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, 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.
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