“Dino Death Match” Misses the Point

Hey there every peoples!

Things have been very Very VERY crazy for me lately. I only managed to do that last post because I managed to catch a breather. But now I have been getting ready for Live Oak (a music festival we volunteer at every year), then go to Live Oak (in which I will be gone 6 days) and I had to take care of my grandma while my aunt was out of town. Plus Jurassic World came out last Friday. So between all that I won’t be all that active. But a recent program on the National Geographic channel warranted some discussion so i quickly pounded this out.

The show was called “Dino Death Match”. It centers on the perhaps infamous “Dueling Dinosaurs” from Montana. For you not in the know, the specimen is the complete articulated skeletons of a ceratopsian and a tyrannosaur. They were found buried together, and some features have been used to argue that they died in combat. Both have yet to be identified. The title of the show is a bit misleading. They actually spend very little time discussing the taphonomy of the specimens and how that may support the idea that they died fighting. No, the majory of the show is about trying to make the case that the tyrannosaur is a specimen of Nanotyrannus. I won’t be getting into that here because it’s a little above my pay grade. I actually want to talk about an issue the show completely glossed over.

A model of the “Dueling Dinosaurs” showing how the specimens were found.

The fossils are infamous because they are privately owned. In fact the owners even put the fossils up for auction in 2013. They didn’t sell. But the “Dueling Dinosaurs” have stirred the ire of paleontologists and fossil fans because of the fact they are privately owned. Skeletons even half complete are rare. An articulated skeleton is even more rare. Finding two articulated skeletons side by side of different species… that’s the kind of thing that gets labeled “find of the century”. And when you throw in the fact that one of the skeletons has the potential to lay down a long running debate only adds to their importance. So why aren’t they being scrutinized by hoards of scientists?

Because they are in private hands. Access is very hard to get. It is not guaranteed. Hell, the show stated that only a couple scientists were allowed in and the only cameras were the ones operated by the owners. Access is the main reason most scientists avoid privately owned specimens like the plague. Science needs repeatability in order to work. Say one scientist gets access to a private specimen and publishes on it. How do scientists try to verify his claims when they can’t get access to the specimen? And privately held specimens are shunned because their fate is unknown. They could get sold (like the owners of the “Dueling Dinosaurs” tried to do), they could get thrown out, or they could get destroyed in a fire or something. And privately owned fossils never get to be enjoyed by the public. Fossils belong to everyone. But if they are hidden away in some guy’s living room, then countless people will never get a chance to learn about and appreciate their ancient heritage. If current and future generations are to study and enjoy the past, then specimens have to be in museums.

In museums, specimens are safely stored and put on display. They are also accessible to scientists. If the “Dueling Dinosaurs” were in a museum, scientists would be pouring over them, looking at things like anatomy, mode of preservation, their positions, histology, and a host of other aspects. They could really get to the bottom of all the claims that have been flying around these things. “So why doesn’t a museum just buy them?” Museums are very strapped for cash. They can barely keep going on what they have now, let alone be able to pay the unbelievable prices commercial/private collectors want for their specimens (the “Dueling Dinosaurs” were put to auction for $9 million). Museums and their scientists do what they do for the benefit of us all. They don’t rake in piles of money. Scientists aren’t loaded like pop stars. So for little financial reward they work to educate us all and help us be better informed. The millions often slapped on specimens by sellers could fund a museum and it’s science programs for years. In that time, they could find hundreds of new specimens that would be available not only to scientists but to the public as well. So you could spend $1 million on a dinosaur skull. Or you could give that money to a museum and they will find you many dinosaurs as well as loads of other extinct species. Which do you think would be more beneficial and rewarding?

Pete Larson, who champions the “Dueling Dinosaurs” tyrannosaur as Nanotyrannus, seems to think the former. In an article (can’t remember where it was. I wish I had bookmarked it) he griped about how museums “expect something for nothing” and that if they want something they should have to pay for it like the rest of us. I refer you to my words above. So Pete appears to think that specimens should go up to the highest bidder, rather than a place that can keep them safe and make it accessible to everyone. Let’s see this come back to bite him in the ass. At the 2013 meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Larson garnered a bit of controversy by presenting a poster on the “Dueling Dinosaurs” and specifically how the tyrannosaur supports the validity of Nanotyrannus. The controversy is obvious: he went to the biggest fossil conference of all and based a presentation on a privately owned specimen. Larson, to me, made some compelling arguments why the specimen represented Nanotyrannus and why the genus is valid. He did the same on the Nat Geo show. Too bad all that work was for nothing. Everything he has said about Nanotyrannus based on that specimen will matter not in the long run. If other scientists can’t study the specimen to refute or verify his claims, then no one is going to take it seriously. To the scientific community, if a specimen isn’t in a museum, it pretty much doesn’t exist. Still think fossils should go to any where else but a museum?

Could this be the definitive specimen of Nanotyrannus? Science may never know….

Whether you are buying or selling a fossil a question must be asked. Why does a person need to own a fossil? Why should you and you alone be in possession of a fossil that only you get to see? What purpose does it serve sitting on your mantle? Fossils belong to everyone. They benefit everyone when they are in museums. You don’t need an important piece of an ancient puzzle just so you can show it off to your friends and brag about how you own a fossil. Recently, I was shown a picture of a partial Miocene shark skull found right here on the Central Coast. He said it was privately owned (you can imagine how well that sat with me). He said the guy took it to the Los Angeles Museum and they scanned it and printed out a copy of it. The guy showing the picture said “at least they have something”. A cast is helpful, but nothing can be as informative as the original specimen. I think it should be the other way around: the museum gets the specimen, the finder gets a cast. If all you are doing with a fossil is using it as a decoration or as an ego boost, a cast serves the purpose just as well as the real thing. All the vertebrate stuff (as well as a lot of invertebrate) i have found has ended up in museums. I have pictures of the specimens that I show to people. And you know what: they are still impressed. They are amazed that I found it, not because I own it. I recognize that they don’t do anyone any good if they are just sitting around my house. It seems others need to do the same.

The “Dueling Dinosaurs” are a spectacular and very important find. But if they aren’t in a museum than that spectacle and importance is absolutely zero. Imagine what scientists could learn about it when they aren’t being shut out by ignorant and greedy owners. Imagine how many kids could be inspired to be scientists by seeing this incredible moment in time. Imagine how much interest these animals could ignite in the general public. None of that will ever come to pass unless they are in a museum. They will never live up to their potential if they are hoarded in someone’s house. That goes for every fossil. They are all vital clues to unraveling the mystery of our planet’s past. All the knowledge that goes into books, movies, and exhibits doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from the specimens. That knowledge can only be gleaned if they are safe and accessible. When a fossil disappears into private hands, scientists aren’t the only ones who lose. We all lose.

Do your part to at least stymie the damage. Take the Jurassic World Challenge. Whatever money you spend to see the movie, donate that much money to a museum for scientific research. Help send a message that you value science.

Till next time!

3 thoughts on ““Dino Death Match” Misses the Point

  1. I have donated tens of thousands of important fossils to several museums including the Smithsonian. I believe in donating important fossils to museums. The many that I’ve donated became type specimens, even had a few named for me. But on the other hand, I’ve kept some fossils that were not so important and used them to educate school kids to the tune of 125,000 of them in a 25 year period. I know for a FACT that some of these institutions throw away fossils as I saw one day at the back of the U of Florida museum. The Smithsonian is the classiest of all museums because they always wrote a letter ASAP and even sent copies of my donations to me. But then I donated tens of thousands to the University of Florida museum and needless to say they made but a couple of copies of my donations as they said they could not afford to make them. But yet, I saw stacks and stacks of copies of some very important fossils that I found and gave them but couldn’t afford to give me one. When I worked on a 9 year NSF grant with Dr. Clayton Ray as the chief investigator ( amateur and research collaborator ) for whales, sea cows and dolphins in Florida’s Bone Valley Phosphate mines, he always said that the amateur was the back bone of vertebrate paleontology. Wish the U of Florida felt that way. I know many who have given them important fossils but went through hell just to get a copy if they ever got one at all. I get your drift that fossils do belong to the people but some of these scientist should take a 2 or 3 year course on social skills so that the amateur will be grateful and will want to get into the field a lot more than the pros do and help save some of these fossils from the weathering elements. I have to admit I could’ve made a million dollars or so with my discovery at the Leisey shell pit in Florida that represented “a new chapter in the history of life” as Dr. Ray and Dr. Webb were quoted. But I knew that the right thing was to donate them. I was way under compensated for my work at the shell pit that was to become a standard for the Irvingtonian epoch world wide. But I did the right thing but wished that some of these PHD’s would treat some of us amateurs with great respect. Imagine how much more they could get from us non degreed amateurs.

  2. We can revisit your argument when we find gold on your land and a geologist wants to study to take it from you in the name of science. The NY museum of natural history could easily afford to purchase the “death match” fossils.

    • “We can revisit your argument when we find gold on your land and a geologist wants to study to take it from you in the name of science.”- False analogy. Fossils have nowhere near the economic value of gold. Further more, there isn’t a whole lot you can learn from gold that hasn’t been learned already. If the deposit is large, and a scientists did want to study, then they could take a sample and you would still have the rest to profit from. Fossils on the other hand are rare and each one unique. Each specimen can yield new data that can’t be found anywhere else. More gold was found in the Yukon Gold Rush alone then probably all the fossils we’ll ever find. So your argument there makes no sense and fails to argue anything of substance.

      “The NY museum of natural history could easily afford to purchase the “death match” fossils.”- No they can’t. Museums, even the big ones, are strapped for cash. Sure the largest have operating budgets in the millions of dollars. But that money is so they can operate! Museums are non-profits meaning they cannot generate profits. Everything they get comes from the generosity of other people. You really think if museums could throw around the kind of money being asked for the Dueling Dinosaurs that they would have to rely so heavily on volunteers? If a museum was going to buy the Dueling Dinosaurs it would have to come out of their operating budget. And no museum would do that. Why? Because then they couldn’t operate. They couldn’t fulfill their purpose because they had to spend so much of their precious operation funds on a single specimen. But let’s say that they did. Then YOU would get to explain to all the visitors who can’t enjoy the museum, to all the school children who can’t learn about world, to all the researchers who can’t access the collections, why the museum is closed because you think someone needed to get rich from a one-of-a-kind fossil.

      You clearly know nothing about science and museums. Maybe you should educate yourself before making another weak and ignorant comment such as this.

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