Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tyrannoethics 2: The Alioramus ebay auction

As of this writing, there is a more or less complete Alioramus skull and mandible, with associated cervical vertebrae, for auction on ebay for a third of a million dollars. This specimen is on offer by a dealer based in Charleville Mezieres, France. A quick scroll through the pages linked to Alioramus skull shows numerous other dinosaur bones for sale, including many from Mongolia. Implicit in those pages, and those of their ilk, is the acceptance that private ownership of such fossils is unproblematic.

As a paleontologist who is coauthor of three extensive works on one specimen of Alioramus (Brusatte et al., 2009; Brusatte et al., 2012; Bever et al., 2013), I can say that the sale of the Charleville skull and jaws to a private individual will be a significant loss to science. It is a pathetic and infuriating position that our science is in when important fossils, such as this, surface on the market. This is comparable to situation of field biologists who study species that are imperiled by the illegal trade in body parts, which is fueled by idiotic superstitions and huge profits.

Field biologists fight back with game wardens, new laws, and an effort to shame the culture of slaughter. We need to follow that example and present a united front with the public. The issue for us is urgent - scientifically important fossils are not only lost to the high-profile auctions of Bonhams and I. M. Chait, they also bleed out at a steady rate in these low profile online auctions. Let’s give these auctions the ethical scrutiny they provoke.

Possession by private individuals drives this market at the expense of science; our complacency nurtures the plunder of fossils. Must we remind ourselves that there is no science without the actual fossil?! Although there aren’t bloody carcasses to shock the public, the loss of data is akin to the slaughter of elephants for the ivory trade. As long as there are fossils on offer for purchase to just anyone, our science is being incrementally bled to death from nearly all sides.

Our job as scientists and educators is to convince people that private ownership of important fossils is outrageous, selfish, and uncool. We need common agreement with the public that such specimens belong in real museums, where everyone can see them and scientists have access to them for study. We also need the involvement of governments to set up the actionable legal framework for protecting fossils from private ownership. Until then, fossils such as the $300,000.00 Alioramus aren’t safe from the greed of dealers or the selfishness of collectors. That price tag speaks for itself.

In the meantime, science will continue to suffer the indignity, impotent rage, and impotent sorrow of Orpheus upon seeing Eurydice fade before his eyes.


Bever, G. S., S. L. Brusatte, T. D. Carr, Xing Xu, A. M. Balanoff, and M. A. Norell. 2013. The braincase anatomy of the Late Cretaceous dinosaur Alioramus (Theropoda: Tyrannosauroidea). Bulletin of the American Museum 376: 1-72.

Brusatte, S. L., T. D. Carr, and M. A. Norell. 2012. The osteology of Alioramus, a gracile and long-snouted tyrannosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 366:1-197.

Brusatte, S. L., T. D. Carr, G. M. Erickson, G. S. Bever, and M. A. Norell. 2009. A long-snouted, multi-horned tyrannosaurid from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:17261-17266.



  1. Just saw this because of your post. Ugh. I feel a bit sick now...

  2. Ugh. I check out their site, sorting from most expensive first. They are two copies of the the same Anchiornis (I thought at first it was slab and counter slab, but the tail is obscured by the metatarsus on both 'specimens'); a parvicursorine distal limb mislabeled as "Oviraptor"; several nice pterosaurs; and so on.

  3. A few years ago several Alioramus skulls hit the market. I got to see one that went to the museum in Thermopolis. There was a fully articulated neck cleanly sawed of a few vertebrae back. So; it was pretty clear the skulls had been cut off fully articulated skeletons. An even greater crime against science!

    1. Well realistically scientists would have probably never found the specimen before it eroded away, since so few of them roam the expanse of Mongolia at any given time. I suppose you could argue the discoverer should have reported the locality to scientists once he/she found it, but without the funds from selling fossils, they probably couldn't afford to spend time scouring the remote desert to find it in the first place. It does lead to a seemingly important ethical question though- if a specimen would be destroyed by natural processes before scientists collected it, is it not better that someone enjoys it and profits from it than that humans never know of it at all? Note this doesn't address the illegality of exporting fossils from Mongolia or cases where collectors steal from known digsites.

  4. This is a disheartening and disturbing chain of events. When you see specimens that have clearly been head-hunted as Jim describes, I cannot see how this current system of selling vertebrate fossils to the highest bidder provides any benefit to the long-term care of everyone's natural heritage. Frustratingly sad.

  5. Jim: UGH! You're killin' me... :-(

  6. Tom, I think that you are missing the point. The Alioramus is a STOLEN fossil! It was illegally smuggled out of Mongolia. It's legal title is with the Mongolian Government. It is not in anyway comparable to the LEGALLY collected fossils owned by private individuals. You should be outraged that a stolen fossil is advertised for sale on E-Bay. There may even be something that can be done about it.

    Peter Larson

  7. Peter - Yes, the illegality of the specimen is another problematic aspect, but the point here is that the private ownership of such fossils is the central issue, period; their legal status is secondary.



  8. For a degreed paleontologist who follows the ethical guidelines of the SVP, the outcome of both is the same: data snatched from the hands of science.

  9. One difference is that a specimen that is legally collected and for sale could be purchased by a Museum. That scenario follows the Ethics guidelines of SVP. A museum could NOT buy the Alioramus skull, because it is stolen property.

  10. It is very important to distinguish between legal and illegal matrial - here is an exchange on this subject between myself and Dave Hone which was published on line last week in his 'Lost Worlds' column in The Guardian, a UK newspaper.


  11. "Must we remind ourselves that there is no science without the actual fossil?!"

    Except in the numerous cases where fossils have been lost (segnosaurs), or made inaccessable (Quetzalcoatlus), or destroyed (Spinosaurus), or owned privately (Nyctosaurus)...

    If you don't accurately represent the requirements for science being done, you're not as likely to convince the public that private ownership of fossils should be discouraged.

    1. There is an interesting post on Paleo ethics on Andy Farke's Blog:


    2. A very good post indeed. It relates to this topic in that many important specimens are held by museums and have been published, but cannot have their photos made available to other researchers. For instance, until Turner et al. (2012) was published, photos of Adasaurus (described by Barsbold in 1983) have been embargoed. The same is true for most taxa at the IVPP, where I've had multiple authors say they're not allowed to distribute photos of specimens described in the 90s and earlier. In Carr's world these are all accessible and held in perpetuity, but if museums only ensure those with the resources to travel internationally have access, that's a significant failure and waste of resources for the rest of us.

  12. Did I just walk in on a Paleo flame war? This is really just frustrating. I think before we start getting at each other we should focus on saving these ancient relics from Nic Cages'. Coffee table. I did have a bit of a chuckle because underneath "CONDITION" it says "NEW"

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