A Blog by Brian Switek

Auction Block Dinosaur Stirs Controversy at SVP

On November 19th, science may lose a pair of dinosaurs. Preserved next to each other – and given the dramatic title the “Dueling Dinosaurs” – the tyrannosaur and ceratopsid are going up for auction at Bonham’s in New York City. The two are expected to rake in around nine million dollars, with no guarantee that the fossils will go to a museum or that their beautiful bones will even have the chance to be rigorously studied by scientists. That’s exactly why paleontologists were aghast when the auction block tyrannosaur made an appearance at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting yesterday afternoon.

Poster 47 was the focal point of the controversy. Presented by Peter Larson of the commercial outfit The Black Hills Institute, the glossy sheet was titled “The validity of Nanotyrannus lancensis (Theropod, Lancian – Upper Maastrichtian of North America).” This was contentious enough. For decades, researchers have debated the identity of this species. Where some see a “pygmy tyrant” that was a small, distinct species of tyrannosaur that lived alongside the famous Tyrannosaurus rex, others argue that such long-snouted, big-eyed specimens actually represent the awkward look of teenage T. rex.

If the specimen in Larson’s poster was properly curated and cared for at a museum, the argument surrounding the presentation would have been on the validity, or not, of “Nanotyrannus.” But that wasn’t the issue creating the looks of frustration and disbelief amongst paleontologists I talked to yesterday. The fossil that Larson highlighted to make his case for “Nanotyrannus” should never have been presented at the meeting – the poster looked more like an auction sale advertisement than science.

The embattled dinosaur, along with the ceratopsid it was buried with, was discovered on Mary Ann and Lige Murray’s Montana ranch in 2006. The hype around the specimens didn’t pick up until 2011, when a dedicated “Dueling Dinosaurs” website tried to entice museums and other potential buyers with photos and videos of the gorgeous fossils. Larson was the spokesman in this push and trumped up the importance of the find, claiming that the horned dinosaur was a as-yet-unknown species and that the young tyrannosaur would finally establish the reality of “Nanotyrannus.” And, the site boasted, the two dinosaurs had killed each other. There were no publications or technical details. Such claims were the bait for buyers who might have an interest in displaying and describing the 66 million year old skeletons.

No one bit. Rumors started to circulate that the pricetag for the skeletons was nine million dollars. The sellers might as well have been asking for a billion. Nine million dollars could fund a museum’s staff and field programs for decades, during which time researchers could collect many more fossil specimens of their own. Not to mention that researchers are skeptical of how scientifically important the “Dueling Dinosaurs” actually are. Commercially-collected specimens don’t always come with the essential geologic data to tease out the ecological secrets of such fossils, not to mention that some researchers are doubtful of the three main claims that the pair represent a new ceratopsid, a “Nanotyrannus“, and that the two died in mortal combat. Why pony up a ridiculous amount of money for questionable specimens?

So the dinosaurs are going to auction. They are not reposited and properly curated at a reputable museum. They are waiting for the auctioneer’s gavel, and no one knows who is going to take them home. A museum could blow millions on these dinosaurs, or, as many fear, a celebrity or other private buyer could decide that they absolutely must have a dinosaur pair for their foyer. We’ll find out in a few weeks. But one thing is clear right now – presenting the “Nanotyrannus” at the SVP annual meeting is a violation of the organization’s ethics.

The standards SVP sets forward on this matter are clear and to-the-point. The society stipulates 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).” That has not been done with the “Nanotyrannus“, and it may never be if it goes to a private fossil aficionado.

More than that, SVP requires members to preserve fossils for everyone. The organization’s ethics code states:

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 Bonham’s sale is open to anyone with deep enough pockets. Those involved in selling the “Dueling Dinosaurs”, including Larson, claim that they want to see the dinosaurs in a museum, but this rings hollow when there’s a good chance that the auction could rob scientists and the public alike of a chance to even see these spectacular animals. And while the abstract submission guidelines of the SVP annual meeting does not mention regulations for presenting on commercial fossils, the society’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology rightly requires that “All specimens used in diagnostic descriptions, in illustrations, or in taxonomic discussions must be properly curated and deposited in a recognized public or private, non-profit institution. All material mentioned in a paper must fulfill the criteria set out within the Society‘s Code of Ethics.” Larson’s “Nanotyrannus” does not.

I can see how Larson’s paper snuck through the society’s ethical code. The abstract in the official meeting volume makes no mention of the “Dueling Dinosaurs” specimen and sounds like a general argument in favor of “Nanotyrannus“, similar to what Larson recently published in the book Tyrannosaurid Paleobiology. That’s why researchers were shocked to see a poster plastered with large images of the for-sale dinosaur, with the technical argument restricted to an abstract statement and a table of skeletal characteristics.

From the original advertising website to the Bonham’s item entry, the high price of the “Dueling Dinosaurs” has at least partly rested on the unsupported argument that these animals are scientific novelties. Now the “Nanotyrannus“, at least, bears the imprimatur of having been presented to the premier organization dedicated to the study of such fossils, no doubt another point on the hype scale.

The scientists who stopped by Larson’s poster may never get to study the tyrannosaur’s fossils, preventing them from even having a chance to evaluate Larson’s claims about a fossil he has principally had access to. And the possible sale of the dinosaur to a private buyer would not only hide a significant specimen from science, but would keep the bones – and what we can learn from them – away from the public. There may not be a chance to draw biological secrets from those bones that can help researchers create the dinosaurian visions in museums, books, and movies that continue to awe and inspire us. Everyone stands to lose.

63 thoughts on “Auction Block Dinosaur Stirs Controversy at SVP

  1. Larson’s actions here reminded me a bit of the people you discussed in Written in Stone that would travel the country showing their “Chimera” fossil animals to the public to bilk them out of their money.

  2. How can the same dinosaur be a “questionable specimen” and a “spectacular animal.” You can’t have it both ways.

  3. It’s obvious that this author has done nothing but spoken to one of the Priestly Caste when writing this article. Larson and his team are better dinosaur paleontologists than most PhD’s I’ve met, and they have kept an intricate record of the stratigraphy and geology of these specimen. Academics who hate commercial fossil businesses are just jealous they didn’t find the specimen, and wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for the businesses. The Priestly Caste would rather have specimens rot and be destroyed than for non-academics to get their hands on them. Personally, I think these specimens are worth a great deal more than $9M.

  4. I seriously doubt that Larson was trying to advertise for their sale. When I spoke to him, he made it very clear, he is doing everything in his power to keep it out of the hands of some celebrity. One thing I don’t think you mentioned, though. If noone has access to the specimen, then his measurements, and hypothesis are not repeatable. I’m going to be holding my breath later this month….if it goes to a private collection, I just might commit suicide. Fingers crossed people!! >_<

  5. @Barry Vegter: as a specimen, without proper scientific research, the “Dueling Dinosaurs” can be regarded as quite questionable, given the circumstamnces of their discovery, sale, and lack of peer review.

    However, assuming that this isn’t a case of Piltdown-level fraud, there is no denying that the fossil grouping makes for a pair of spectacular animals, no matter their ultimate scientific value or identity.

  6. Brian Switek is correct. The fossils are spectacular because of their posture and degree of preservation. They are questionable because essential scientific information is lacking, probably lost forever, as to the details of their discovery site and because they may never be available for study by other paleontologists. Not to mention the unacceptable method of their presentation at the SVP.

  7. I’d add to what Jerrold Alpern said that if the fossils are made available for study, it might answer the questions that presently make them “questionable” and show they are not merely spectacular but scientifically important.

  8. The author seems to forget where he and Vert Paleo in general would be without commercial paleontology and amateur collectors …
    SVP has old fashioned views- just because a specimen is not housed in a museum of their liking doesn’t mean it is not existing. There are many qualified “amateurs” like Pete Larson out there who know what they’re doing. Just because museum X has no money and can’t afford to dig for their own dinos, they shouldn’t whine when someone else LEGALLY collects a good specimen. And yes, fossils can be valuable and you can’t blame people for wanting to get money for their hard work. I have donated thousands if specimens myself and have a good relationship with many professionals, despite being a “commercial” and selling fossils. There’s a fine line that’s not easy to walk between SVP and museums on one side and commercialism and amateur collectors on the other. It us doable, though, and science is the winner when it works out. Unfortunately many so-called professionals have very rigid, old fashioned views and do not see the potential gain for our science were they to accept a more balanced approach….
    Sure there are done black sheep out there, but that goes for the “professionals” as well. And never mind that depositing an important specimen in a public institution is no guarantee that it is safe. I have recently returned specimens (free of charge!) I purchased after a museum had mistakenly given them away! They were important, published specimens. My specimens are always available for scientists to study them, and with modern casting techniques even a cast can yield most of the information needed, together with good field data.
    But condemning the sale of these dinos and flip flopping between them being important or questionable doesn’t help anybody. If you want them, find a wealthy donor who needs a tax write off and let them buy the specimens and donate them. Happens all the time. But whining and pouting about a legal transaction isn’t helping science.

  9. Mike,

    Your statement that the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is “pimping the private auction of a unique vertebrate specimen” is completely flawed and unjustly characterizes the Society in a very public forum.

    The high profile auction of Sue the T. rex, which established very high commercial values for some fossils, has had reverberating effects on our discipline that have deeply troubled a large majority of the vertebrate paleontology community. Since then, SVP has been lobbying the US government in particular and working especially hard to protect our globally shared fossil heritage. SVP certainly does not condone the selling scientifically important fossils to the highest bidder in an auction situation. I think that this is very clear in our ethical statements, as noted by Brian.

    Furthermore, the abstract review system is completely blind to the Program Committee evaluators, and, at least currently, there is no requirement to provide detailed information in the body of the abstract on the provenance and repository status of the fossils discussed in submitted abstracts. Simply put, given the current evaluation procedures for abstracts, there was no way for the Program Committee to catch these types of potential ethical violations. At the meeting itself, this situation immediately became a concern, and the poster was brought to the attention of the Executive Committee (including the SVP President), who I believe is the right body to deal with a situation like this that arises during the meeting. I do not know the proximate outcome, but as a member of the Program Committee, I can say that this incident is something that will be thoroughly discussed by the Program Committee and the Executive Committee in the meeting aftermath, and will likely be corrected in the future, at least to the best of our ability.

    The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has always worked as hard as it possibly can to protect the fossils that are so important for our science.

  10. Mike: justify what? They had nothing to do with it – the program committee got punked by Larson, the abstract was misleading as hell. They can release a statement, but there was nothing they could do, short of barring Larson from presenting. And if they do that, the amateur community in the US will shout murder.

  11. I can’t wait for this bloody auction to be over, so we can move past two years’ worth of hype and rancor and emotion about these specimens. I think what happened at SVP with this poster was shameful, but I don’t know what SVP could have done about it other than rip down the poster and ban the presenter, which would certainly have caused a whole domino-effect of other problems. From what I understand SVP is taking this situation very seriously. I’ve never seen anything this unusual at a conference before–an attempt to simultaneously study and sell an important specimen through the medium of an academic presentation. This can’t be allowed to happen again, and I’m confident that safeguards will be put in place so it will not.

    Another issue from the meeting, not really touched on here: there was an exhibition booth where private collectors were essentially selling fossils. They were advertising their geotourism business and not selling specimens directly (there were no pricetags), but they were telling anybody who asked that their wares were for sale, and that some were up for auction. Regardless of what everyone thinks about the ethics of selling fossils (in this case, seemingly legally collected fossils best we can tell), there is a time and a place for this, and the SVP meeting is neither. We need safeguards against this in the future as well. I know that SVP takes these things very seriously and I trust that what happened in LA will help guide future policy.

  12. David:

    “SVP certainly does not condone the selling scientifically important fossils to the highest bidder in an auction situation. I think that this is very clear in our ethical statements.”

    Yes, I know. That’s what makes this so baffling.


    “The program committee got punked by Larson, the abstract was misleading as hell.”

    Yes. But once it was clear what the poster was, it should have been taken down immediately. In that situation, doing nothing is complicity.

    Also, Steve Brusatte says there were “fossil dealers with a booth”. I have no more details on that (and would welcome some), but Steve is someone I’d trust to report accurately.

  13. To be honest, I didn’t look hard at the exhibitors, but I am positive that ExComm will be reviewing how to prevent that next time. As for taking down the poster, they’re only up for the day – the session is from 4-6. So I don’t know that they had the time, and frankly, the spin on that to the amateurs would be awful – all they’d hear is suppression of amateur science, because they think SVP is out to get Pete.

  14. I don’t want to say too much about the exhibition because I don’t want to give the sellers any additional publicity. But the list of exhibitors can be seen here, and the one in question should be straightforward enough to pick out: http://vertpaleo.org/Annual-Meeting/Exhibits-Support—Advertising/2013-Exhibitors.aspx

    Rest assured, I know people in SVP are taking this seriously, and there were also many folks from the Bureau of Land Management and other public agencies who had discussions with the exhibitors about where the specimens were collected. Some journalists also noticed the booth and made inquiries.

  15. I should also say, regarding the link I just sent: the booth in question was NOT Mike Triebold, who has been an important part of the community for many years.

  16. Dear Mike,

    We walk a fine line between being accused of censoring people and trying to build the best meeting possible. We require people to agree to adhere to the SVP Ethics statement when submitting abstracts, but we can’t police all 900+ abstracts. The abstract that Larson submitted received high scores from the blind reviewers and there was no evidence of an ethics violation in his abstract. As co-chair of the Program Committee, I can assure you that we were concerned about this situation once we realised who was presenting that abstract, and we have (and are continuing to) discussed this with the Executive and Ethics committees, but the best thing an individual member can do is to file an ethics complaint about this person. We can’t prevent SVP members from presenting at the meeting if their abstract doesn’t contain obvious ethics violations, but something so clearly misleading and unethical, in my opinion, does justify a person being barred from membership. As one of the two people who make the final decision on who presents at SVP, I suppose you are accusing me of wanting to help “pimp” specimens for sale, but on the contrary, I would much prefer to see people who violate SVP rules, as in this case, being stripped of their memberships. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the Program Committee, which has a limited amount of information from abstracts to work with, to make decisions on who is or is not an acceptable member of SVP. Our job is to assess the scientific merits of a possible presentation, and, in this case, the abstract was written in a way that was likely meant to mislead us. I think it is easy to make accusations about our intentions when you haven’t faced the task of reviewing and scheduling nearly a thousand abstracts in a very short amount of time. We simply don’t have the time or resources to also police the membership if there are not obvious violations in the abstract text.

    As others have pointed out, the amateur members of SVP contribute much to the society, but the relationship between the professional and amateur members of SVP brings many difficulties with it, and this is unfortunately one of them. One of the many things we are discussing is to include a much more explicit ethics statement for people to agree to at the time of abstract submissions, which would provide the required avenue for barring those that violate our society’s rules. In terms of taking down the poster at the meeting, Jessica is right in that there isn’t much time for that and it would be a very aggressive and confrontational move that quite frankly would probably create much bigger problems.

    Steve, that is a really interesting point about the exhibitor – you should definitely bring that to the attention of ExComm and the ethics committee.

    1. OK, Anjali, many thanks for that clarification. I do see the difficulty of judging the content a poster (or indeed a talk) from the abstract. It’s good to hear from the horse’s mouth that the SVP really is taking this seriously.

      BTW., for avoidance of doubt, when I wrote “Is the society getting a cut of the auction proceeds or something?” that was a howl rather than an argument — certainly not meant as a serious attempt to explain what happened.

      Do you really think that taking down the poster “would probably [have created] much bigger problems”? Surely any action clearly in accordance with the SVP’s written code of ethics would be easily defensible?

  17. This is disheartening. I’ve met Pete Larson–he gave a talk about Sue here in Anchorage when she was touring the country. Seems like a really nice guy, but this incident is kind of shameless, and it’s definitely colored my view of the man. :-(

  18. I recognize the complexity of this issue, and there are several facets to this. One is the collection and sale of fossils by private collectors. Two is the presentation of the fossil material in a scientific forum, here the SVP meeting, with the potential to sell the material. Three is the potential purchase of the fossil material by either private individuals (which potentially removes it from the scientific community for study) OR the purchase of the material by a scientific institution (which promotes and encourages the continued collection and sale by private entities). I’m sure the situation is more nuanced than this, but this is how it’s perceived by a lay-person like myself.

    Private collection and sale has been around since the earliest days of paleontology, and I don’t foresee it going away anytime soon. Natural sciences originated by individual citizens making their own observations and collections of the natural world. Many of the pioneering “scientists” that we point to today had full-time professions, and conducted their science in their free time. Professional academia is a fairly recent institution, historically-speaking. Gideon Mantell, for example, was a busy doctor who pursued geology and paleontology as a hobby. He occasionally accepted fossils and rocks as payment for his services. In his later years he sold his collection to a museum. This would seem to classify him as both a private collector and seller. There are many more instances where important figures in paleontological history could be considered private collectors or sellers, and there are a number of important fossils that we have available today due to these individuals.

    Over time museums and other academic institutions have experienced dramatic cuts in funding. They don’t receive as many grants. They don’t have as many donors and patrons. The patrons and donors they do have don’t give at levels they once did. They’ve experienced cuts to their staff, especially to curators, preparators, and researchers. As this has happened these institutions are not able to purchase fossils from private sellers like they once did; especially at the astronomical prices of today. Additionally many fossils, some decades old, sit on shelves in museums just waiting to be uncovered, re-discovered, identified and studied.

    Part of the reason that fossil retailers are able to exist is because the market is there. Private collectors want to purchase fossils, and instead of donating to museums and other academic institutions they choose to purchase the fossils outright for their own home or office collections. This retail market is probably not going to go away. I’m not defending this market or those who deal in it. I’m just stating a fact; it exists and will continue to do so.

    Academic institutions are going to need to think outside the box to solve this problem. For example, making affordable copies of their own fossils available for purchase to the public could help curb some fossil trade (i.e. someone who wants a T. rex skull on display in their office would be just as happy with an affordable, realistic copy, as an expensive real version). Additionally, opening back logged shelves to private companies to open, begin preparation on, and making copies available for sale through those private retailers may help deal with those back-logged, unidentified specimens (and private companies may feel less inclined to have to go out into the field to collect). And, this would mean that scientifically important specimens are retained in collections where they will be available for scientific study. Additionally, both of the actions identified above would open new financial revenue opportunities to academic institutions to help them fund research and educational activities.

    If we really want to fix the situation then we have to offer creative, positive solutions that potentially benefit all stakeholders. We can’t just continue to file complaints and arguments.

    My argument here only addresses issues one and three of my opening paragraph. The presentation of a fossil up for sale at the SVP meeting is a completely different issue, and is really more appropriately addressed by the SVP rules and regulations.

  19. Mike, I definitely think it would have created more problems. First of all, somebody would have to take responsibility for engaging in essentially a physical confrontation with the presenter during the short poster session. There wouldn’t really be time for a committee to assess that the poster does violate ethics, differs from the published abstract, and make a decision on the action during the two hour window. Forcefully taking it down without due process would most likely damage SVP’s reputation as a fair, professional society with a diverse membership. Secondly, it’s important to realise that most of the SVP committee members that are heavily involved with the society and running of the meeting often miss many presentations anyway, as they are busy running in between committee meetings to make sure that things run smoothly for the rest of us. They aren’t just milling around the poster sessions avoiding dealing with the issue. It’s an incredible amount of work to run the society, and it really can’t be overestimated. For example, the only people that would have been able to make the decision to forcefully take down that poster (the Executive Committee) were in a minimum of four hours of scheduled meetings on the day of Larson’s poster doing all of the hundreds of tasks that keep the society growing, reaching out to the public and to educators, expanding grants for student research, publishing a top-notch journal, and putting together an international meeting for next year. This is no small task. I don’t mean to suggest that Larson’s poster was not important and doesn’t deserve their attention. It does and it has received it – it’s been about 38 hours since the meeting ended and I’ve already traded 15 emails with ExComm about this (and I’m sure there are many more that I am not included in). I am very confident that they will find a good solution to this that does not alienate the responsible amateurs in our membership, but forcefully taking down the poster was almost certainly not the answer. I should also note that everything I’m saying here is just my own opinion and experience, I’m not speaking for SVP!

  20. “The two are expected to rake in around nine million dollars, with no guarantee that the fossils will go to a museum or that their beautiful bones will even have the chance to be rigorously studied by scientists.”

    1) They HAVE been “rigorously studied” by scientists. Pete Larson + at least a half dozen PH’d academics, that I am aware of, have examined the find. Some, including Pete, with great detail. Either the author does not consider Pete a scientist, hasn’t checked his facts, or can’t distinguish between “study” and “publish”. It may not have a chance to be “published” in the maintream journals, thats true, but ONLY if it is not acquired by a public institution. Unfortunately, both of those things (the purchase of the specimens and the publication of data regarding the specimens) rest solely in the hands of the academics that have set up the publication rules, ethical standards, and current antagonistic political environment. If you think its a terrible thing that these specimens may not be published on, quit whining about it, quit fanning the flames of discontent and find a common-sence, practical, compromise that will allow all to publish on specimens like this. (or… find some wealthy corporate sponsors and acquire the damn thing yourselves!)
    2) Public institutions have tons of dinosaur bones lying in basements, some still encased in their plaster jackets. Some only hinted about in abstracts or kept from publication for one reason or another. Some institutions have been known to prevent access to important fossils for various reasons (some legitimate- some not). Just because it is in a public institution does not necessarily mean that it will be accessible to the scientific community for research or publication. There is no guarantee there either.

    With that said… the current SVP guidelines are pretty clear on this. Willfully breaking those guidelines, irregardless of motivation, was not a good idea.

  21. The problem is the fossils were found on private land, by private individuals. not on BLM land. They do not belong to the SVP so they do not have to follow the SVP by laws. They have for years been trying to get a museum to buy them, but no luck. So now they are up for sale, which is the right of the land owners.

  22. I too was very surprised to see the inclusion of a commercial fossil dealer in the exhibits this year. I’ve been an exhibitor myself at SVP for a number of years, and the exhibitor contract that I sign every year contains clear and strong language in regard to the SVP ethics statement on the sale of vertebrate fossils.

    I have no way of knowing how this entity described their business and activities, but I have to wonder whether they were entirely forthcoming when they signed up. Had they described themselves as commercial collectors I seriously doubt that they would have been given a booth space at all.

    Someone associated with this entity visited our booth this year. They were interested in my reconstruction and mounting services. When I later had a chance to visit their booth, it became clear to me why such capabilities would be of interest to them. Perhaps they’ll call me, but if they do I guess I’ll have to politely explain that my work goes in museums and universities, and not in the den of a CEO’s summer home.

    1. Re Mike Holland
      It’s quite arrogant to assume the only museums and government institutes
      have the ability to curate to a high standard .
      Many private collectors and dealer collectors have made significant scientific discoveries and contributions to science including Pete Larson .
      It’s is these individuals that set new standards in preparation techniques and as well as mounting techniques.
      I have seen a few scientistific institutions destroy unique specimens
      due in lack of skills in preparation and storage techniques .

  23. Leaving aside the issue of the poster in question, the fact does remain that Pete Larson is one of the most knowledgeable Tyrannosaurid workers and without his excavations we would not have Stan, Sue or huge quantities of other mounted dinosaurs to display in our museums. Sure it would nice to have all the finds preserved in drawers just the way they came out of the ground and ready to study. However we must bow to the fact that the public want to see large mounted specimens and the Black Hills Institute are one of the best in producing these. They also have a stunning museum with huge quantities of reserve collections available for study. As they are not a state run museum they fund themselves by selling specimens. This means that other museums can buy display specimens from them and the public can buy fossils and minerals to further their interest in geology.
    Without great displays, museums will not attract visitors, and most professionals don’t have the facilities, time or money to go out and find their own articulated dinosaurs.
    As a very dedicated researcher, Pete will have kept detailed records of all stages of the excavation of the duelling dinosaurs and these will be available to study.
    I think that SVP needs to come a little more into the real world and find a way to work with professional collectors instead of hammering them at every turn. Sure there are bad guys, but not many. Most would love to work more closely with professional researchers and have better communication with them about what they want.
    However, they are not being funded by institutions and they do need to make a living somehow. The way this is going at the moment, it seems likely to alienate collectors to the point that they will no longer be willing to work with museums. The ideal solution would be if top scientific specimens were made available at a reasonable price, with secondary ones being prettied up and sold to fund this. Some invertebrate collectors already do this. Why can we not all work together?

  24. As frustrating as it is to read Mike Taylor’s comments on an already sad story, I think they fairly well reflect one aspect of the challenges ahead of us as a profession. The comments by Anjali, David, and others illustrate the enormous amount of effort that goes into organizing a large scientific conference, as well as the running of the society in general. While it is easy for someone like Taylor to snipe from a distance, it brings nothing productive to the effort (though it may well be cathartic for the commenter). While I don’t condone the actions of someone like Larson, this was my 15th SVP meeting- yet I certainly don’t feel complicit in the sale of commercial fossils. I was likewise let down by the Society response to both the Aetogate fiasco and the Rensberger case, but rather than write inflammatory and divisive comments and blog posts, I aim towards constructive reform by joining the scores of other paleontologists who serve the profession by volunteering for committee work, mentoring, peer review, and leadership positions. The internet allows for community building unrivaled in human history, yet all too often it is used for precisely the opposite. I would ask someone like Taylor, who clearly cares strongly about these issues, to join (or rejoin) the SVP and work to effect change from within. Because it sure as heck is a lot of work. If we merely wait for someone else to build the perfect society before we deign to join it, we’ll be cursed to forever skulk around the margins as the rest of the world progresses.

    Further, I appreciate that Mike may not realize that his type of rhetoric has great potential to set back the cause for those of us who are working to change the system through improving policy, standards, and ethics, and I wonder if it has ever occurred to him that his own peculiar brand of intervention contributed to the Aetogate outcome for which he has such a distaste.

    1. Matthew Brown,

      I hear you. I don’t believe there’s much I’d be able do to “effect change from within” SVP if I tried, but I will at least try not to make matters worse.

      One quibble:

      “I wonder if it has ever occurred to him that his own peculiar brand of intervention contributed to the Aetogate outcome for which he has such a distaste.”

      Check out what I actually prepared regarding Aetogate here. You will note that there is no editorialising at all here: all I did was lay out the evidence and provide supporting documents.

      My actual commentary on the subject of Aetogate was written after the non-decision by the Ethics Committee, and so can’t possibly have had any influence of the outcome. Up until that point I confident they would follow the obvious trail of evidence, and I was pretty much fully on board with the Society. it was only after this that I lost my trust in it.

  25. Tracy,
    Nobody here (at least not me) is saying that people don’t have the right to sell fossils found on their own land in the US. This auction is following the law.

    The problem is that a poster was presented on these specimens at SVP, just a few weeks before the specimens are up for auction, with no guarantee that they will go to a recognized scientific institution. So yes, when you present a poster at SVP you definitely do need to follow the SVP bylaws. Those bylaws concern publishing and curation of specimens, not the sale of legal specimens.

    There is too much emotion about this auction. I’ll be glad when it’s over.

    1. I hear that a lot. That nobody is against the selling of fossils, then go on to say that they shouldn’t be sold. To me that is double speak. Also, Pete Larson and BHI aren’t the ones selling the fossils. In fact Pete has done his best to raise the money to buy the fossils for BHI, but with no luck. If Pete did find the specimens himself he would have kept it for his museum. He is commenting on the specimens, I guess that isn’t allowed. Also, did you know that in the very same auction the San Diego Natural History Museum is selling, yes putting up for auction, several of their fossil mounts? Found by Sternberg. That has been part of the museum for decades upon decades. I remember seeing them when I was a kid. Is that ok? It is selling the fossils. Should the SVP go after them?
      PS. These comments are by no means meant to be against you personally :)

  26. Larson’s poster in no way advertised the sale of the “Dueling Dinosaurs”. The poster referenced 3-D scans and the accompanying data sets which have been reposited at Black Hills Institute and can be studied by anyone willing to visit or request the data. This seems like a misunderstanding blown out of proportion. I have read Larson’s poster, and yes, there are images of the original fossils of the “dueling dinos” but those images are part of the digital data that is reposited at BHI. For anyone else who read the poster I’d like to know what exactly made it look like an advertisement for the auction or sale of the specimen.

  27. In response to Tracy: I’d encourage you to reread the ethics statement that you agreed to abide by when you renewed your SVP membership this year. As Steve said, that this sale is legal is uncontested. Yet as an SVP member, you agreed to uphold Section 6 of the ethics statement, which takes the position that the sale of scientifically significant specimens into private hands is inconsistent with the mission of the Society. This statement paraphrases the response of Eric Scott from a few years ago on the vertpaleo mailing list, directed at you, Tracy, and this very same argument.

    Paleontology is a science. As such, its claims must be supported by evidence. As is common in the biological sciences, that evidence takes the form of vouchered museum specimens. Research based on unvouchered specimens cannot be replicated, therefore it is not science, but rather pseudoscience.

    Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is ethical. If you’re interested in paleontology, as a science, as a professional or avocational member of the field, then the sale of significant fossils into private hands should be abhorrent to you. If instead you are a fossil enthusiast, and you aren’t interested in the science, then by all means, buy and sell legally acquired fossils to your heart’s content. However, Tracy, both you and Pete Larson are listed in the SVP membership directory. Fostering scientific research is the entire point of the society, at some point you have to make a decision about whether or not you actually support its aims.

    1. Matthew Brown, it’s people like you with exactly that kind of view and attitude that are the problem…
      I suppose you’d like to get rid of all members who don’t subscribe to your old fashioned views and have SVP meetings with the few who find the sale of fossils “abhorrent”. As I asked in an earlier comment: Where would Vert Paleo be without the amateurs and commercial dealers? Get off your high horse….
      People like Pete Larson are more knowledgable and have done more to advance the science you’re so fond of than most so-called “professionals”.

    2. The fossils that are for sale are from PRIVATE land, from a PRIVATE owner, who has NOTHING what’s so ever to do with the SVP. He can sale what ever he wants, that is the fact. Whether I agree or disagree with this has nothing in fact to to with the SALE of the fossils. What is the SVP going to do to the seller? Nothing, they can’t. Also, this attitude of that fossils should ONLY be in museums isn’t supported world wide. In the UK its ok to have private fossils in their collections. Be careful of whom you call names and demonize, the more you do, the worst the society will look.

      1. I’ll try one last time before I throw up my hands…

        You, Tracy Ford, as a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, agreed to abide by the ethics statement of that society when you paid your membership dues. Ethics is not about what other people do and say, or what somebody else seems to get away with, it is about what you do when presented a choice between right and wrong. Yes, the landowner has the right to sell the fossil, and yes, you of course have the right to support that sale. But let me break down the conversation to one point.

        When you joined SVP, you promised that you wouldn’t support the sale of scientifically significant fossil specimens. By doing just the opposite, you have broken your promise. Once again, the SVP does not support the sale of scientifically significant fossils, you agreed to this statement upon becoming a member of this group.

        Maybe you can help me to understand the point of being a member of an organization whose mission you fundamentally disagree with?

        1. Yes, I joined the SVP. I’ve been a member since 1982 (I believe I joined a few years before I actually attended a meeting). How long have you been a member? Just because I pay my money for the SVP does not mean I AGREE with what they say. I do agree with illegally collected fossils being illegal, no problem. But them in jail, fine them, what ever, no problem. But when it comes to legally collected material, on private land, not only do I believe the own has the right to sell it, I will defend that legal right. This is AMERICA after all. And even though this goes against the SVP, that is my (I may be wrong about this) constitutional free speech right to state that. I’ve had this conversation on Vert Paleo for decades, and not everyone in the SVP agrees with it. Do I want the fossils to be donated, bought, what ever by a museum, yes. Demonizing people, threatening people, makes the Society look bad, Oh, how about getting the JVP, how about going to the SVP meeting, and talking with old friends (since 1984!), and making new ones? I didn’t agree with everything my father told me, but I wouldn’t divorce myself with him. Does that make sense? Probably not…

        2. Mr Brown- Dr. Brown. Thankyou very much for your honesty and the unbelievable arrogance that you have displayed here. Science thanks you. Thousands of amateur and independant fossil hunters thank you. If ever there was a clear indication of the self righteousness of mainstream academia, devoid of facts or logic, you sir, have become the poster child. Your black and white view of the world is the reason that i am no longer a member of SVP. Your ilk would prefer that bones crumble to dust rather than be in the hands of a private owner. Your ilk would prefer that science is deneyed access to data simply because ownership is not had by those in the public country club. Your ilk would rather ignore data, you claim is inaccessible, without ever attempting to access it. You speak of ethics, preach really, as if you and only you or your organization has the moral high ground to determine what is right and what is wrong. Who, i ask, appointed you sole arbitrator of morality in science? Science is an unbiased thing. Resting solely on the pursuit of truth. You do not own it, for it isnt yours to own. If you really wish to argue ethics please continue for i have a few dozen stories to tell.

          Steve: i agree… I cant wait for this auction to end. The posturing is thoroughly unproductive.

  28. Tom K-

    I have no doubt that significant discoveries have been made by amateur collectors, or that some of them may in fact be able to properly curate a collection or innovate new ways of preparation and display. And I too have seen specimens suffer damages in accredited museums. My question was simply how an exhibitor whose activities are clearly inconsistent with the SVP ethics policy was allowed to exhibit at an SVP meeting. My choice to not work on specimens that will be sold at auction stems from my preference to see those specimens available to science, and that availability cannot be assured when a specimen is sold to the highest bidder who may or may not have science as a priority.

    1. Re Mike a Holland
      Again ,is it not arrogance that to preach a “holier than thou ” attitude ?
      Pete Larson does great science , yet you deny this science because he is commercial , and the specimen will be sold . I know many significant private collectors , I know of none that would not welcome scientific study of the specimens , for many of us it is the science that excites us , though some may appreciate the aesthetic value more .
      Some of the scientific community as well as the SVP seems be more concerned with protecting their tenture and controlling the science for their own benefit.
      It’s “publish or perish ” attitude .
      Societies like the SVP that help enact BLM fossil collecting restrictions, which only allow the destruction of many significant fossils by weathering .
      We should admonish the SVP for these self serving attitudes .
      To restrict the sharing of science based in your moralist attitudes and condemn Pete Larson , for sharing significant science , is reminiscent of the dark ages .
      The solution should be to revisit The SVP standard of ethics !

  29. Tom,
    Mike H. is NOT talking about Pete Larson or the Dueling Dinosaurs. He is referring to an exhibition booth by another group of commercial collectors that was essentially selling fossils. This is different from the issue of Pete Larson’s poster.

    I don’t want to wade into the issue of legal commercial collecting in general, because it is a minefield, and I have nuanced views that probably won’t come across well in a blog comment. But I will say one thing: we should applaud SVP and the BLM for restricting collecting of fossils on public lands to recognized, curated, public science institutions. Otherwise, commercial collectors could profit off of fossils collected on land that belongs to all of us (well, at least those of us on this thread who are US citizens). Would you like ExxonMobil to be able to be able to drill for oil unfettered on public land? Or a mineral company to mine for diamonds? If yes, then I ask you: what is the point of public land? Why even preserve this land?

    1. Considering there was only one ‘vendor’ other than Peter, that narrows down the field quite a bit. Also, the ‘vendor’ in question has sold scientifically valuable specimens to museums. I believe the CM has his crested Oviroptorid. He has others in his museum which he hasn’t sold. He also makes casts and donates them to the SVP auction. Shame on him!!!! :) We must be careful at whom stones are thrown. :)

    2. My apololgies to Mike H if my comment was somewhat But my points and criticisms still stand .
      So Steve you support the destruction of valuable scientific specimens by preventing or licensing commercial or private collectors to save and preserve them.
      Few in the scientific communities have budgets for field collecting , and rely heavily on private individuals to source specimens .
      Might I suggest that the SVP expel all members or institutions that have purchased a fossil , you should even go as far as to expelling all members that display fossils in their office or homes that or not currently being examined for Scientific purposes .
      Will there be anyone left standing ?
      Dealers are a fact of life , we can collected more efficiently , with more dedication and at considerable less expense than most of the “scientific community “.
      Practically every major museum I have been to ,displays or curates a specimens collected or sold by me .
      I have a degree in Botany and Geology , with a speciality in “Deep Time”
      I have donated over 1 million dollars of geological specimens to public institutions , and provided a number of new specimens to science .
      I am also a Director of the National Dinosaur Museum of Australia , which is a privately funded museum.
      Am I worthy of providing a poster to the SVP due to my commercial interests ?
      Scott , you opened the door on this discussion
      You are more interested in preserving your own positions than advancing science.
      It would be interesting for members to declare their government incomes and benefits and compare them to that of many commercial dealers . I’m sure many of you could not and would live on what these dealers make.

      Regards Tomk

  30. I think it is bombastic to say that keeping private collectors from profiting from selling public land fossils is equivalent to supporting the destruction of public land specimens that aren’t collected because there are not legions of private collectors allowed to reign free on public land. If that sentence is a mouthful, that’s because the whole concept is a head-spinner to me.

    But I think Tom makes an interesting point. Maybe there is a way to license private collectors to collect and conserve those specimens on public lands that scientists/academics are not able to collect due to time and resources. For that to happen, there would need to be a guarantee that any specimens (or at least important specimens, whatever that means) would be preserved in perpetuity for the people of the United States, and not sold for profit to enrich a small group of collectors.

  31. You got it Tracy, that sneaky antiquarian book dealer, running a multi-billion dollar fossil smuggling business on the side :-)

  32. Tom,

    My socks are holey but I do not claim to be. I’ve expressed two thoughts here:

    1. Surprise and wonder at a commercial fossil dealer being allowed to exhibit at an event held by an organization whose rules do not accept the buying and selling of fossils. This is a similar level of surprise one might express if they went to a vegetarian restaurant and found prime rib on the menu. It’s not about whether we should or shouldn’t eat meat, it’s just surprising to find it on the menu.

    2. Offering specimens for sale to the highest bidder – whoever that may be – with no control or criteria other than a sufficient bank account *may* still result in the specimens being properly curated in a repository that is accessible to science in perpetuity, but this cannot be assured. The specimens may instead wind up in Nicolas Cage’s den. Perhaps Mr. Cage is entirely willing to allow visiting researchers in perpetuity, but we cannot count on that, and we have no idea what will become of the specimens when he’s done with them. That’s not a judgement on anyone’s personal beliefs or ethical choices, it’s just reality.

    1. Been going to the SVP for very long? If ever? Because Pete Larson has been going to, and has had talks and posters for decades, really. Also, Mike Triebold, who both sell fossils to private and institutions. I know of several specimens that they, and other dealers have sold to museums. Yes, that is your personal belief, not reality. Continuing demonizing both the seller and the buyer is bad for the Science. Not sure if you get that, but that IS reality. I’ve witnessed how detrimental that kind of talk is for decades, that IS reality. I’ve talked to paleontologist, as well as commercial dealers who have had the displeasure of working with land owners after not only your style of demonizing, and how hard it was for them to smooth things over to be allowed back on their land to collect, so Mr. Holland, that IS reality. The SVP has and will continue to work with commercial dealers, and they in turn will continue to work with the SVP. That IS reality. As I said before I’ve been a member of the SVP since 1982, I’ve witnessed, talked to, argued with members about commercial dealers and how the SVP needs to work WITH each other, not call each other names. That IS reality.

    2. Hi Mike
      I’m just about to sell a significant vertebrate fossil to the Museum of Victoria , I would gladly donate some of the profit to you , so you may buy a needle and thread .
      It is important to face the reality ,
      and practicality .
      Your socks need mending , like your attitude does.
      Ignoring the issues won’t make them go away.
      As a fossil dealer I am happy to help anyone regardless of them being a SVP member . I promise not to hold that against you .

  33. Bouncing off of Michael Holland here. I’m an entomologist, and it’s *stunning* to me that anyone would pay >$1,000,000 for a specimen, let alone $2,000, let alone $500. Academic budgets are extremely pinched right now, and spending ANY money on individual specimens is just unbelievable. For every dollar you add, the more you subtract from the time and effort of grad students, post-docs, PIs, and fundamental research costs. Would my lab rather have one putatively “scientifically significant specimen” or one biologist? I vote—on principle—for retaining the biologist. Selling a specimen for profit in such a manner that it is illogical for scientific institutions to pay is irrevocably contrary to the objective of the progress of human knowledge, and should be condemned if said sale is in the name of “science.”

  34. Tom, Tracy et al…. You’re wasting your time. Just like with religious zealots, there is no point trying to reason with some people. As Mr. Entemologist just pointed out, most scientists and institutions (at least here in the US) have no money to purchase specimens. Overseas it is common practice, and museums spend millions on legally collected specimens they want for their collections. If it wasn’t for amateurs (I use the term lightly) spending their own money and investing their time, many important specimens would have never been found. Museums (in part due to lack of funding) often only scrape the surface of a site, decide they have collected enough and never return. If someone else then makes a major discovery there, they cry foul. I guess many SVP members would rather see fossils crumble to dust before they’re in a private collection or for sale….

  35. Have the commenters had a look at the Bonhams catalog for this sale? Also includes fossils ‘de-accessioned’ from a “major” museum of natural history. To me this is a much larger cause for concern than anything else posted here.

    1. Bruce, I tried to bring this up before but it was ignored. I grew up with those fossil mounts. They have a history in San Diego. Sternberg lived in San Diego, at the time, The San Diego Natural History Museum bought the fossils and paid in gold because Sternberg didn’t trust the US dollar. This is very sad they are being sold…

  36. Yes, I have been to SVP (since 1993) and I get that there are many nuances around this issue. Yes, there are commercial collectors who sell specimens to repositories which keep them available to science and the public in perpetuity. Yes, there is little hope of finding any common ground if either or both sides resort to name calling and animosity. I don’t dispute any of this. That’s why I’m not demonizing anyone or calling anyone names here, and it’s why I’m not making assumptions about what anyone else thinks or believes or putting words into anyone’s mouth but my own. I would appreciate it if others would reciprocate that courtesy.

    If you truly want to understand what I’m saying, consider the following three statements:

    1. The basic premise upon which the scientific method is built is that of testable hypotheses and repeatable experiments to verify or nullify said hypotheses.

    Does anyone dispute that? If so, why?

    2. If the data contained within a given specimen exists only in that particular specimen (skin, feather, core sample, anything – fossil or not) and that specimen is made unavailable, then the scientific process cannot continue with that specimen unless it becomes available again. It is not possible for one researcher to verify or test the claims about it made by another, or to propose new hypotheses about it, or to use newly developed methods to study it. None of those things are possible if the specimen simply cannot be accessed.

    Does anyone here dispute that? If so, why?

    3. Some specimens offered for sale are in fact purchased by repositories that can and do maintain their collections (and the availability thereof) in perpetuity. Others are not. Specimens purchased by individuals may be (and sometimes are) made available to researchers and the public, but the owner is free to choose not to do this.

    Does anyone here dispute that? If so, why?

    None of those statements are rabid fire-breathing zealotry. They’re not dogmatic or antiquated. They’re not even opinion. It’s just how it is. If anyone here can offer an explanation why the above statements are incorrect, please do so. If it helps, try not to look at them through the highly-charged issue of fossil commerce. When you see the word “specimen” assume that we’re talking about extant botanical specimens or microbes from a thermal vent on the ocean floor. It really doesn’t matter what the specimens are, the concepts are what is important to understand.

    1. Hi Mike
      Your comments are valid to a degree , but the basic argument is based on an incorrect premise .
      The opening line in the article states ” science may lose a pair of dinosaurs”
      It’s does not validate this claim , referring only to the fact it may be sold privately .
      Your statement does not support or give any evidence that a private sale would restrict access , our arguements are the opposite . We contend that private collectors freely make specimens avail for scientific study .
      I am aware of many academics and non public servants being denied or restricted access to many geological specimens in museums due to conflicts of interest.
      In Australia unpublished specimens can be held in excess of tens years with complete denial of access to any individual . There are cases here where specimens have been held over thirty years preventing even limited viewing or access to photos . Masters degree students have banned from studying specimens as their theories conflict with the researcher. Collecting sites have been locked up for decades by individual scientists .

      Would you care to dispute any of these comments regardless of Australian situation as it is applicable to most country’s inc USA?
      I have heard many complaints from acedemics ,private or otherwise .

      You choose to single out the private individuals and infer we have a lesser interest in the science than you do .
      How is this not arrogance ?
      You assume the academic community has higher or superior standards or even a greater right of access .
      Public land is public for all , not just the elite few .
      All your points are valid but should not restricted to private collectors or dealers but also to the community as a whole , including yourself .
      Pete Larson is a scientist , to fund his lifestyle and continue his research , , , he must commercialise . You sell your science to ensure tenure !

      If the SVP members are so concern they should get off the rear ends and canvas the corporate community for funds to buy these specimens rather than “crying wolf”
      They should applaud Pete Larson for bringing it to their attention and providing good science to go along with and point out its significance .
      I’m happy to offer $1000 to start the acquisition ball rolling
      On a lighter note
      Andreas et al ,there is a degree of catharsis to be given a platform to have this discussion . I know it will fall on very deaf ears , but I cannot allow such
      misrepresentation of facts and condemnation of Pete Larson for doing good science . He helped preserve a spectacular specimen that certain SVP would prefer to have seen destroyed by weathering rather than fall in the hands of their” nemesis” .

  37. Tom-

    It still feels like you’re assuming a lot about what I assume or infer. Whether or not someone has a lesser or greater interest in science than I do has nothing to do with whether or not they are “private individuals” or academically affiliated. I do believe that the academic community strives for high standards (whether or not everyone adheres to them is another matter) which may or may not be met by those outside of the academic community. I believe that all have equal right of access to specimens from public lands (that’s why it’s called “public”).

    Is the buyer of the “dueling dinos” not free to choose to make the specimen unavailable to the public or to research? Do they not have that option? I cannot prove that a private sale *would* restrict access, and I’m not trying to do so. I can’t predict what will become of the specimen after the sale any more than you can. I’m just pointing out that a private sale *could* restrict access. That possibility does exist.

    How about this: I will gladly concede that it is entirely possible for some of the personalities involved in the academic realm to inappropriately restrict access to specimens, which can hamper scientific research, and that this does in fact sometimes happen. That is a separate issue which can present itself regardless of the existence of commercial collecting.

    Now it’s your turn: Will you acknowledge that when a specimen is sold to a private party, they are free to choose to restrict or deny access to that specimen, and that this also does in fact sometimes happen?

    Each of us can find instances to support either or both of those positions because both scenarios can and have happened. If both scenarios are equally likely, that implies that sending a specimen to a museum or to an individual yields the same outcome for science. I’m not so sure that this is the case. However, if there is a way to ensure that no matter where a specimen ends up science will always be served, that would be something we should all work towards.

    1. Hi Mike
      I feel we are moving forward .
      I will concede and acknowledge your points are valid , even though it is highly unlikely .
      I now feel you may appreciate , that without the intervention of private individuals and commercial dealers this specimen would never have been made available to the scientific community and would have been left to weather away .
      If you agree to with this statement , the maybe the SVP members should carefully examine their views on commercialisation of vertebrate fossils ,and possibly conclude that this process benefits science more than it negates it.
      Hence by working with dealers rather than precluding them , then Science it’s self, will be the winner.
      Would not this be a reasonable and beneficial outcome for all?

  38. I think I’m safe in saying that the US paleontological community (at least SVP) now has the benefit of a more balanced view toward academic/commercial collecting. Deepening of the rift between the commercial and academic factions occurred in the 1990’s, when the potential for commercialization of fossils on public lands was hotly debated. Now that this matter has been settled through the PRPA, many vertebrate paleontologists on both sides are liberated to look across the ‘aisle’, and finally acknowledge there is a much larger benefit in the shared common ground. As with anything in life, the community as a whole is much stronger together than it ever could be apart. Just look at the current US Congress as an example. The division at present nearly robs them completely of meaningful action.

    We, the vertebrate paleontological community, including amateur, academic, professional, commercial, avocational, represent collectively a wide range of normal. We are a continuum in our ethics and our views toward any aspect of the discipline. You rage against the use of cyanoacrylates, while I preach their benefit. It is a natural, though not admirable, human condition to look for division, and then dwell on it rather seeking a better way.

    As with the ongoing debate in some regions of the world regarding evolution; the media and certain religious and scientific individuals/organizations love division – they thrive on it for existence. Anything which divides and creates argument that will gather attention is gold. To contrast however, consider the words of the past pope of the catholic church. The current pope, Francis I, is receiving a lot of accolades for his words and actions – and deservedly so in my opinion. But Benedict did not endear himself to the public at large. He did with me however when he made the following comment to a major US newspaper around about 2007. When questioned about the dichotomy of philosophy between Creationism or Evolution, Benedict proclaimed the question to be “absurd”. He responded that the answer is “Creationism AND Evolution”.

    The above example is not at all intended to root around in people’s spiritual state, but to make the point again that we are much stronger together than we ever can be apart. Such should be the case with all paleontologists to the degree possible – including those people commercial, academic, amateur, passionate, professional, or just plain interested. Will this come easily or without disagreement; no. But nothing worth having comes easily. And people must be willing to look for union, rather than division.

  39. Tom-
    I don’t see either the academic/institutional or commercial realms evaporating any time soon, so finding a way for both to exist seems like a good idea. As Steve B. said above, so long as the specimens found by commercial collectors on public lands would be guaranteed to be preserved in perpetuity for science and the public, maybe some kind of licensing regime could exist. I like the idea of accredited, licensed collectors being given casting rights to any specimen they find, while the fossils themselves go to repositories. This wouldn’t produce the big multi-million dollar payoffs that selling a whole T. rex does, but over time casts can be a very significant revenue stream. Peter May (of RCI) sells casts worldwide and has built a successful business. I like the idea of more eyes looking for and finding fossils as long as their methods and techniques are sound and the results of their efforts are made available to science. But it seems that there’s work to be done in finding agreement on what “available to science” means.

    1. Hi Mike
      I think most commercial collectors would end up on welfare benefits should they rely on replica sales .
      Might I suggest that Data bases be created and all significant finds registered and tracked upon resale conditional that scientific access is conditional to ownership.
      With technology and cloud computing this task would be quite simple
      Photos can be put on line to be made available to all
      Registeration numbers can allowing trackiing and easy indentifaction like a book with ISBN numbers ,
      This shouldn’t be limited to private acquisitions but to all museums as well .
      It will make science free to all .
      This would allow licensing of collectors on BLM land ensure that these fossils will finally be preserved .
      Canada having protected and World Heritage listed the Burgess Shale
      has totally prohibited the removal of a single stone from over a hundred miles of exposure ,
      The Scientists who allowed these laws to be enacted should be held responsible for negligence due to the destruction over 100,000’s of fossils weathering away yearly .
      If your are going to protect a site you should ensure regularly collecting .
      Persecuting geologists and collectors for picking up weathering stones occurs regularly .
      The paranoia extends to having rangers continually viewing visitors with binoculars during daylight hours to ensure no stone is ever removed
      Millions of tons of fossils exist . The issue her?e appears to be about controlling science , certainly not sharing .
      You can’t even buy replica fossils in the Yoho National Park
      To access exposures require a 7 to 11 hour strenuous return hike .
      These guys in Canada are “NUTS”.

      On another note .
      It really annoys me that I am required to pay exorbitant fees to access scientific papers published by publishing houses when the science is generatate via public funding .
      Under USA law all scientific papers written using public funding is open source and not held by copyright , yet is is still restricted as is access to many specimens held in institutions .

  40. As a 25 year member of SVP, I most certainly support (and abide by) the code of ethics, the intent of which I understand as follows: we want to maximize the capture of scientific information for valuable and unique vertebrate fossils. The ideal circumstances for this desired outcome are the collection of such specimens by or under the supervision of professionals, and the placing of the specimens in a qualified repository for access and study by other professionals, for eternity or until the sun becomes a red giant.

    But the operative word is maximize. PhD-carrying VPs are a tiny minority of the population. Funds for collection of vertebrate fossils are scarce. Vertebrate fossils have a habit of showing up on private land as well as public land. And people all over the world, who are hard up for money, are selling vertebrate fossils.

    If our goal (and I’m including all of us who care about science and vertebrate paleo) is increasing knowledge, it does seem counter-productive to be shocked and outraged at the inclusion of a poster at SVP by one of the more qualified and ethical of the “private sector” paleontologists. “Sue” the T. rex fortunately was not excluded from study, despite not being collected by university or museum employees.

    The attitude of “I don’t even want to look at it” will not make the commercial fossil market disappear, and it certainly accomplishes nothing for science. When a commercial fossil collector (remember the Sternbergs?) is interested in contributing to science, I would suggest we try to remember what we are all about, and try to find a way – within the confines of our “chapter and verse” – to welcome and encourage cooperation, and win one for science.

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