Monday, November 18, 2013

If both tyrannosaurids are auctioned tomorrow to private interests…

Welcome to the big chill - we're in the Ice Age of vertebrate paleontology, where the auction of virtually complete, excellently preserved dinosaur skeletons to anyone is status quo; we can't let this continue. Big Mike (bronze cast of MOR 555) in the snow, outside the front doors of the Museum of the Rockies (Bozeman, MT), the sort of place where dinosaur skeletons really belong.

This table summarizes my total data set for one tyrannosauroid skull and skeleton.
Skull & jaws
Grand total

If both tyrannosaurids are sold to private interests tomorrow, and assuming 100% completeness of both, then I will lose up to 22,796 data points that capture information regarding the evolution, growth, and biology of those specimens. With each tyrannosaurid sold or poached, I experience a tangible loss of data that amounts to having the eyes of science put out. How can the current state of affairs be acceptable to anyone?


  1. In a scenario where the fossils are sold to private interests, would you contact the winning bidder (if publicly disclosed) and ask for access? Assuming these are non-destructive, minimally invasive measurements, you could make a strong case if the winning bidder has even an inkling of their scientific importance.

  2. Hi,

    Regrettably, you've described the very heart of the matter - if the specimens are sold to a private individual, then I cannot study them because they are not in an accredited institution where fossils are conserved and held in perpetuity for the benefit of science and education. In private hands, there is no guarantee of access to a fossil, if it will be adequately conserved, or its fate once the owner tires of it or dies. The touchstone of science is reproducibility of observations, and private ownership of data runs against that grain. This is the ethical standard of the field, which I endorse. Therefore, the sale of fossils to a private interest is a virtually irrecoverable loss to science.



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  3. But... but... you CAN study them. Phone them up, write an email. Surely not everyone will be a greedy, close-minded jerk who refuses to allow access. Maybe some would even agree to allow a museum to own the fossil after they die. As I described in my comment to your last post on this topic, specimens in museums are often not held in perpetuity or are conserved in such a way that doesn't allow reproducibility of observations anyway. Since many published specimens fail your idealized condition, that's a weak reason to not publish on other specimens that fail it.

    There's even precedent, where Bennett (2003) described two Nyctosaurus specimens bought by a private bidder. And because he did that, pterosaur workers have now used their data points in analyses, and even do new science on the specimens (Xing et al., 2009).

    You could do the same for these tyrannosaurids, or at least try. There's no outside force stopping you, but you act as if your hands are tied and nothing can be done. The only thing stopping you is that your desire to follow your ethics 100% is greater than your desire to compromise and get some science done out of imperfect situations. That may indeed be regrettable for science, but is also partly under your control.

  4. I agree with Thomas's ethical standard,
    the fact that you "could try" to phone/email the owner to study the material stems by the owner personal inclination who allows you to study the material. This is not what a scientist would consider "reproducibility" of the observation. What if the owner allows Mr A but not Mr B just because of personal feelings? Nobody can force the owner to show the material again or to everyone just because it happened once. The fact that museum specimens not always are conserved in the proper way is not a justification to consider the private collections with the status as "accessible material" for the scientific community.

    1. I didn't claim the situation would always be ideal. Maybe the owner's biased about who can see it, maybe they never let it be examined again. For example, in Bennett's case while he says "assistance in arranging access to these specimens can be obtained directly from the author" and that the owner "intends to retain them permanently", one of the nyctosaurs was later put online for sale if I recall correctly. But you know what? We still use Bennett's paper as data. If we require every situation to be ideal and never compromise, we'll just lose opportunities like this.

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  6. Going slightly off-topic (Hopefully, you know by now the specimen didn't meet reserve price this time). Did you take the snowy Big Mike pic that night we were working late at MOR in, 2008?