Friday, November 15, 2013
How can we rescue the dinosaurs from Tuesday's auction?
Vertebrate paleontology is presently at a low moment: an auction hosted by Bonhams on this upcoming Tuesday, November 19, in New York offers for top dollar to anyone: two tyrannosaurid skeletons, two ceratopsian skeletons, the skull of a Triceratops, the skeleton of a Thescelosaurus, Hypacrosaurus, and a Tenontosaurus, among many other vertebrate fossils (Bonhams, 2013). The fossils are on the open market for prices far beyond what a museum can afford; it is probable the fossils will disappear into a private collection. As such, auctions such as this are flagrant and public humiliations of science.
Also, there has been news last month of a Tyrannosaurus rex discovery in South Dakota that has lit dollar signs in the eyes of the ranchers, and the commercial collector who found the specimen (Anon., 2013). It is a near certainty that all of these specimens will be lost to science, as was the T. rex nicknamed Samson that was auctioned to a private individual.
If fossils such as these are not in a legitimate museum, university, or educational institution, then scientists cannot publish on them; scientists must be able to verify observations, and there is no other way, aside from such institutions that the fossils will be held in perpetuity for scientific access. This scientific standard can be found in the ethics statement of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
That ethic is based on the fact that fossils are nonrenewable resources and the fossil record is incomplete, which means every new specimen is a test of previous knowledge. Each new fossil fills in a gap in our knowledge of the growth and evolution of a species. Without a large sample size, our knowledge of extinct life is irreparably compromised.
Evidently, the fossils in the auction were collected from private land, not state or federal lands, and so they are not protected from the market. Some of my colleagues think that our claim, as a field, stops there and nothing more can be done beyond wringing our hands and hoping that a museum with enough largesse can rescue them for science. That position is insufficient – action is needed.
To meet the immediate concern of pulling those skeletons back into the public realm; it is stated in the last line of Amendment V, in the Bill of Rights, of the Constitution of the United States:
“…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation” (U.S. Const. amend. V).
This line has come to be called ‘eminent domain’ or the ‘Takings Clause’, and I think it is just the ice water we need to drip down the backs of those who would profit by stabbing science in the eyes.
What does that line mean?
It means that state or federal governments can seize lands for public use, such as a road, if and only if the landowners are compensated for the deprivation.
How could this apply to dinosaur fossils?
Since dinosaurs are collected from lands, therefore they arguably are within the scope of the amendment. For example, property under the rubric of eminent domain can include water, minerals, and airspace (Meltz, 2007). It also includes personal property, including mining claims (Meltz, 2007). Legal history shows that personal property does not have much protection from eminent domain (Meltz, 2007). Even mining companies can use eminent domain – as permitted by state law - to seize private land for their operations (Busse, 2012). Therefore, dinosaur fossils are within the grasp of the Takings Clause.
If there is a desire on the state or federal level, then a fossil could be seized for the public use (i.e., science, education), reposited in a museum where it can be accessed by scientists and the public, and the collectors compensated for the expense they took to collect and prepare the specimen.
What could happen next?
Someone with the right connections, motivation, and political clout (perhaps a Republican member of the House of Representative, as a colleague of mine has suggested) could start the gears rolling toward a seizure of the four dinosaur skeletons under eminent domain for public use, and rescue them once and for all.
Beyond setting a precedent for the practice of eminent domain to seize vertebrate fossils, the laws regarding vertebrate fossils must be brought into alignment with, say, the laws regulating fossil resources in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Anonymous. 2013. T-Rex from Hauser Ranch could rival ‘Sue’ in completeness. News article: Timber Lake South Dakota; Monday, October 21.
Bonhams. 2013. Montana dueling dinosaurs and distinguished fossils. Tuesday November 19, 2013. New York. Catalog:1-67.
Busse, P. 2012. Minnesota landowners worried that mining companies will use eminent domain to take their property. News article: Oakdale Patch: March 19, 2012.
Meltz, R. 2007. Takings law today: a primer for the perplexed. Ecology Law Quarterly 34:307-380.
Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Article 12, Section 4, Deposition of fossil specimens.
The Constitution of the United States, Amendment V.
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