The Tragedy of Tinker

Hey there every peoples!

This post was inspired by my little debate with Brian Switek over at Dinosaur Tracking spawned by my stupid little observation. First off in my defense i did offer a suite of possibilities other than new species (Jane was a runt, Thomas may have been eating something different to gain weight faster, or they may have been different sexes). Well the reason i used those two was because they were the only ones i could get full specs on. Bucky length and height (33 feet long, 10 feet tall) matches Thomas’ but he/she has no age or weight listed. The juvenile specimen in the LA Museum’s upcoming growth series has only been described as 20 feet long (same length as Jane). And another fossil that was claimed to “have the potential to end the Nanotyrannus debate once and for all” doesn’t have any specs because of the legal tug of war he became a part of.

A commercial collector named Mark Eatman was looking for dinosaurs to whore off in the badlands of South Dakota in 1998. But the land he found the bones on was a little fuzzy; it either belonged to rancher Gary Gilbert or land that had been leased to Gilbert by South Dakota’s Harding County. Eatman only found the T. rex and had no desire to dig it out, so he sold his excavation rights to a group of fossil hunters led by Texas prospector fossil whore Ron Frithiof. Frithiof got a lease from Harding County for the rights to the fossil, so long as the county got a 10% cut. Frithiof made a deal with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis for $8.5 million for the skeleton. That’s when the troubles began.

supposedly parts of Tinker's skull

A damaged and healed rib supposedly from Tinker

The county didn’t know the value Frithiof slapped on the fossil. So in 2003 they began litigation to rescind the lease and make the claim that Frithiof had collected the specimen illegal from federal lands. Tinker was placed in the holdings of a private preparator where the fossils sat around (with some still in the ground). The legal battle raged for years, but on August 6, 2009 an appeals court sided with Frithiof. They concluded that it was the County’s fault for not checking into what kinds of fossils were being found. They declared Frithiof’s lease valid, meaning the County will still get 10% of what Tinker gets sold for.Unfortunately this did not mean the end of Tinker’s life in purgatory. The preparator filed for bankruptcy, and the fossils were taken into the custody of a federal bankruptcy court. No new information has since come to light. I doubt any will for some time.

Anyone who knows me or has read my post on Lone Star is familiar with the utter disdain i have for commercial collectors. They are not interested in serving science or the public. They are only interested in their pocket books. Frithiof in an article for Smithsonian Magazine even admitted that he got into paleontology because he heard how much was payed for Sue and thought he too could cash in on prehistory. And to add on to the crap heap: he was going to charge a children’s museum $8.5 million for the specimen? What the hell! Where were they supposed to get that kind of money? Museums are strapped for cash as it is. The only reason The Field Museum was able to buy Sue was because they were able to make deals with Disney and McDonalds (probably the only good thing to ever come out of McDonalds). And just Like Tinker, Sue was the subject of legal disputes. And Tinker wouldn’t have as much scientific value because i doubt the guys took detailed geologic notes when digging him up (the less of that you have to do, the quicker you can get him out and sell him). Fossils need all that collateral data, as Brian Switek  so eloquently points out:

It is not paleontology’s aim to simply fill museums with the inhabitants of lost worlds or create static menageries of ancient monsters. The goal of this science is to understand prehistoric life, and this requires that we pay careful attention to the context and associations of bones. Carelessly rip a specimen out of the rocks, and you lose a world of information

Also, according to Pete Larson, the bones weren’t treated with adhesive or glue, so they are in really rought shape.

Tinker, along with other fossils like Lone Star, illustrate one of the most contentious debates today: who should and should not be allowed to excavate fossils. Unfortunately since fossils on private land are considered private property, people often let yahoos like Frithiof or Joe Taylor dig there and keep them. This is a big part of why i want to start my own museum. We need another professional entity out there to find fossils and bring them to the public trust. But that is a monumental task, and until i can get it off the ground, more fossils are either eroding away or being snatched by greedy fossil hounds. Gah!

Till next time!

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