Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fossils for Profit

Yesterday, I wrote about a story questioning the identity of the small early Cretaceous tyrannosaur Raptorex, described about a year ago in Science by Paul Sereno. Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute is of the opinion that Raptorex is considerably younger geologically, and that it's a juvenile Tarbosaurus, having come from Mongolia instead of the Yixian formation of northern China as Sereno originally proposed.

Raptorex kreigsteini restoration copyright Matt Martyniuk. From Deviantart.

The reason this is in question at all is that Raptorex was collected by a private party, and the only evidence of its original locality is from the testimony of fossil dealers and collectors and interpretation of the matrix in which the bones were preserved. As Ville Sinkkonen pointed out to me in the comments, the evidence for this locality is not a slam dunk.. When I wrote that the paper isn't "wishy washy" about the fossil's origin, I was referring to the fact that it puts one out there, including approximate longitude and latitude. How strongly does Sereno stand by it, I wonder?

There's nothing Sereno et al can say to definitively place Raptorex in the lowest Yixian, because they didn't collect it. I respect Sereno's talents and see the tough spot he was placed in when he gained access to the fossil: should it be ignored? And I'm sure he tried his hardest to pin point where it came from. But we can't be sure, and it's a cloud over Raptorex's head. This is where new research needs to be trained; I'm certainly not schooled enough in paleoecology to be able to weigh the evidence myself. Is Raptorex a key insight into early Cretaceous tyrannosaur evolution? Or is it just a baby Tarbosaurus? I really hope we can find out one day.

Today, you may be aware, is National Fossil Day. I'm not going to go into it too much here, as I've already posted about its potential at Under Indiana. But as I wrote that post, I thought about what a perversion of science the fossils-for-profit market is, and it just does not add up (mind you, I'm mainly speaking of big, flashy fossils, and not things like crinoid fragments and shark teeth). For it to work, you need two parties. One, collectors who are wealthy enough to purchase showy fossils and, possibly, conversant enough in natural history to be aware of their significance. Two, you need the folks who know enough to find them, excavate them, identify them, prep them, and sell them.

Granted, this is simplified, but my main point is this: these people should know better. If you're educated enough in science to see the value of a fossil, you're educated enough to know that its value to science far outweighs its monetary value and whatever prestige one obtains by owning and displaying it. Once it's been ripped from the Earth and passed around, the scientific value is virtually nullified.

Someone might say, "What's the big deal? I just bought an Allosaurus! Science has plenty of those!" And we might, but technology continually improves, and because of that there may be new information to pull from the bones in the future. The vagaries of fossilization my have preserved some quirky feature of the Allosaurus in the foyer, but if it's off limits to science, it may never be found.

Would I love to have some gorgeous theropod mounted in my house? Sure. But to me at least, giving something valuable to science is immeasurably greater. To each his own, I guess.


  1. I recently read Philip Manning's "Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs", and it really drives home the importance of having fossils be preserved in the context in which they were found.

    He remarks upon the increasing number of finds including some form of fossilized tissue or skin impressions and notes that they are probably more common today because people know what to look for and aren't simply destroying priceless evidence in order to smash through the matrix and rip the bones out.

    It saddens me to think how much evidence there is that has somehow survived for tens of millions of years, only to be destroyed right on the brink of being discovered and understood.

  2. It saddens me even more to think of the loads of fossils that are being weathered into powder every year due to overprotective laws.

    If a fossil is dug out of the Earth and sold to some collector - it still EXISTS in human care! It might get passed from generation to generation, or sold to other collectors as successive owners die, but it is theoretically accessible to Science.

    Maybe there can be some kind of arrangement where a fossil is legitimately cataloged and its context recorded - digital cameras have to make that possible now - and then sold. Is that NOT the basis of a capitalist society? Perhaps then a copyright kind of rule - where only the discoverer can make and sell copies, but the originals must ALWAYS be held in trust by the state's museum.


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