Sunday, February 1, 2015


Like smoke, does the price tag hang around after real museums purchase dinosaurs? With apologies to the late Amy Winehouse.

Naturalis T. rex
Although the SVP ethics does condone the purchase of fossils into the public trust, it is still most dispiriting for me to know colleagues who are engaged in that activity. Nothing dampens my morale more that to hear them blithely discuss the “going market rate” for, say, a T. rex or a Triceratops. How should museums treat that "market", I wonder?
The same people tell me that I represent the “hard line” on the sale of dinosaur fossils. Although we both lament the sale of fossils to private individuals, we in academe find ourselves on opposite sides of the principle of protecting fossils for Science and education.
My fossil purchasing colleagues rationalize their actions by saying that it is better than a given dinosaur fossil landing in private hands; in the end, they say, the fossil is where it belongs despite how it got there. That's just the way it is. The alternative is the oblivion of private ownership where data is lost to science indefinitely, so purchases made by legitimate museums is the lesser of two evils.
Not so fast.
It is with ambivalence I receive the news about the recent purchase of an adult T. rex by the Naturalis Museum (Netherlands) for $5 million euros: I’m glad the specimen is headed for a real museum, but the price tag sticks like a thorn through the eye. Should I be concerned? The concern my fossil-buying colleagues have is that T. rex fossils are “overpriced” and drive up the “market value” of dinosaur fossils in general. Good grief.
The information on the exchange for the specimen is pretty slim, and one source (CIHAN, 2014), provides the backbone of the story:
a) The specimen was found on private land in Montana in May 2013.
b) The specimen includes skull and skeleton of an adult, which is approximately 12 meters long. It is missing the feet, left leg, and arms; it was found in sandstone and the bones are not distorted.
c) Preparation of the specimen, and mounting on a metal armature for display is being done by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research (BHIGR) Inc.
d) The Naturalis Museum collected the specimen, almost certainly with assistance from BHIGR Inc.
e) “As its excavator Naturalis had the first right for purchase” (emphasis added).
d) The Naturalis had to pay $5 million euros, or $6.1 million USD for the specimen, presumably to the landowner.
e) A crowd funding campaign brought in $230,000.00 euros, and the rest “came from companies, individuals, funds, the municipality of Leiden and Naturalis”. A large part of the funds were raised through kickstarter.
f) The specimen will go on display in mid 2016.
g) The Naturalis Museum says it will publish a bunch of research on the specimen.
Should I be concerned? Regardless of the negotiations between landowner and museum, Naturalis has sent the message to everyone with a dinosaur skeleton on their land that museums will pay just about anything for the fossil and will go to extraordinary lengths to raise the money to buy it. With behavior like that I’m not convinced that legitimate natural history museums aren’t less of a problem as the private hoarders; together they keep the “market” alive and kicking because they’ll pay top dollar. For some perspective, a million dollars could easily fund a decade of a large museum's field program.
My fossil-buying friends would say that it isn’t their fault – the precedent was set by the auction of Sue to the Field Museum for about $8 million USD. Ergo, we’re stuck. From my point of view, it is our responsibility as scientists to treat the price tag of Sue as an anomalously high outlier that no one (in academe at least) has since taken seriously, and no Science respecting museum will ever pay that much again.
Wouldn’t Science be better served if the scientist holding the check book just said “no” to an marked up price tag?! Instead, a museum could, say, offer landowners a percentage of the admission tickets and the merchandizing that stems from the fossil. Certainly there must be alternatives to just paying out astronomical amounts of money that gives the extortion-level “going rate” for dinosaurs, and the “market” itself, no end in sight.
So what happens when a museum doesn’t cave in and a sale flops?  Then the fossils are gone and Science keeps the high road, which of course has a steep cost in terms of the indefinite loss of the specimen. Over time, people with fossils for sale will find that dinosaurs aren't the winning lottery tickets they had thought them to be (assuming that private hoarders wise up to this as well). There is the remote hope that at some point in the future the dinosaur will change hands, or the private hoarder will change heart, and the fossil will be positioned for donation to a museum.
The alternative is for museums to follow the Naturalis example and pay the exorbitant cost and give a clear message to all that the value of the "market" stands head and shoulders above the value of Science.
T. rex list of shame, expanded and updated.
I have added six additional T. rex specimens (in red text) to the T. rex List of Shame that are documented in Larson (2008); that list was up to date as of August 2006. For the present time, I have not included specimens that are housed in what are essentially nonaccredited private collections and privately owned, but nonprofit museums. In their relatively high public profile such places occupy a gray area (perhaps dark gray) between outright private collections on the one hand, and legitimate (i.e., accredited) and long established museums on the other.
Regardless, the 14 specimens in this list represent a substantial and devastating loss to science in that it includes a growth series, from juvenile to adult. Were these specimens in real museums, the sample size of each primary growth stage (juvenile, subadult, young adult, senescent adult) would be increased significantly and we’d have a better sense of the range of variation in each stage.

Unfortunately, I expect this list to increase in number as the years progress unless the culture tips away from commerce and toward Science and education.
1. Barnum: partial skull and postcranial skeleton; found in 1996; collected from Wyoming; sold at auction for over $90,000.00 USD to investors from South Dakota in May 2004.
2. Ollie: incomplete skull and skeleton; found in 1998; collected from Montana; owned by Great Plains Paleontology (Madison, WI).
3. Rex-C: partial skull and skeleton; found in 1999; collected from South Dakota.
4. Monty: partial skull and skeleton; found in 2000; collected from Wyoming; owned by Babiarz Institute of Paleontological Studies, Mesa (AZ).
5. Otto: partial postcranial skeleton; found in 2001; collected from Montana; owned by Great Plains Paleontology (Madison, WI).
6. Wayne: partial postcranial skeleton; found in 2004; collected from North Dakota; privately owned.
7. Cupcake: subadult skull and jaws; almost certainly collected from Montana; owned by The Amazing Traveling Dinosaur Show, British Columbia; on display in Victoria, BC in December, 2014.
8. King Kong: adult skull and skeleton; collected from Montana; privately owned by an individual person; a project of The Amazing Traveling Dinosaur Show; was on public display at the Mineralientage Munchen, at Munich Trade Fair Center Oct 24-25 2014.
9. Tinker: subadult skull and skeleton; collected in South Dakota in 1998; privately owned; presently on display in an art gallery in Dubai; for sale for $10 million; found associated with the adult specimen Regina.
10. Regina: adult; found associated with Tinker; the pair is for sale between $12 and $14 million.
11 & 12. Russell: composite skeleton of two adults; offered for sale at the Bonham’s auction in November, 2013; on display at a 2013 Gem and Mineral show (Denver or Tucson).
13. Dueling tyrannosaur: subadult skull and skeleton; offered for sale at the Bonham’s auction in November, 2013; associated with a ceratopsian; owned by CK Productions.
References cited
CIHAN. Dec. 30, 2014. Feature: Night watch, tulips and T. rex in the Netherlands.
Larson, N. 2008. One hundred years of Tyrannosaurus rex: the skeletons; pp. 1-55 in
P. Larson, and K. Carpenter (eds.) Tyrannosaurus rex, the Tyrant King. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Monday, January 26, 2015


At the end of two weeks of drawing nonstop are 85 line drawings that don't come even close to a complete documentation of the skeleton! Why on earth am I smiling?! Photograph by John Scannella.
 Part A: Progress Report
My trip to the MOR is now over and done with; in the end, I completed 85 line drawings in two weeks and the revisions bumped the ms up to 1,273 pages. Each day was so labor intensive that I was left mentally and physically exhausted to the extreme that I hadn’t the energy or motivation to post updates.
After the first a full week of making illustrations, it was clear to me that I had to narrow my focus on the articulated skull and exclude the disarticulated bones in the cabinets. Despite appearances, the articulated skull is in several sections that can be taken apart and reassembled. I want this trip to be the last (or second last) time that happens in order to minimize handling and stress upon the large, but delicate fossil. My plan was to fully illustrate the skull in its articulated and disarticulated conditions before I left.
As history turned out, I was able to illustrate nearly the entire skull and jaws, with the exception of much of the braincase and parts of the lower jaws. One of the main benefits of this trip was getting a handle on my weekly progress, which is approximately 43 line drawings a week. This will help me plan my next visit, during which I plan to complete the skull and jaws, and get a good start on the postcranium.
I approach each drawing in three steps, where (1) I draw the outline of the bone, or the outline of a set of articulated bones with a heavy line weight, (2) I then draw outlines of all of the damage, plaster, glue, and epoxy with a thin line weight, and finally (3) I draw in the topography of the bone with a light or medium weight line. In a collections room with diffuse light, I wear a small headlamp to illuminate the specimen. To stave off boredom, especially during the midafternoon, I usually have a maximum of three drawings in progress. In most cases I find that drawing the actual anatomical details gets accomplished very quickly, in contrast to drawing in all of the damage. Since there was such a high volume of illustrations to make for this project, I saved time by holding off the final task of varying the line weights for home except for highly damaged bones such as (in this case) the premaxilla.
Part B: Rationale & Justification for a Big Monograph
In this section I will answer the most frequent questions I get regarding this monograph, with the goal to flesh out my aims for embarking on this sizeable work, as well as that on Jane.
Q: Where do you plan on publishing such a large work?
A: There are several online journals (e.g., ZooKeys, Zootaxa) that do publish large works online, which is enabled by the digital format. There are traditional print journals (e.g., Palaeontology, Journal of Paleontology, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology) that publish large memoirs in addition to their regular issues. And there are publishers that that will print specialized works in book form (e.g., Springer). I therefore have several venues to consider once the final manuscript is produced.
Q: Why not just break up your monograph into several smaller articles? That way you can boost your publication record.
A: To my mind, a monograph is a single coherent reference work that saves fellow researchers the inconvenience of tracking down separate articles, and personal experience has shown me that a single work (or set of works between two covers) is simply easier to work with. I think the mode of publication ought to benefit the audience more than the author. Put another way, a monograph is a work that the reader can count on as delivering a maximum amount of information content in a single location. That’s the whole point.
Q: Why such a huge monograph on one species? Aren’t you just repeating previous works, like Brochu (2003)?
Why not a huge monograph on one species? Let’s take an honest look at the current landscape of publications on new dinosaur taxa: most articles in the premier journals are 30 pages long or less, and each bone is usually covered in a paragraph or two. How is that acceptable when we know that bones aren’t that simple and there is a huge volume of literature behind most groups of dinosaurs that needs adequate comparison with new fossils. I think we’re in an unfortunate historical moment where less information is seen as better than more; I suspect that this has more to do with publication costs of printed media than anything else.
With regard to the specific project at hand I am describing a growth series, which significantly bumps up the page length. This also helps make the argument for a large work, not against it; a monograph provides the opportunity to capture the variation of a taxon in detail. Again, my basic argument is the same: maximizing information content is better than minimization. Why leave people guessing?
The question of repetition strikes me as a little bizarre, since the taxon I’m working on isn’t an adult T. rex; the question implies that there’s so little difference between T. rex and its immediate relatives that there’s no reason to treat any of them in detail. But that would be to argue from ignorance of the tyrannosaurid literature, the history of the group, and variation in the clade; we really don’t know that much about tyrannosaurid osteology and variation, and we must take every opportunity we have to enrich our knowledge if we are to have any hope of understanding their biology and their place in Cretaceous ecosystems
I agree that Brochu (2003) is worthy of some discussion here. That is an exemplary work, and I have used it as a template for the Two Med tyrannosaurine monograph and for the Jane monograph. But it has to be kept in mind that more taxa and more information has been published since that time and we’re currently in a phase (perhaps perpetual) of catching up with new knowledge. For example, I’ve drafted below a table contrasting the information content of the maxilla in Brochu (2003) from that in the Two Med tyrannosaurine monograph by comparing the number of subheadings that correspond to primary osteological features. A quick glance shows a huge difference of information content, showing that my effort isn’t redundant by any measure, but rather it is complementary. The difference is primarily one of resolution. Also Brochu (2003) takes care of the maxilla in about three printed pages, whereas in my case, the maxilla is covered in 74 (double spaced) pages.
Brochu (2003)
Two Med tyrannosaurine monograph
General form
General form
Ventral margin of lateral alveolar process
Ventral margin of lateral alveolar process
Teeth, number and shape
Teeth, number and shape
Circumfenestral foramina
Circumfenestral foramina
Alveolar foramina
Alveolar foramina
Maxillary nerve channel
Maxillary nerve channel
Subnarial foramen
Subnarial foramen
Jugal ramus
Jugal ramus
Subcutaneous surface
Subcutaneous surface
Antorbital fossa
Antorbital fossa
Maxillary fenestra, size and shape
Maxillary fenestra, size and shape
Interfenestral strut
Interfenestral strut
Promaxillary recess
Promaxillary recess
Promaxillary fenestra, position and shape
Promaxillary fenestra, position and shape
Vestibular bulla
Vestibular bulla
Caudal antromaxillary fenestra
Caudal antromaxillary fenestra
Antorbital fenestra
Antorbital fenestra
Palatal process
Palatal process
Bony choana
Bony choana
Maxillary antrum
Maxillary antrum
Maxillary antrum, medial wall
Maxillary antrum, medial wall
Sutural contacts
Sutural contacts

Horizontal ramus (excluding antorbital fossa)

Horizontal ramus (including antorbital fossa)

Interdental septa

Sulci of the alveolar row of foramina

Subnarial region

Joint surface for the premaxilla

Premaxillary buttress

Narial fossa

Circumfossa ridge

Teeth, position

Dorsal jugal process

Ventral jugal process

Caudal alveolar foramen

Joint surface for the jugal

Nasomaxillary suture

Ascending ramus, lateral view

Maxillolacrimal suture

Ascending ramus, medial view

Antorbital fossa, subordinate fossae and foramina

Maxillary fenestra, position

Maxillary position, form of edges

Maxilla, medial surface

Interdental plates, form

Interdental plates, position and texture

Medial alveolar process

Dental pits

Joint surface for the palatine

Palatal process, form

Palatal process, medial wall

Palatal process, dorsal surface

Maxillary sinus system

Maxillary antrum, caudal region

Maxillary antrum, epiantral recess

Intermaxillary process

Intermaxillary joint surface

Intermaxillary process, foramina

Medial surface above maxillary sinus system

It also has to be kept in mind how much our knowledge of tyrannosaurid osteology has come since 2003. Since then, different authors will describe features not mentioned by others, which has expanded the amount of anatomy to write up. The number of phylogenetic characters published for the clade is now well into the hundreds, which is additional incentive to expand the osteological descriptions and to describe how each feature varies. Therefore, a monograph that aims to capture all of that information will have a huge payoff for other researchers in that the full range and hierarchy of variaton is captured, including phylogenetic, ontogenetic, and individual.
References cited
Brochu, C. A. 2003. Osteology of Tyrannosaurus rex: insights from a nearly complete skeleton and high-resolution computed tomographic analysis of the skull. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 7: 1-138.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


The start of the first interpretative line drawing for the monograph. Photograph by John Scannella.

January 13, 2015

For the past several days a migraine headache has stopped me from making daily updates to this diary, but it has now receded. In the meantime, I've made all of the revisions to the monograph, where features could be seen in lateral view. The manuscript is 1,269 pages in length.
Late last week I reached an important milestone, namely the interpretive line drawings of each bone. Although photographs are a straightforward approach to illustration, they are unable to capture subtle features or the difference between a pristine surface and damage, and their value is diminished when they are defaced by labels and leader lines. Therefore, it is ideal to have accompanying line drawings in a formal description that map out all of the features that are not obvious in a photograph and show all that are discussed in the text.
This time around, I am making each line drawing by tracing the photographs that will make up the plates in the monograph. I crop each image in photoshop and adjust the size (maximum fit to an 8.5 x 11 page) and dpi (300) before reorienting them and converting them into pdf files in illustrator. Once printed, I then tape onto the paper a sheet of acetate, the sort used for overhead transparencies. I then put the sheets on a clipboard and start the drawing using various calibers of black pens (Prismacolor, black ink, caliber 0.8-0.01).
Since I have less than three weeks to make hundreds of drawings, I am using acetate to save time; when time is not an issue I usually use parchment paper and I trace the images on a light board first in pencil, and then I ink the line drawing afterward. During this visit I can’t afford to waste time on two steps.
The main challenge with this process is that it takes a long time for the ink to dry on the acetate, and the finest lines may bead up to produce a faint or irregular line. The faint lines mean I have to go over some areas twice, but the wet ink is the larger problem. Many of those problems can be fixed digitally, but my preference is to make clean, sharp drawings that require a minimum of additional work. In addition to that, the acetate sheets are packaged with thin sheets of parchment paper that separate them; I use a sheet of parchment as a guard so my hand does not rest directly on the acetate and smudge the ink. However, smudging was not completely prevented on my first image (the skull in left lateral view), which shows that I need to take more care and plan out where I start on each drawing. I am happy to report that I've since solved that problem.
For line drawings, I follow a few straightforward rules:
1) Every line and dot must have meaning; i.e., each one must correspond to a feature that is seen on the specimen.
2) In keeping with convention, weight the lines in accord with illumination from the upper left.
3) Unite the entire image with a medium weight tie line and vary the line weight with the illumination; put the thickest lines along the edges of structures that are closest to the viewer; progressively thinner lines must correspond to progressively distant structures; unite each fenestra with a medium weight tie line and vary the line weight according to the source of illumination; solid lines pertain to edges whether or not they are free or overlapping, or pertain to broken surfaces, unprepared matrix, glue, or plaster; use dots are used to mark boundaries of nonoverlapping topographical structures (e.g., the edge of a fading sulcus).
4) Pay more attention to the specimen than to the drawing; i.e., double and triple check between the specimen and the image that the line you are drawing actually matches reality.
The first image - cranium of the subadult in left lateral view - completed! In the right foreground are the bound hard copies of the Two Medicine tyrannosaurine monograph (back when it was a mere 627 pages) and the Jane monograph. They are stacked together to give an approximation of the 1,269 behemoth that the tyrannosaurine monograph has reached. By the way, they are printed with two pages on each sheet to conserve paper!

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Early Thursday morning, January 8, 2015 - I am examining the lacrimal sinus for an optimal place to measure its internal width. The process of revising a manuscript is best done with the specimen on hand in case details were missed the first time around. Photograph by John Scannella.

This week has been very busy and I have been left exhausted at the end of each day, which has delayed me in posting my accomplishments. Here is my summary of the past few days of tyrannosaurining.
January 6, 2015
Today is the day of revisions to the manuscript and I reached page 58 of 627. Along the way I decided on some minor reorganization so that the description follows a logical ontogenetic sequence; I had penned it in a different order initially, but it wasn’t sufficiently straightforward to follow. I’m a bit disillusioned by my slow progress, but the changes and additions are necessary and they have greatly improved the text and information content. I reached 1,226 pages in the digital manuscript today.
January 7, 2015
Today I resumed with the revisions to the maxilla. Although I did get past the maxilla, there’s a specimen that must be brought out of the gallery for me to examine before it is done. Also, the maxilla of the subadult needs to be flipped over so that I can photograph the medial surface. 1,236 pages reached.
January 8, 2015
This morning I began with the lacrimal and from there I've made my way through the braincase section, and I have reached the palate; I've made it to the 308th page of the 627-page hard copy manuscript. In the meantime, the revised and expanded digital version has reached 1,248 pages.
My incremental progress over the past few days was the result of making comparisons with other taxa, from which I drew upon my many excel spreadsheets of data. That approach had greatly slowed me down; since I can make those comparisons without being here, I decided to focus on the immediate revisions that I had specifically marked in red ink for this visit.
Despite the recent breakthrough, it is clear to me that the revisions will continue into the weekend; hopefully I'll start the line drawings at the latest on Monday.
At the end of the day I became unfocused and frazzled with fatigue, which motivated a productive departure in using the last minutes to add some characters of Peck's rex axis to my cladistic dataset of T. rex ontogeny.

Night thoughts among tyrannosaur skeletons:
To the curtsy of the swan neck/the wolf head yields
To wisdom kept/the gorgon to her shield
To separate bled/the constancy of years

Monday, January 5, 2015


My arrival yesterday morning at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN). Bronze cast of MOR 555. Photograph by John Scannella.
Yes - this is a new diary series to document science as it happens, this time it is my account of making the final revisions to another mammoth monograph I have in the works, as well as my progress on the interpretive line drawings, which is the primary focus of this latest research trip to the legendary Museum of the Rockies (Bozeman, MT).
By the way, the monograph describes the Two Medicine tyrannosaurine.
This project has been in progress for some time - it started way back in March, 2012 and since then I have put in 76 days (= 11 weeks or 2.53 months) in the MOR collections with bones in hand, writing the initial manuscript, taking measurements, shooting photographs, and incorporating the literature. So this tale comes to you toward its end - at least the part that happens in the library of fossils.
January 4, 2015
Woke up at 3 am EST; flight at 6:40 am from YYZ to MSP, then 9:00 am from MSP to BZN; flight arrived in Bozeman around 10:45 am. Slept on both flights; no potable water on the second flight, so no coffee.
January 5, 2015
This monograph is intended to be an exhaustive treatment of a growth series, where the manuscript I arrived with was 1,180 pages long (double spaced, of course, and the page count excludes the figure captions and figures).
Woke up at 5:30 am, showered, and dressed, all by mistake - I had misread the alarm clock as 6:30.
Today I completed the description of the dorsal ribs of the subadult, and I photographed them afterward. I found three hemal arches of the adult in some shelves that I missed during my last research visit. I spent a few minutes putting then in the correct sequence (based on their overall size, shape, the form of their proximal joint surfaces, and the grooves that extend ventrally from the hemal canals), and it turns out they nicely fill in the base of the tail. I put in headings and subheadings for each of the new arches in their correct sequence, and I accordingly renumbered all of the other arches in the manuscript. I managed to get a start on the first arch, but then my energy flagged. Eventually I completed the descriptions of the hemal arches, the gastralia, and finally the prefrontal. Excellent progress; tomorrow I can focus on my red-inked mansucript, and the yellow highlights in the digital version.
End of day; I am holding the prefrontal of the adult in my hand that I had just finished writing up moments before. This small bone is quite complex and I had been avoiding it over my last two research trips. It is complex in form because it is at the intersection of several major anatomical domains, namely the orbital cavity, the nasal airway, and the dorsal skull roof, where it is jammed between the forehead and the snout. It is also part of several major anatomical structures, including the orbitonasal ridge and cranial crest. On top of all that, it articulates with three bones: the lacrimal, nasal, and frontal. The level of hierarchical osteological detail in one small bone can be dizzying. The prefrontal was the last major descriptive loose thread ahead of me, and it was very satisfying to have it done, but plucking the numerous small loose threads in the manuscript is tomorrow's primary task . Photograph by Scannella.
Oh, page count?
1,212 pages reached.