Selling Fossils: Heritage for the Elite

Another day, another set of dinosaur skeletons going to auction.

There are at least three skeletons of charismatic dinosaurs being offered for auction by the company Artcurial: the link to the pdf of the fancy-pants advertisement brochure is here. There are many MANY things wrong with the information in the brochure, which calls into question whether actual paleontologists were involved with this process (as the brochure claims.)

The Red Flags of the Brochure.

There are three major red flags that make me doubt the statement that a paleontologist was involved in this process. Here are the flags with a brief explanation.

  1. The sentence “Allosaurus, a carnivore of the Tyrannosaurus family.” – Hoo boy, this one is a cornucopia of wrongness. Yes, the genus Allosaurus was carnivorous. However, it is NOT in the same family group as tyrannosaurs. A paleontologist would know that the family that contains all of the species of tyrannosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex is called Tyrannosauridae. Allosaurus belongs to the family group called Allosauridae. The term “family” has an exact meaning for paleontologists, biologists, etc. A family group is a formal classification in the Taxonomy Hierarchy. Here is the very basic list of the groupings, from broad (animal) to really specific (Tyrannosaurus rex as an example of a species.)
  • Kingdom
  • Phylum
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species

Each level is like an exclusive club: in order to belong to the family Tyrannosauridae, you must possess a group of features that ONLY belong to members of Team Tyrannosauridae, like having fused nasal bones. If you’re Allosaurus, you have your own features that allow you to join Team Allosauridae, like having crests on the nose bones (nasals). So Allosaurus fragilis could never be in the same family as Tyrannosaurus rex because they each have different looking bones, so they belong to their own exclusive clubs. These are long-standing biology rules. Reading the quoted sentence would may any paleontologist’s eyes bleed.

2. The sentence “These two skeletons from the Jurassic era (154 – 148 million years BC)” – In all of my years as a paleontologist, I don’t think I’ve seen geologic times described in “BC” terms. We usually say “154 – 148 million years ago/old.” Also, the Jurassic is a Period, not an Era. This is not something a paleontologist is going to go “meh, good enough” about. Just like the term Family means something very exact in naming critters, the same goes for the Geologic Time Scale. The Mesozoic Era contains the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods. There simply isn’t a Jurassic era. Not only did a paleontologist not write this brochure before its release, but I would also bet that not one paleontologist was seriously involved in proof-reading or fact-checking this brochure.

3. Inconsistent use of binomial (two-part) names of dinosaurs – There are pretty strict rules regarding how scientific names of plants and animals are written. It’s like washing your hands after using the washroom or brushing your teeth before bed: you learn these rules early through repetition and constant reminder and then they become automatic. You learn early in biology, zoology, and geology classes that binomial names follow an exact format. Let’s use Tyrannosaurus rex as an example.

Tyrannosaurus is the genus name. It is always presented in italics. It is always capitalized. A genus can contain several species, meaning that if you say something about Tyrannosaurus, you are talking about all of the species in that genus club.

rex is the species name. A species is a group that has features that you can only see in animals that belong to that group. The species name is always presented in italics. It is always in lowercase letters, and it is accompanied by the genus name. Sometimes the genus name is shortened to an abbreviation, like in T. rex.

The rather sloppy use of genus and species names in this brochure is definitely a sign that a paleontologist’s eyeballs did not glance upon that page. It’s not even a consistent misuse of the names.

The Real Issue Is One of Ethics and Underfunded Museums

However, the biggest issues regarding the sale of fossils of charismatic megafauna are those of ethics and personal responsibilities of both the sellers and the buyers.

The brochure advertises the fossils’ price range at between 500,000 – 800,000 euros…each. Now, I may only be a curator as a small research center, but I do know how to do a budget AND use a currency conversion tool.  At the time of writing this post, 800,000 euros is roughly $1.2 million dollars (CAD.)

One of the responses people like me (paleontologist on the academic end of things who thinks there is ample evidence that the commercial fossil trade as it operates now needs a large-scale revamp to address several ethical and heritage conservation concerns) hear when we say “Can we rethink this whole selling of our irreplaceable heritage?” is that, if we’re so darned worried about science losing specimens like this, our museums should simply buy the specimens. Problem solved right?

Not how this works

I don’t know if the people who say this are aware, but it actually costs real money to operate a museum. You need to pay for the utilities (heat, water, electrical, sewage, etc.) You need to pay your staff. You need to pay your contracted staff, like sanitation workers. The different departments (displays, gift shop, research, collections) need an operating budget.

Let us hypothetically explore the possibility of a small museum (it’s what I know, I can’t speak for large institutions) purchasing one of these specimens. My collections department, Population of One (that’s me) does not have $1.2 million just lying around in discretionary funds. I am also not going to justify lobbying and fundraising to purchase one specimen when there are a myriad of pressing issues that the collections face, such as upgrading the environmental monitoring, installing heavy-duty shelving, upgrading our internet services for a digital specimen server, and getting a backup generator for when (not if, when) the power goes out in the dead of winter. Want a collections headache? Think about what would happen if your pipes froze and burst. Think about where all that water runs. Now think about how most collections are in the lower levels of buildings.

Let us assume that someone knocks on my collections room door and I emerge, Morlock-like from the shadows, to find out this someone will donate $1.2 million so that we could bid on the specimen. First I would show them the Priorities List. Second, I would have to explain that they might be throwing their money away. According to the Member Bylaw on Ethics Statement of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology,

“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.”

Yes, purchase of the skeleton(s) by a museum or academic institution would bring them into the public trust. However, the value of specimens doesn’t just lay in their dry ol’ bones. The value is the information that is collected with the specimen. It takes a while for a science-based dig to dig up skeletons and bonebeds because of all of the nitpicky data that needs to be collected. Personally, I LOVE excavation quarry mapping. I love the painstaking attention that must be paid to the accurate drawing, measuring the compass direction of the bones, measuring how much they are tilted in the rock, and adding all of the rock-features that tell us about the environment that buried the bones. We don’t just map out the big showy pretty bones. We map out ALL of the bones and teeth that we uncover, including scrappy bone fragments. I love finding the invertebrate and plant fossils that are preserved with the skeleton. All of this is tells the story of the final days of the animal’s carcass, the story of its journey from dead body to fossil. This particular part of science is called taphonomy.

We have no idea if this taphonomy data will (if any were collected) come with the specimen. It is up to the collectors to determine what value they place on this data. Every time skeletons like these are collected without their associated taphonomy information, the skeletons are reduced to the status of a Thanksgiving table centerpiece: it looks pretty but doesn’t contain any meat.

Personally, I would tell the person to save their money. Or, if they really want to be associated with a spectacular find, I would try to convince them that a bigger bang for their buck is in starting legacy funds for field research programs that will discover new and exciting specimens. I say will because it will inevitably happen. The science of paleontology is still rapidly advancing, and there are still so many exciting questions that need not-yet-discovered specimens to answer. Were I to win the Lotto Max or some such lottery, I wouldn’t be buying specimens. I would be handing bags o’ money to curators and saying “You do you” and sit back and watch the magic happen. New discoveries would be made because these curators would finally have the resources to do their dream projects. I don’t know one curator/researcher who doesn’t have “If Money Were No Obstacle” project list. I would also be handing bags o’ money to collections facilities at small institutions.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology recently came out with a letter calling for the cancel of the sale of these specimens. You can see the text of the letter attached to their tweet:

The letter succinctly addresses the ethical and legal concerns regarding the sale. As I’ve mentioned before, just because you see a fossil for sale doesn’t mean it was collected or exported legally. There are many cases of false information being used on import/export forms to get fossils in and out of countries, like exporting fossils as “rock art,” for example. Don’t be accidentally duped into participating in an illegal activity.

What we see with these sales is not a love of heritage and a desire to preserve and share our planet’s heritage with the world. We see heritage being treated like a luxury item that only the privileged few can ever hope to afford. These auctions treat our common heritage like a toy to covet, not as an opportunity to learn more about our planet and how we as a species fit into this amazingly complex picture. The buying and selling of charismatic fossils such as this is the world of the elite. If the fossils are purchased by an individual or a private company, they get to decide exactly who does and doesn’t see the fossils. They control the access. Money, in this case, is most certainly power.

I don’t know if I’ll see this trend of selling heritage to the highest bidder go extinct in my lifetime. I wish the same energy and resources that are put into extracting, selling, and buying heritage would be channeled to the public institutions that are trying their darndest to preserve this heritage for future generations on a frayed shoestring of a budget. I don’t do what I do for me. I do it for the person who comes after me 100 years from now and wants to unlock answers to our planet’s mysteries by using our collections. I hope they understand that I did the best that I could with what I had to work with.