to give a presentation on our trip to Turkmenistan at the local "Itchy Feet" travel presentations hosted by the Tumbler Ridge Public Library and the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society, so this will give me a great opportunity to organize my thoughts.
Coat of Arms of Turkmenistan.

Here is a bit of background. A friend and colleague of ours, Federico Fanti (yup, the very same one that found BC's first hadrosaur skeleton with us) has been working on a track site in the Koytendag Nature Reserve of the Lebap Province in Turkmenistan with his doctoral student since 2011. Wait, you've not heard of Turkmenistan? Here's a map of the country with its neighbors...

A new pin in the world map!
...and here is a link to the BBC website archive with a series of news articles on the country. Take a moment to read some of these articles. Yes, I am now renaming the month of February Maia. You'll learn to love it.

I digress. The government of Turkmenistan was very supportive of the work done on the dinosaur tracks by Dr. Fanti, and the track site is considered by the government one of the key heritage and natural resource features within the KNR. The government of Turkmenistan is interested in designating the KNR as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Lebap Province, Turkmenistan. The Koytendag Nature Reserve is within the most eastern projection.

The government of Turkmenistan invited representatives from UNESCO to visit the sites, accompanied by a consortium of international researchers in biology, karst geology and ecology, and vertebrate ichnology. This was in conjunction with an international conference planned by the government to promote the Turkmen culture. Richard McCrea and I joined Dr. Fanti, Dr. Martin Lockley, and Dr. Louis Jacobs as part of the paleontology and paleoichnology expertise. We were to accompany the UNESCO representatives, representatives from the Turkmenistan National Academy of Sciences, and the rest of the national and international experts on an expedition to the Koytendag Nature Reserve to assess and document the paleontology resources from May 23 - 27, and then participate in the two day conference held in Turkmenabat (capital of the Lebap Province) from May 28 - 29.

Rich and I decided that this was an opportunity we could not pass up. We were quite honored to be asked to participate in such an expedition, and we were also curious about the process of establishing World Heritage Sites and GeoParks. We also decided to take the opportunity on our return from Turkmenistan to visit friends and colleagues in Germany.  We booked our tickets and tried to figure out what we needed to bring on our adventure.

What style of packer are you? Are you a minimalist or a "for want of a nail" packer? Does your packing style change depending on your intended activity? We were a bit in a bind. First, in all of our correspondence with our contact in the Academy of Sciences, we were told we were participating in a scientific expedition. Naturally, I packed hiking boots, my CamelPak, long sleeved shirts and long pants, extra socks, digital camera, digital video camera, computer, external hard drive, iPad (for email), and the various gear needed to collect track data. I also had to pack "going to meeting" clothes for the conference and any potential meetings with government officials. That includes a separate pair of shoes - hiking boots do not go with a pinstripe skirt, no matter how field-tough you are. Second, other than the climate of Turkmenistan (hot and dry) and predominant culture of the country (Muslim), I could find very little information on what was considered acceptable casual dress for an international woman. Would I be required to cover my hair? Was a knee-length skirt acceptable? Were foreigners expected to conform to the local style of dress? Would my shiny red shoes overly offend?

You know these shoes are up to no good.
We were also informed that we would be outfitted with expedition clothing on arrival: hat, jacket, shirt, boots, and trousers. I debated not packing my regular hiking boots, but didn't want to be the one party-pooper who couldn't keep up with the rest of the team because I had an owie on my foot from chaffing boots. That being said, I decided to be a "for want of a nail" packer. I had a carry-on and a full-sized suitcase. Granted, there was some room within the suitcase for souvenirs, but it was still going to be a bloody heavy mess to carry around.

We left Canada on May 19th. We flew from Grande Prairie to Calgary, Calgary to Frankfurt (a rather productive hop across the pond, as the on-flight entertainment was down and I both started and finished my conference presentation), and then Frankfurt to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. There was a short stop at Baku in Azerbaijan, but it was only for half an hour and we had no opportunity to leave the plane.

We landed in Ashgabat at 10:00PM local time on May 20th.

Will our heroes(?) see the rumored cobras and scorpions that supposedly crawl willy-nilly through the city? Will my overpacking come back to haunt me? Will we survive our brush with airline "cuisine"? Stay tuned for the next zany installment of "Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan"!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Tarbosaurus and Logical Fallacies: the "debate" continues

I always hope that, while in the field and in relative solitude from humanity, that people in general will find a way to not be greedy selfish Homo sapiens and gain a better appreciation for the planet's natural and cultural heritage. I always make the mistake of checking the news on my reentry into society, and my vain hopes are dashed to pieces on the rocky shores of pseudoreasoning and small-mindedness.

This batch of musings is a follow-up piece to my previous post on the auction of the skeleton of Tarbosaurus by fossil dealer Eric Prokopi through Heritage Auctions. Despite protest from the paleontology community and from the government of Mongolia, whose fossil heritage often falls victim to fossil poachers, the auction proceeded. There are many reasons why this auction should have been halted. One, there is strong evidence that the specimen was illegally imported into the United States, as described by the blog "Dinosaur Tracking." Second, the government of Mongolia has not approved the removal of rare fossils such as Tarbosaurus for many decades, making this an illegal removal. The fossil, on examination by paleontologists with years of experience working with Mongolian fossils, was indeed found to be from Mongolia. Third, and for me and likely many other vertebrate paleontologists, fossils that are auctioned are in danger of being lost to the scientific and educational community, as they are often purchased by wealthy private individuals. As I wrote about in my previous post, no one person has the right to sell a piece of the entire world's heritage. Fossils simultaneously belong to everyone and no one.

Unfortunately for this piece of Mongolia's vertebrate paleontological heritage, the legal lunacy has only just begun. The Florida fossil dealer has lawyered up and is seeking to have the federal seizure of the specimen of Tarbosaurus dismissed. Take a moment and read this news article from NBCNews regarding the legal reasoning of Mr. Prokopi's legal team.

Finished? Did any part of the reasoning of the legal team strike you as a bit off or odd? If it did, congratulations! You have a sensitive Logical Fallacy Detector! Chances are you already have a link to this wonderful reference poster.

Let's go through the reported reasoning of Mr. Prokopi's legal team. Now, I am aware that, sometimes, the media misquotes or misreports on stories, so it is possible that these reported statements are gross oversimplifications. For the lawyers' sakes I hope this is the case, because a competent legal opponent will vaporize them in a puff of logic.

First, the legal team claims there is no conclusive proof the specimen in question actually came from Mongolia. Welcome to the logical fallacy of "Burden of Proof", which is the attempt to shift the burden of proving the specimen came from Mongolia to the exclusion of other localities. Sorry guys, but if you are going to claim that a fossil could have come from anywhere, let us hope you are not attempting this with Tarbosaurus. To date, Tarbosaurus has not been reported from anywhere other than Mongolia. Not only that, but the preservation type of the fossil was indicative to the paleontologists conducting the examination of a Mongolian origin. Also, they claim that there is no evidence that the specimen was acquired from Mongolia around a decade ago. Again, they really shouldn't try to dispute claims that are already well supported, such as the origin of the fossil. They could attempt to accuse the paleontologists of the logical fallacy of "Appeal to Authority", but, in the case of gathering information on the origin and identity of a fossil, I am going to trust the training of a paleontologist over the training of a lawyer. They have lost this argument before it has even started.

Second, and this is my personal favorite, is the lawyers are claiming Mongolia has no authority to say that Mongolian fossils can be sold because of an unsourced photo showing a tooth in a gift shop. Here's the quote from the NBCNews article:

"Tompa and McCullough [Prokopi's lawyers] released a photo showing what appears to be a fossilized dinosaur tooth. This photo, they said, undercuts the Mongolian claim on the dinosaur because it shows a fossil from the same species of dinosaur, a Tarbosaurus bataar, on sale for tourists in a Mongolian-run museum. (Mongolian law does not allow private ownership of its fossils, so they cannot be sold legally within the country.)

"If it is illegal to sell fossils in Mongolia, then why are fossils being sold in the Natural History Museum? We plan to introduce the photograph, along with other evidence, as this case goes forward," McCullough told LiveScience in an email." 

There are so many fallacies at work here I don't know where to begin. Since I have to begin somewhere, let's go with the fallacy duo of "No True Scotsman" and "Ad Hominem." The first fallacy attacks the purity of the argument of the Mongolian government, essentially saying that the Mongolian government cannot claim to hold anyone else to a standard they are not themselves supporting. The "Ad Hominem" fallacy joins in by attacking the character of the Mongolian government in their treatment of their own fossil heritage. 

First, there is no evidence as of yet that the photo in question came from a museum in Mongolia, as stated by the NBCNews article:

"However, as of yet, they have not revealed who took the photo or provided a sworn statement verifying what it shows and other details that would allow the photo to be entered as evidence in the case."

By using this photo as "evidence" the lawyers are utilizing the ever-popular "Anecdote," where an isolated incident is used to disprove a case with a great deal of documented supporting evidence. For a fourth fallacy, the legal team also dips their toes oh-so-subtly into the pool of the "Bandwagon", which attempts to support one action because "everyone else is doing it." How many times as kids did you hear your mother say "If everyone jumped off a bridge/pierced their eyelids/drank gasoline/played chicken with cars on the highway, would you?" As annoying and frustrating as it was to listen to back then, our parents were trying, in their own way, to teach us to avoid this particular logical fallacy. Just because one, two, or many places in Mongolia may or may not sell fossils, that does not make it legally correct to do so.

Finally, the legal team makes the point of saying it is not in the US's jurisdiction to enforce the export laws of other countries:

"McCullough maintained that the recent Mongolian seizures of fossils were not sufficient evidence to allow the United States to seize the dinosaur and give it to Mongolia. The issue is whether or not Mongolia has an ownership interest in the fossils, which it does not, he said. Mongolia may seek to stop the export of fossils, but the United States does not enforce other countries' export laws without a treaty, which in this case does not exist, he said."

This, in my mind, is the only valid-sounding point the legal team has made publicly. However, this is not a case of enforcing another country's export laws, but returning another person's/country's stolen property. In an earlier article, the lawyers also claim there is a difference between the original specimen and the finished prepared "display piece." Simple reasoning would show that if you remove the original specimen from the "display piece", there is nothing but some glue, a bit of reconstruction, and support beams left behind. The original specimen IS the only item under dispute. 

In the same article, the fossil dealer also tries out the old fallacy of "Appeal to Emotion" by claiming he's "just a guy in Gainesville, Florida, trying to support [his] family, not some international bone smuggler". This is one of the most pathetic ways to gain support this person could use. The same claim could be made by anyone attempting to make a living by engaging in legally/ethically questionable activities. The specimen was removed from Mongolia without the knowledge or permission of the Mongolian government. The Mongolian government wants their country's fossil back, regardless of how much time/money/effort the dealer put in to the preparation of the fossil. If you put time and money into an activity that is discovered to be illegal, or at best legally and ethically dodgy, you lose out on that time and money. Simple.

There is one large benefit to this case going to trial, and that is public awareness. The more information is publicly presented on the plight of Mongolia's fossil heritage at the hands of thieves, the ethical considerations of fossil "ownership" and sale, the better off the heritage, scientific, and educational world is going to be. Through all this discussion and debate perhaps we, as a fossil enthused society, will come across alternative ways to support our love of our planet's past without having to do it at the expense of the past. 

If you love fossils and have the means to make million dollar purchases, don't just simply buy fossils. You might be inadvertently supporting a legally and ethically unsound activity. Instead, support the institutions and people that bring these fossils to the public light. Fund a research chair in paleontology. Help upgrade a wing or collections facility in your local museum. There are many creative ways to be directly and positively involved in paleontology. 

Strange Woman

Monday, September 3, 2012

Post-Summer Field Work: Brief Update

Greetings from the field! Although it is Labour Day, science doesn't get a day off...and who would want to take time away from Late Cretaceous dinosaurs?

I'll keep this post brief, mostly because there are no photos available as of yet. I misplaced my digital camera USB cord in the transition from the hadrosaur excavation and the track project. All of my bits of gear and keys should be attached to me like mittens on a string.

First, we are still waiting for helicopter support for airlifting the hadrosaur out of the quarry. The machines that can handle the weight of the block (between 1800-2200kg) are off fighting forest fires in northern BC and Alberta. We can wait. We have disguised the site in the event that we have to wait until next year for the airlift, but we have been assured that within the next two weeks the machines will be available. 

We have switched gears from osteology to ichnology and are documenting a Late Cretaceous (Campanian-Maastrichtian) track site that was reported to us in 2011. The tracks have amazing preservation, including 3D digital casts and skin impressions. We usually do not plan any official field work after August as the weather in this part of the world can be a bit on the twitchy side, but for now the weather is cooperating. All of my shamanistic ceremonies and offerings to the non-gods are paying off. We should be done Phase 1 of the documentation in a week if we continue on our current schedule. Phase 2 will involve excavating more of the track surface, and we will have to leave that for a 2013 field adventure.

I'll keep you posted on the progress!