Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Disaster of Our Own Making

The looming auction of the privately-owned Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, nicknamed Stan, is the result of the specimen having found itself in the crosshairs of a liquidation suit. The auction of Stan is a starkly different situation than the one that landed Sue onto the auction block. Sue, fortunately, was rescued from private ownership by a consortium of McDonald’s, Disney, and the Field Museum, sweeping the fossil into the safety of the Field’s permanent research collections and public exhibits.

The difference between Stan and Sue is that, at the time of its auction, Sue did not have a body of scientific literature attached to it; in contrast, Stan does – a staggering 48 peer-reviewed articles in total, by my count (Figure 1). This circumstance opens up (1) the immediate issue of whether or not Stan will wind up safely in a public trust, as did Sue, or whether it will disappear into private ownership; and (2) the farther-reaching issue regarding the publication of such legally vulnerable specimens in the scientific literature.

Figure 1. A histogram showing the annual frequency of 48 peer-reviewed scientific articles that include Stan (BHI 3033).

A. The Best and Worst Outcomes

Our professional scientific society is the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), which codifies the expectations, standards, and practices of the science. The ethics regarding the deposition of scientifically important specimens (a bar that Stan exceeds by leaps and bounds) is that:

“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).”

In fact, the flagship publication of the SVP, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (JVP) requires that “All specimens used in diagnostic descriptions, in illustrations, or in taxonomic discussions must be properly curated and reposited in a recognized public or private, non-profit institution.” So the best possible outcome for the auction is for Stan to find itself accessioned into the collections of a genuine public trust so that it can be ethically studied and published. However, the $6 to $8-million expected price does not raise much hope for that happy outcome.

Most museums – even the biggest and most prosperous among them - do not have millions of dollars to spend on single objects; that magnitude of money is best put toward hiring staff, expanding facilities, developing new exhibits, funding field programs for decades, and so on. With museums out of the way as candidates to make a winning bid, the auction is opened up to private interests, where Stan could disappear into a private collection, never to be seen again.

This has happened before: a T. rex skeleton, nicknamed Samson, was auctioned in 2009 to a private individual and, as far as I know, it is on display in a corporate headquarters somewhere in the continental US, inaccessible to science. As long as a scientifically important specimen is in a private collection, it cannot be studied since there is no guarantee of access to it by scientists or its long-term whereabouts, especially upon the death of the owner or some other happenstance, such as liquidation of a company and the specimen lumped in with financial assets.

Given the expected price on Stan, there is a very high probability that Stan will go the way of Samson; in a similar fashion, the recently discovered painting by Leonardo da Vinci, the so-called “Salvator Mundi,” was snatched out of the hands of the academic art world by a private collector with limitless lucre (

Therefore, my hopes aren’t high for Stan making it into a public trust.

At this juncture, it is worth asking: if Stan is sold to a private collector, never to be seen again, what do we do with the science that is published on it?

B. The Way Forward

In my view, there are two options.

We disregard the data and results that have been published on Stan. This is the approach I’ve taken in my own research: I make the effort to vet and exclude any specimens in the scientific literature that are privately owned. Also, I do not study or publish on privately owned specimens.

We just carry on and continue to use the published data on Stan. If we do this, we do so knowing that those observations cannot ever be repeated, and we’ll be unable to test the hypotheses that they were a part of initially. This circumstance is problematic because testing observations is the cornerstone of science; if we continue to include Stan in our scientific articles that decision puts the literature in a fraught, if not compromised, situation.

In the end, our actions as scientists have contributed to the potentially high scientific cost of the auction, which blasts past the skeleton directly into the scientific literature, a territory we thought was beyond the mundane reach of commerce. Arguably, even if Stan is auctioned to an accredited museum, its history must give us pause before studying fossils of similar vulnerability, should ever the temptation arise to upend our reason.

So we must do what we can to ensure that Stan, upon auction, becomes part of a desirable museum collection; that is the position that the SVP has taken ( Otherwise, the consequences for the science could be titanic.


  1. My vote is firmly for "We just carry on and continue to use the published data on Stan."

    Plenty of specimens disappear so that observations cannot be repeated. Just out of type Mesozoic theropod material, we have Podokesaurus, the Powellvenator paratype, Allosaurus? trihedrodon, Calamospondylus, "Megalosaurus" dunkeri, all but one Szechuanosaurus type tooth, one of two Jubbulpuria syntypes, all but one Laevisuchus syntype, the Lametasaurus paralectotypes, Bahariasaurus, "Megalosaurus" hungaricus, Streptospondylus? cuvieri, much of Poekilopleuron, Suchosaurus? girardi, "Sinopliosaurus" fusuiensis, Spinosaurus, much of Erectopus, Carcharodontosaurus, Deinodon? grandis, Aublysodon, "Ornithomimus" minutus, Nanshiungosaurus" bohlini, large portions of Alxasaurus, Nanshiungosaurus brevispinus and Segnosaurus, the metatarsals of Macrophalangia, "Cathayornis" aberransis, Jibeinia, and Nanantius. So functionally, disregarding data and results on specimens lost to physical accessibility just isn't what happens in paleontology. Stan's even in a much better position than most of those listed examples because we have casts, which will preserve a lot of relevant given the size and nature of the fossil.

    Philosophically, requiring a certain physical specimen to be reobserved is a limitation that would disqualify huge swaths of scientific fields if it were a requirement for good science. Think of studies of animal behavior in the wild, or of non-repeated astronomical events like supernovae, or of the condition of a living being, or of changing systems like weather, or of maybe everything in the social sciences. All we have are our own recordings, measurements, observations, etc., there's no going back to remeasure, observe from another angle, etc.. But they're still science.

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