Monday, August 5, 2013
Q &A II: The dueling tyrannosaurid
Last month my reader from South Korea asked my opinion regarding the tyrannosaurid skeleton that was found associated with a ceratopsid skeleton; the so-called Dueling Dinos, which are presently up for sale.
Q: Do you think the dueling tyrannosaurid is just a large juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex?
A: On the face of it, that is a straightforward question, but it is complicated for a couple of reasons:
(1) The word “just” implies that if the specimen is a juvenile then somehow its scientific importance is diminished. That couldn’t be further from the truth – if the specimen is a juvenile or subadult, then its scientific importance increases because we are presently have a deficient sample size for juvenile and subadult tyrannosaurids from the Hell Creek Formation (and its lateral equivalents in the American and Canadian West). In my view, every juvenile and subadult tyrannosaurid is important, no matter what unit they were collected from. The early interval of growth in these dinosaurs is virtually a black box, which is why there is so much disagreement at the present time over tyrannosaurid diversity in the Hell Creek Formation. We need more juveniles and subadults – lots of them!
(2) This is a privately held specimen that is up for sale. I will not comment directly on it because (a) I have not seen it first hand, and (b) aside from that – and more importantly - it is not in a legitimate museum collection, where access to it is guaranteed to all researchers, including myself.
Certainly a lot of attention has swirled around the Dueling Dinos, but it is not ethical for me to offer my views on it – no matter how well informed – until it is in a legitimate repository. My position is consistent with Section 4 of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s Bylaw on Ethics:
"Scientifically significant fossil vertebrate specimens, along with ancillary data, should be curated and accessioned in the collections of repositories charged in perpetuity with conserving fossil vertebrates for scientific study and education (e.g., accredited museums, universities, colleges and other educational institutions)."
and also Section 6:
“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.”
Until the tyrannosaurid is in a legitimate repository, I consider the specimen to be in limbo, perilously caught between the Scylla of commerce ($7-8 million price tag) and Charybdis of commodification (scientifically uninformed hype) - which is frustrating for me as a tyrannosaurid researcher given its apparent completeness, quality of preservation, and ontogenetic stage.
In addition to that, I do not want to say anything that could be construed as either enhancing its commercial value or endorsing the sale of a scientifically important specimen; ergo, the absence of an image of it above. I take the view that if a specimen is scientifically important, then it should not be up for sale.
Therefore, I encourage all of those involved in trying to sell the Dueling Dinos to do the right thing: donate the specimens to a legitimate museum in exchange for the expense taken to collect and prepare the skeletons. Fossils like the Dueling Dinos must not be on the open market where they are perched above the abyss of disappearing into the hands of a private individual or an illegitimate institution – fossils are nonrenewable resources, and it would harm science if they are sold beyond its reach.