Friday, November 15, 2013

How can we rescue the dinosaurs from Tuesday's auction?

Myself and a cast of the skull and dentary of 'Samson' (CM 79057) in the vertebrate paleontology collections room of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. The original skull and skeleton was auctioned in 2009 to a private individual; according to the ethics of my field - which I agree with -  it is out of science's reach because it is not in a legitimate repository, where there is a guarantee of scientific access and conservation in perpetuity. Photo by Amy Henricci.
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 Article V 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.
What then?
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.


  1. "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."

    Scientists choose not to publish on them, they're not prevented by some force outside their control. While I sympathize with wanting important specimens in museums, the ideal of museums being a place where observations can be verified in perpetuity doesn't match reality. Want to verify features of Quetzalcoatlus? Too bad. As Witton reported on the Pterosaur-Net blog-

    "Without mentioning any names, the Texas Memorial Museum has placed a strict embargo on the release of information about Quetzalcoatlus until the full monographic description has been properly published. This has been promised since at least the 1980s (Langston 1981; Kellner and Langston 1996) and, in the meantime, getting access to the material seems to be extremely difficult. I asked to see the material back in 2006 and was told no. Colleagues of mine have asked the same, and got the same answer. The few friends of mine that have seen the specimens are sworn to secrecy and, if they want to publish even itty-bitty snippets of information about them, they have to ask permission first."

    Might as well be held privately. Or want to see the left side of Monolophosaurus? Even if you're a scientist redescribing it at the IVPP, it's "deeply embedded in hard foam for travelling exhibition, permitting only detailed observation of the right lateral surface of the skull, as well as limited views of the dorsal, ventral, anterior and posterior surfaces of some elements." The postcranium "is embedded in foam that obscures the bones so that they are only visible in right lateral view, and only rarely are portions of the ventral surfaces of the vertebrae exposed."

    The same is true of the Sinraptor holotype, and we all know of numerous specimens stuck behind glass cases that aren't removed even for researchers writing theses and such. Sure observations of these are verifiable in theory, but if they're not verifiable in practice, that's meaningless.

    Also, you have a cast of Samson, so surely observations of it can be checked. It's not as good as having the original fossil, but it's still better than nothing. Many fossils are merely casts or molds themselves (e.g. Saltopus), and we don't withold comment on those merely because the fossilized bone is gone. You might say at least we have what nature left us, but then scientists destroy or don't collect some parts of specimens too, such as the sterna of Balaur. We don't just say "what we have isn't as good as what was originally there to get, better ignore it".

  2. Finally, "in perpetuity" is often meaningless, especially in Asian museums. Read Zanno's (2010) therizinosaur review to see how a majority of the original segnosaur material (Segnosaurus, Nanshiungosaurus, Therizinosaurus) is lost. Or Maidment and Wei (2006) on Chinese stegosaurs, where every taxon has a 'Current Location of Material' entry, and all but one have significant lost material. Sure lost material might eventually show up, but by the same token privately owned material might eventually be given to scientists.

    This is all ignoring the elephant in the room that 'in perpetuity' has so far meant a couple hundred years at most, and many old specimens are being damaged or destroyed through both handling and natural processes (e.g. Dryptosaurus' holotype). What will our repositories of current material look like in 2500?

    The real reasons behind scientists often refusing to publish on privately held fossils seem to be- 1) a rational dislike of private ownership of important specimens which leads to an irrational refusal to work with private dealers/owners to get what information is possible before or after sales, and 2) the untested assumption scientific that involvement in fossil sales (such as identifying taxa) will lead to more fossils being sold. Neither are scientific, and as people who should be most concerned with collecting data, the practice of ignoring this data seems like a prime example of cutting the nose off to spite the face.

  3. I hope that this story will turn out for the best.
    I am amazed. In Italy, the fossils are the property of the Italian people.

  4. Frankly, if you don't like this, you could just form a "coalition of the willing" (see what I did?) academics to pool funds and just participate in the auction yourself(ves), or find a wealthy patron who could buy it for you. You could even just offer to add to the value of the fossil, by offering the winner a chance to make it of high scientific value, as well as being pretty, and that of a vertebrate fossil: and you can do this gratis, or alternately for a fee--your call. Heck, you can convince them to donate this to your institution for study. Just pray you have the negotiating skills to achieve this: but the rewards can be substantial.

    Point is, to do good paleontology, you don't need to be just in the lab or the field: sometimes you have to deal with these people, and yes, even play dirty. you mainly just have to get them on your side--give them a reason to help you, even work for you, and to your standards. again, you'd have to negotiate for this, and make a business of it if you must. None of this will be easy, physically or personally, but nothing worthwhile is. If you don't like it, tough! the heavens don't rain gold....

    And no need to bring Government into this--this may complicate matters further: If they can place imminent domain on some private collector, who is to say that they won't do the same to an academic institution? What if academic institutions abuse this to forcibly seize a rival institution's choice fossils? And what if the private collector out of charity or interest offers for you to study it in the future? that last part is entirely feasible, and it would be wrong to punish such a person for having the fossil.

    further, as Ms/Mrs. Mortimer has pointed out, lots of specimens within academia go undescribed, or even left to fall apart. what difference does it make then? If you are concerned about the neglect of the fossils, then it might be wise to look into your own affairs first, and deter yourself from criticizing private ownership.

    I do not mean to be harsh, and I laud your intentions, but the solution you offer is unacceptable--even dangerous. It also leaves out alternatives that may prove beneficial, not just to you, but to the collectors, the auctioneers, etc.

    I could go on, but I do not wish to burden you excessively, and this should be sufficient anyways.

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