Was There Something in the Water?

Hey there every peoples!

I have always had an interest in ancient elephants. Ever since I first laid eyes on the woolly mammoth at the Royal British Columbia Museum, they have always held a spell on me. It has only been in recent years that they have drawn me in as a research interest. Despite being a diverse and very successful group with a broad array of adaptations, not a lot of work has been done on them outside of naming new species and studying their Ice Age members. However, the first serious research question I ever came up* with involves our old friend the American mastodon.

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The Tragedy of Lone Star

Hey there every peoples…

Today I would like to tell you a story. A story of sorrow and stupidity. As such, expect no happy ending. I wish this story never had to be told. But it happened and I want to make sure it is never forgotten. It is a stern warning of what happens when our past is taken for granted and usurped by fools in service of ancient myths.

Our tale begins in February 2004 in the town of San Antonio, Texas. The owner of a gravel pit rented out a garage to store an enormous skull found in his quarry. The skull belonged to an American mastodon, a beast that roamed the American countryside just over 10,000 years ago. The owner didn’t know that at the time so he just kept it safe in the garage for a while until a local photographer learned of it. So the photographer contacted his buddy Joe Taylor. Joe is very interested in fossils and even has his own museum in Crosbyton, Texas. Joe was very excited about the find and went to San Antonio to investigate. He was very impressed by the skull, not just because of how big it was, but also because it had the rarest feature imaginable: a pair of lower tusks (I myself know of only 3 specimens with lower tusks). Joe was able to acquire the skull and some other fossils that had been found along with it. He named the skull “Lone Star” after the state he was found in (Texas= Lone Star State). After carefully loading the skull into a truck he took it back to his museum for preparation and restoration.

Lone Star's skull when he was kept in a garage in San Antonio

There’s just one problem: Joe Taylor isn’t a paleontologist. Hell, he’s not even an amateur paleontologist (a term that has gained unfair stigma in recent times). Joe is what is known as a young-earth creationist. Creationists believe that the bible is a history book telling us that their god created the earth 6,000 years, all fossils are the result of Noah’s flood, man lived with dinosaurs, and lots of other wacky stuff. They believe that evolution is wrong and resort to lying, manipulation of facts, personal incredulity, and emotional appeal to try and disprove it (they have yet to even make a dent). Indeed, Joe’s Mt. Blanco Fossil “museum” is dedicated to the pursuit of using fossils to prop up their Bronze Age dogma. Hence the quotation marks. A museum is a library of nature, where scientists can study and regular people can learn; not a place to whore out nature in the name of Jesus.

This is where Lone Star’s tragedy comes into play. He wasn’t picked up by an amateur who then took it to an actual museum. It was snatched by a religious extremist who fancies himself a scientist (even though he denounces much of science). Lone Star should have gone to an actual museum where he would have been a powerful education tool. Joe quotes it as being the biggest ever found. People love stuff like that. Furthermore, Lone Star’s lower tusks would have proven useful for teaching people about the evolutionary anomaly know as an atavism (an atavism is a trait that was present in the ancestors of the species but not in the present species. But because the genes are still there for making that trait, it may occasionally pop up in certain individuals). But it wasn’t to be.

The roots of Lone Star's lower tusks, a rare feature in mastodons

Anyway, on with the story. With his newfound prize Joe set about preparing it and restoring it. Way back in 2003 I visited the exhibit “Fossil Hunters San Diego” at the San Diego Natural History Museum. It was a very well done exhibit explaining how paleontology works. One display talked about how restore a fossil. It described a Pliocene walrus skull that was uncovered at a construction site. Unfortunately, the dozer’s blade took away half the skull. The case then went on to describe how fossil restoration works. There was enough of the left side of the skull to rebuild the right side. A paleontologist used clay (which is pliable so it won’t damage the fossil) to sculpt the missing parts. Then a mold was made of the half real/half reconstructed skull. This mold could them be made to make casts of the now whole skull for display. The clay was then easily removed so the fossil could be placed in the museum’s collection. That’s how it’s done. When doing something like this you don’t want to ruin the integrity of the original fossil. If only Joe had seen that display…

Once Lone Star was free of his rocky prison, Joe set about “restoring” him. Joe had an artist paint the reconstructed parts of the skull. Apparently Joe approved of his work (“It is hard to tell where the bone stops and Joel’s art begins.”). I think that when you do something like that, the restored parts should be obvious so people can really get an idea of how much of the actual fossil was found. But as we will learn later this would be counterproductive to Joe’s plans. Lone Star’s tusks were largely worn away so Joe made him new ones ( Max’s skull looked great without his tusks, and his were wonderfully preserved. Again, we will find out that this was for a rather sinister purpose). But that is light stuff compared to what Joe would do next. In order for people to see up into the hollowed out tusk cavity and brain case, he installed LED lights inside the skull. Hey Joe, it’s a prehistoric fossil, not a Christmas tree! Next he proceeded to mutilate those rare and valuable lower tusks. All that was left were the roots so Joe made a cast of the tips of another specimen and fitted them to Lone Star’s. Except that he magnetized them, so that people could take them on and off. He constantly used the phrase “this has never been done before”. Yeah that’s because it’s idiotic. Installing lights in fossil bone? Magnetizing a relic older than civilization? WHY? Wasn’t the fossil impressive enough on its own? Apparently not. Look at Lone Star. I know that’s his nasal opening, but it gives his face a rather mournful expression. I can almost hear him pleading for help:

"Please.. help me... Save me... from this lunatic..."

I feel that if you can’t appreciate the raw beauty of an original fossil, you have no business working with them. But Joe had a reason for all this dolling up of Lone Star: he was planning to sell him. That’s right. Lone Star had to look his best because he was going off to auction. Unfortunately Joe or any prospective buyers didn’t think the original fossil was Lone Star’s best. But why go through all the trouble of “restoring” it and then sell it? Wouldn’t he want it for his little “museum”? You see, while he was out in the field clawing other fossils out of the ground for his creationist “museum”, he got into an ownership dispute with another creationist over an Allosaurus skeleton. Heaps of legal fees left Joe in a serious pickle. If he couldn’t pay off his debts, his “museum” would be seized and used to cover the costs. So then Joe got an idea: auction off Lone Star in the hopes that it’ll make enough money to cover his ass. And indeed his plan worked. At Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas, Lone Star was sold for $190,000. Joe paid off his debts, got to keep his “museum”, and Lone Star was shuffled off to some private residence.

Since then Joe has tried to defend his stunt with Lone Star along with his other deplorable antics. When Smithsonian Magazine published an article about the battle over fossils between professional and amateur paleontologists and commercial collectors, it ignited a contentious debate in the article’s online counterpart. One of the comments was left by Hoe Joe himself:

Triebold is exactly right. 90% of all fossils are destroyed because they are not collected. Almost all of the fossils I have restored would never have been seen, privately or publicly, had someone not paid to acquire them from gravle pit operators or Esqimaux. All the stupid hate-mail I get because I have made a living by rescueing another fossil from becoming part of a road will not make me quit rescuing them. The world’s largest 4-tusked mastodon skull is one of them. Thanks to me and the inital investors, it is now in a museum for all to see. It was very well restored, recorded and studied. The information is available to all. Elitists like Padian ought to make a few such contributions. Joe Taylor

“Rescuing” fossils? Please tell me how selling fossils or parading them as evidence of your inbred pseudoscience is “rescuing” them? And he’s lying about Lone Star. I did a follow up a while later where I contacted both Joe and that auction house. Both told me that they couldn’t disclose certain information but to the best of their knowledge Lone Star ended up in a  private “museum” in New Mexico (off limits to the public, of course). How the fuck is that putting it somewhere for “all to see”? Joe, thanks to you, the largest mastodon skull known (though I’m not sure that’s a valid claim since he didn’t compare it to Max ) is locked away in some rich dick’s lounge where neither scientists nor eager school children can see it. Hey Joe, I think you get all that hate mail because you’re a dishonest hack who sells fossils to private collectors and then uses the ones you don’t sell in a desperate attempt to legitimize your biblical fantasies.

[As a side note, he was referring to Michael Triebold, President of Triebold Paleontology, Inc. and Founder of the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park, Colorado. He too chimed in on the article, where he viciously attacked the comments and character of two scientists (one of whom I know and have met) who also commented on the article. I honestly did not see that coming. I mean, when I stumbled upon the center in one of my random google searches, it had all the trappings of an actual museum: public displays, public programs, a preparation lab, and collecting excursions. I would read about fossils they went and found that they would either store in their collection or put on display. How was I supposed to know it was founded by a commercial outfit? Despite his venomous words in that comment he left, I can’t get too steamed at him, since he did found a functioning public museum. After all, that’s what I hope to do someday…]

Lone Star is touted by Taylor as the largest mastodon ever found. Here he is compared with the Burning Tree Mastodon and the American Museum's Warren Mastodon

Lone Star’s story is a heartbreaking one but is only the tip of the ice berg. Creationists are getting more active in their efforts to dig up fossils in their efforts to tear science down. I once foolishly ordered something from the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (it was a museum guide. I was curious to see what it said). Do they sound familiar? You probably know that name because they’re the ones who built that $27 million monument to stupidity known as the Creation “Museum”. Well, much to my dismay they put me on their mailing list so every month I get their insipid “Answers” magazine. It’s always full of usual creationist shtick with some occasional whining and crying. But this month’s issue… this month’s issue really struck a nerve. It talked about a trip the “museum” took to Montana to excavate dinosaur bones. They briefly described the finds and then said to check their website for the next trip. They are actively taking people out to collect precious fossils so that they can slap it with the label “buried in the great flood, 2300 BC”. And they aren’t the only ones doing this. Jerry Fallwell’s Liberty University apparently collected some dinosaur bones which they slapped with creationist labels. And there is a creation “museum” in Glendive, Montana that goes out and collects fossils. And of course, there’s Joe Taylor and his Mt. Blanco Fossil “Museum”.

As you learned in a previous post, I have depression. That makes it very hard to cope with certain things. It is hard enough reading about paleontologists going out and digging up fossils and then preparing them and studying them. That is what I have wanted to do my entire life (I got a taste of it when I volunteered at the Santa Barbara Museum when I helped them prep their mammoth) and normally these stories of paleontologists doing their job would get people more motivated because they can’t wait to do it themselves. But with me, it would just send me into a spiral. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to go out with the big dogs and start making my own contributions to paleontology. But then I’d read about commercial collectors and that would make it worse. But most of all, I’d read about creationists and how they collect fossils because they think it can prove their fairy tales true. Folks, I’ll level with you. I have often had thoughts of killing myself. And a chief factor in those thoughts would be what I just described above. I would obsess over the fact that creationists, people who do nothing more than pervert science to conform to their toxic ideology, get to collect fossils and I didn’t. I struggle with school to try and get my degree (as if I’m making progress. I’m still in community college), I try to find maps of where to prospect and all to no avail. And then I find out that these people, people who would fail a high school science class, people who denounce science but then claim that it supports their dogma, get to go look for and collect fossils. And I didn’t. They did, and I didn’t. When I was feeling really crummy, that simple fact would cause me to feel that I was not fit for this world and start to contemplate going into the dark abyss (luckily I lack the means and the will to actually carry it out. Don’t worry; my therapist and I are working on it).

If you made it this far, thank you. This has dwarfed the Bison post as my longest one ever. But as you can tell, it’s something I feel very strongly about. Joe and Triebold have a point though: innumerable fossils are being eroded away before paleontologists (both professional and amateur) can get to them. And that is one of the principle reasons why I want to build a museum. I want to create another institution that can get more people out there to continue looking for fossils. Fossils represent our natural heritage. Yours, mine, everyone’s. Lone Star is a tragic example of what happens when fossils are taken for granted and treated as cash cows. They need to be where everyone can appreciate them and learn from them. They belong in museums, not private residences or churches masquerading as museums. Sure, not all fossils can be on display at once. That is why my museum will have a bunch of open houses each year so that people can come in the back and see the fossils we couldn’t display. Because it’s their ancient heritage and they deserve to see it.

Till next time…