Aftermath of SVP

Hey there every peoples!

Last week was the first (and probably only, until i either land a job or get funding) time i was able to attend SVP, the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. It was fun, it was informative, it was exhausting! I saw some great talks, some great posters, and some not so great examples of either. Saw all the familiar faces, met some new ones, and got loads of advice and swag. It was a fantastic experience. It has left me a bit drained but not just physically. The conference has brought up a couple issues that no doubt stick in the Society’s craw.

The first and by all means the most prominent is a poster by longtime paleontologist Pete Larson. Larson’s poster involved one of the most contentious of dinosaur taxa: Nanotyrannus. His poster claimed to support it’s validity based on the theropod half of the Montana “Dueling Dinosaurs”. He even brought along casts of the specimen to show people (something i think more people there need to do). But in the wake of the conference, his poster has unleashed a shit storm, and not because of it’s scientific merits. The “Dueling Dinosaurs” were collected commercially on private land. The owners tried to sell it to a museum but no one bit. Now they are set to go to auction in New York. After that, who knows what their fate will be. The controversy lies in their provenance. Most paleontologists abhor publishing on privately owned specimens. Furthermore, the Society has strict guidelines about commercial specimens. However the controversy has opened up old wounds in the debate over just who gets to collect fossils.

Now i don’t like the commercial sale of fossils. I may have given in to blind emotion (just one of the many benefits of having depression. Sign up now and we’ll thrown in the inferiority complex absolutely free!) and was too quick to demonize the commercial guys. I still don’t like the commercialization of paleontology but i now recognize that there are many nuanced levels. The whole debate is hardly black and white and possesses many aspects that must all be addressed. For starters, there’s the whole selling of vertebrate fossils. Every fossil is important to science. The more specimens we have, the more ideas we can test. Now, i am willing to compromise on really common undiagnostic stuff, like shark teeth and cetacean vertebrae/ribs. But stuff like the “Dueling Dinosaurs”… i agree with everyone else that those should be in a museum. Hell, i asked my buddy if we had any space to store them, as they would be great for the Project. But alas, we have no hopes of meeting what the owners want for it.

The fossils were found on private land and ultimately it’s theirs to do what they want with it. Pete Larson did his best to try and get them into a museum. But the owners sank considerable resources into their preparation and needed to make up for it. They sought to sell the specimen for $15 million to a museum. Yeah right! Seriously, $15 million? That’s what most museums spend on major renovations. If they had $15 million dollars, that could fund their museum (infrastructure, education, research) for years on end. With that kind of money, they could just go find their own dinosaurs. So with no one coughing up the dough, the “Dueling Dinosaurs” are getting thrown on the auction block. No one is happy about that. Pete Larson has been doing everything he can to make sure there is some kind of record of these specimens (he even had 3d scans he was showing people on his tablet). Whether or not the specimens will end up in a museum we cannot know. And this, i believe, forms the crux of the commercial/private debate.

We have folks on the¬†commercial/private side claiming that they could make great contributions to the science if only the professionals would get off their high horse. As far as i can tell, there are two principle reasons why professional paleontologist looks down upon commercial/private collectors. The first is the scientific record. When a fossil is collected, scientists take careful note of a number of details: gps coordinates, stratigraphy, sediment comp, taphonomy, position of the specimen, and lots of other stuff. Most commercial/private collectors don’t keep such detailed records, and the specimen loses most of it’s scientific value. Now Pete maintains that the “Dueling Dinosaurs” were excavated with such data (which may not matter anyway, as we will soon see). But the majority do not, and considering science needs repeatable data, not keeping field records of specimens is a real deal breaker. Now, i am an amateur, not a commercial/private collector, and yet i get the same spiel about the importance of field data, so i guess we have that common ground.

The other major problem mainstream paleontology has with commercial/private specimens is their providence. When a specimen is in a museum, it is secure there. It is kept in a stable environment where it receives the proper care. And we know that it will continue to be there until the end of time except for extenuating circumstances. The problem with commercial/private specimens is that their fate is uncertain. The owner may not take care of it. Or he may treasure for the rest of his life. But when he dies there’s no telling where that specimen may end up next. If a scientists had published on it, and then a family member had decided to sell it or throw it out, then future scientists can’t access that specimen for their own research. It doesn’t matter if the current owner is willing to grant access to scientists. The next owner may not. And that is the big hang up. Specimens always need to be accessible in a place where we know they aren’t going anywhere.

Most museums do some grandstanding about how museum collections are community resources (“public trust” is a common descriptor) that represent a shared heritage. Many commercial/private collectors claim that they don’t, that most specimens are locked away in the collections were they are never shared with the public. And you know what: they aren’t wrong. I think I make it pretty obvious the resentment i feel towards certain museums, despite my full support of the shared heritage arguments. I feel museums are suffering an image problem right now, being places were some fossils are shared but the rest are hoarded. I think museums need to work more towards open access. In my museum i hope to do just that. Constantly rotate specimens out from the collections so that they all get face time. Hold regular open houses to show people the collections. Or maybe even have a couple volunteers whose sole job is to escort people (who have come by appointment) through the collections. Not only would they show them around and answer questions, but also ensure they follow the rules and that any specimens are handled with care. We need to do more to make people feel connected with the collections. Digital databases and photos are a good start, but they lack the punch of the real thing. It’d hard for people to feel connected to their heritage when they are actively denied access to it.

(though there exceptions, obviously. Right now there is talk that the San Diego Natural History Museum is going to auction off some of their specimens, mostly ones found by Charles Sternberg. What the hell?)

Now members of the society taking part in this debate often claim it’s a slippery slope because they don’t want to alienate their amateur members. Well I’m not a member but i am an amateur, so what do i think of all this? I am an opponent of commercial/private collection of (vertebrate) fossils but at the same time i can partially understand where they are coming from. I understand the need for a repository and field data, and yet i get barred from most sites because i don’t have the fancy college degree. Us amateurs have science’s interest at heart, and yet most public lands prohibit us from collecting because of some arbitrary rule. We often get the same spiel the commercial/private guys get. Our intentions are noble, and there are likely commercial/private guys who are too. All the mud slinging they do (like in the SVP poster controversy) isn’t doing any good. Something has to change.

For example, the great and mighty Thomas Holtz told me at SVP that he would like to see some middle ground reached. Something to the tune of a finder’s fee or maybe even museums paying trained commercial crews (i guess something akin to the mitigation companies we have here in southern California) to find fossils. I’m sure there are kinks to be worked out even with that but you know what: at least it’s a suggestion. There very well could be middle ground between pros and commercial/private guys. Why aren’t they working towards a solution, one that would benefit all? I think it’s because the commercial/private don’t fully understand the mission of scientists while the pros are too entrenched in academic dogma to realize that not all commercial/private collectors are the stereotypes they envision and that some of them could even be an asset, not a hindrance.

And what about us amateurs, who get left out in the cold because we couldn’t afford/hack college? We want to help you, we want to do the science, but we are not allowed to because we are not an official member of the establishment. Academia and the government have this potentially vast resource to help collect all the fossils the professionals don’t have time for and yet you are effectively snubbing your noses at us because we don’t have fancy degrees. Why doesn’t the BLM, Dept. of the Interior, or some other federal agency (since they apply more broadly) run a field course in paleontology? Why not teach us amateurs the ins and outs of properly searching for, excavating, and removing fossils? Teach us how to find them, how measure stratigraphy so we can record their position, how to stabilize and jacket them so we can remove them. Give us the tools and skills to do it right and in the process serve science, the government, and the public. And with that field course under our belts, how about you make us go through certification. Make us demonstrate we know what we are doing. Maybe you can even require us to go through re-certification every so often to make sure we are up to date on current field practices. That way, those of us with a passion for paleontology but without a degree can still contribute to the science.

But what if people don’t want to do all that tedious record keeping? Well, my first time to Lake Manix, Eric Scott (you know, that guy from the San Barnardino County Museum I’m always referring to?) talk about an idea he had. He called it a public curation program. Basically, members of the public could go on to public lands and look for fossils. If they found something, they would leave it alone, record it’s position, and report it to the museum. The museum would then go collect it with all the important data. Now obviously this could be exploited, where people say they will follow the rules but end up keeping the fossil themselves. So maybe even this would require some kind of certification, thus binding them to a code of ethics that could bring about consequences if broken. Perhaps require a sign in/sign out deal to carefully monitor who is out there and what they find. It would take some work, but i think this would be a great way to get people involved.

I feel my ideas would solve the dilemma for amateurs and the public. But unfortunately they may fall on deaf ears. The politics and rabble rousing stirred up by the debate between mainstream paleontologists and commercial/private collectors dominates the discourse. A whole faction of us (amateurs) are getting screwed over while the commercial/private collectors are painted with a broad brush and cast universally as villains. A greater understanding of all sides is needed. We need to work together to do what is best for the public and ultimately, for the fossils. There are solutions to be found here. Maybe we’ll be able to find them when we stop yelling at each other and learn that we can in fact work together. Because ultimately it’s the fossils that suffer when we let emotion and stiff, binary laws govern the discourse rather than reason. I am sick of wanting to help but being brushed aside because i don’t meet the standards of the academic orthodoxy. And from some of the stuff i have heard from the commercial/private end, i might not be the only one. I think it’s high time we stop grinding our axes and start swapping olive branches. I think science will be much better for it.

Until next time!

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