Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tyrannoethics

"Money beats soul, every time" -Jim Morrison. "Resist or perish" -A. C. Crispin. The private ownership of dinosaur skeletons is an unethical tide that must be reversed; our science needs society's active protection against this deprivation of data.


In the wake of the November 19th Bonhams auction of dinosaur fossils, and as the fate of those stunning specimens are decided mostly by nonscientists, I elaborate here on why the auction of vertebrate fossils is unethical. I follow as a framework the ethics guidelines of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), in particular Sections 4 and 6 of Article 12 .
Section 4. Deposition of fossil specimens
Scientifically significant fossil vertebrate specimens, along with ancillary data, should be curated and accessioned in the collections of repositories charged in perpetuity with conserving fossil vertebrates for scientific study and education (e.g., accredited museums, universities, colleges and other educational institutions).
The decision to put the specimens on auction puts fossils in a perilous position, where they may be purchased by anyone is an action that is in violation of this section. The high prices of the fossils puts them out of the reach of museums and toward, if not into, the grasp of private interests. In the time preceding an auction, the specimens are not curated into a legitimate repository, which is also in violation of this section. The true value of a dinosaur skeleton is not monetary; its value is really in its capacity as a test - and an expansion - of previous knowledge, which is what the deposition section is intended to protect.
Section 6. Commercial sale or trade
The barter, sale or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust. Any other trade or commerce in scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is inconsistent with the foregoing, in that it deprives both the public and professionals of important specimens, which are part of our natural heritage.
The decision to auction a fossil for millions of dollars to private interests is in violation of this section. The arrangement of such a sale is an action taken against the interests of the public trust, science and education. Also, the decision to participate in the promotion of such a sale, such as giving interviews of endorsement and writing copy for the corresponding catalog, contravenes this ethic.
Given these ethical guidelines, it is reasonable to assume that a private individual who buys dinosaur fossils really values possession for its own sake, not science or the scientific knowledge that could be gained from a specimen. A private collection is a hoard, which is not equivalent to a museum or university collection, where fossils are catalogued and conserved, and access to researchers is assured. Science requires those standards for reproducibility of observations, for science is nothing if it is deprived of the ability to test knowledge claims.
Society has to be reminded that scientific knowledge is more important than possessing an expensive toy. A paleontologist cannot publish an observation of a privately owned fossil without violating the ethics of the field. Knowing this, fossil dealers and the collectors who pay huge amounts of money for the fossils, must have a complete indifference or contempt for science. I don’t see any way around that inference - the deprivating effect of the exchange upon science speaks for itself.
For example, the T. rex specimen nicknamed Samson was auctioned into the inky night of a private collection. Even if the owner rolled out a red carpet for me and slapped a set of digital calipers in my hands, I cannot publish my observations in the scientific literature because the specimen is not in a public trust that has external accountability. Therefore, section 6 is a reasonable restriction that ensures the self-correcting process of science through access to specimens, and rightly delegitimates the private ownership of fossils.
One serious cost that the market and private ownership of expensive dinosaur fossils brings with it is the decay of the view of museums as the only legitimate and ennobling repositories for irreplaceable objects. Dealers especially (I think more than collectors) require that narrative to validate their actions and the prices they ask for. Sections 4 and 6 are important reminders that museums are institutions that operate for the good of society, not for the gratification of the few who, for thousands or millions of dollars, would deprive civilization of a deeper understanding of Nature and our place in it.

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.
Region
Features
Measurements
Total
Skull & jaws
4,468
3,524
7,896
Teeth
118
388
506
Axial
374
336
710
Pectoral
318
246
564
Pelvic
772
854
1,626
Grand total
6,050
5,348
11,398

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?

Literature review 2: Loewen et al., 2013

Carbon dust plate of the skull of the holotype (NMMNH P-27469) of Bistahieversor sealeyi in left lateral view © Dino Pulerà. The maxilla is colorized and its 13 tooth positions are labeled. For explanation see text. Abbreviation: NMMNH, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Albuquerque, NM.


The recently published article “Tyrant dinosaur evolution tracks the rise and fall of Late Cretaceous oceans” by Loewen et al. (2013) is an exciting report of a new, unquestionably valid derived tyrannosauroid from the American West. The new taxon, Lythronax argestes, is important given its middle Campanian geological age, which predates the others from Laramidia. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not receive the manuscript for review at any stage during its course toward publication.
Had I been a reviewer, I would have caught a rather important discrepancy. On page two of their article, Loewen et al. (2013) claim that Lythronax shares with “Teratophoneus and Bistahieversor in the presence of 11 maxillary alveoli”, and restate this on page six, where Teratophoneus “differs from Alioramus and all other tyrannosauroids except Bistahieversor and Lythronax in [the] presence of 11 maxillary alveoli”. However, the only specimen of Bistahieversor that has a complete maxilla is the holotype (NMMNH P-27469), which clearly has 13 alveoli.
In their specimen list (2013: SI, Phylogenetic Analysis Characters), for Bistahieversor they include the holotype, the referred juvenile (NMMNH P-25049), and a premaxillary tooth (United State National Museum 8355; Gilmore, 1916). The maxillary tooth count character is important because it is optimized as a synapomorphy of the Teratophoneus + derived tyrannosaurine clade (Loewen et al., 2013: S4). Also, I want to draw attention to the fact that the correct tooth count can be seen in the published literature, which is shown in the carbon dust plate (and journal cover) of the holotype in Carr et Williamson (2010).
However, this discrepancy does not affect the phylogenetic results of Loewen et al. (2013) because the maxillary tooth counts of “11 to 13” alveoli are coded as a single character state, “2” (2013: S2, character 298). This approach to coding does not test the hypothesis of a primitively 11-toothed clade, a situation that can be easily remedied. Given the conflated coding and the discrepancy between the reported and actual tooth count of Bistahieversor, I would be interested in seeing a short revision from the authors, where the tooth counts of 11 and 13 are coded separately and that for Bistahieversor is corrected.
References cited
Carr, T. D. and T. E. Williamson. 2010. Bistahieversor sealeyi gen. et sp. nov., a new tyrannosauroid from New Mexico and the origin of deep snouts in Tyrannosauroidea. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30:1-16.
Gilmore, C. W. 1916. Vertebrate faunas of the Ojo Alamo, Kirtland, and Fruitland Formations. Shorter Contributions to General Geology 98:279-309.
Loewen, M. A., Irmis, R. B., Sertich, J. J. W., Currie, P. J., and S. D. Sampson. 2013. Tyrant dinosaur evolution tracks the rise and fall of Late Cretaceous oceans. PLoS ONE 8: 1-14.

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.
How?
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.
References
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.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Bonham's tyrannosaurid auction: what this paleontologist stands to lose

The right dentary of MOR 1125 in medial view, with labels of 31 of the 111 characters that I document for a single dentary bone. Abbreviation: Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT.

I also take 219 measurements from one dentary. That's a total of 330 items of information for a single dentary, and 660 items that I could obtain from a specimen such as the dueling tyrannosaurid or Russell the T. rex that has both jaws preserved. How much information does my database stand to be deprived by the sale of just one entire skull to a private individual? The answer makes my mind reel and my disposition deflate.

As an indication of the volume of data that I collect, the numbers given in the table below only pertain to bones; excluded are features and measurements of composite structures (composed of more than one bone) such as the skull, braincase, and lower jaw. The list also excludes the features and measurements of the dentition (although I do gather data from composite structures and dentition).


Bone
# characters
# measurements
total
Premaxilla
61
62
123
Nasals
109
76
185
Maxilla
256
327
583
Lacrimal
276
134
410
Jugal
201
85
286
Postorbital
171
52
223
Squamosal
118
55
173
Quadratojugal
60
35
95
Quadrate
79
28
107
Prefrontal
9
5
14
Frontal
128
85
213
Parietal
59
42
101
Supraoccipital
16
13
29
Otoccipital
40
41
81
Laterosphenoid
36
11
47
Baisphenoid
62
36
98
Prootic
14
15
29
Mesethmoid
2
11
13
Orbitosphenoid
0
5
5
Basioccipital
59
41
100
Vomer
16
23
39
Palatine
106
33
139
Pterygoid
20
26
46
Ectopterygoid
66
40
106
Epipterygoid
18
6
24
Articular
36
14
50
Surangular
57
47
104
Angular
16
13
29
Prearticular
9
19
28
Intercoronoid
7
2
9
Splenial
16
23
39
Dentary
111
219
330
Grand total for half a skull
2,234
1,624
3,858
Grand total for complete skull
4,468
3,248
7,716