Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Private ownership of fossils? Yay or nay?

Dinosaurs for sale: How fossil business impacts science

Commercial sellers offer scientists access to unique specimens, but at a cost

In 2009, commercial fossil hunters in Montana excavated what was, unbeknownst to them, the jaws of an important new species of dinosaur.

Scientists weren't informed, and the fossil was sold to a private collector.

Fortunately, the story doesn't end there, as it sometimes does.

'It's wrong for people to assume they can get something for free.'- Peter Larson, Black Hills Institute of Geological Research

In the fall of 2010, the private collector heard that paleontologist David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto would be visiting his town of Fort Peck, Mont. He wanted to know more about the fossil he had purchased, so he showed it to Evans.

"I was blown away," Evans recalled. "I instantly knew it was a new species of raptor."

"It was a unique find that is scientifically very important," added Evans, who co-authored a paper describing the new raptor in 2013.

The jaws turned out to belong to the only raptor from its time period ever found in North America. The turkey-sized meat-eater named Acheroraptor temertyorum would help paint a more vivid picture of the diverse ecosystem where Tyrannosaurus rex stalked Triceratops 66 million years ago.

Acheroraptor also revealed a surprise — it was a close relative of dinosaurs in Asia, suggesting that dinosaurs were migrating between continents.

But no one knew any of that until Evans, the  ROM's curator of vertebrate paleontology and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, talked the collector into selling his treasure to the ROM. It became part of the ROM's collection in 2011. The museum doesn't disclose the prices it pays in order to minimize their effect on the market, but Evans said it was reasonable and affordable.

Bringing the fossil into a museum was the only way it could be studied and be recognized as a new species with its own scientific name. That's because science needs to be repeatable by other scientists, Evans said, and that's possible only when they have unrestricted public access through an institution such as a museum.

"If we had not bought it," he added, "it would have continued to be in the hands of a private collector and off-limits to science."
Acheroraptor illustration

The story of Acheroraptor illustrates how buying fossils from commercial collectors can provide scientists and the public with access to extraordinary dinosaur specimens they couldn't otherwise study. But it also shows how easily the commercial trade can inadvertently keep important specimens out of scientists' reach.

That is, the bustling dinosaur business has a profound influence on the science of paleontology – something that paleontologists struggle with.

Canadian museums often buy dinosaur fossils

Dinosaurs are a huge public draw, but for many Canadian museums, buying dinosaurs is the only way to get them.

Laws enacted since the late 1970s in the main provinces where dinosaur fossils are found — Alberta and Saskatchewan — specify that dinosaur fossils are owned by the Crown. Regulations effectively ban them from being removed from the province.

If the Royal Ontario Museum had not bought the Acheroraptor fossil, it would have remained off-limits to science, says curator and paleontologist David Evans. (Royal Ontario Museum)

Paleontologists say the laws do a good job of safeguarding fossils for science. But they mean museums like the ROM, located in Ontario where no dinosaur fossils have been found, can't grow its collection except by buying fossils from outside Canada, mainly from the U.S.

"Every major museum in Canada buys fossils and it's been a common practice for a century," Evans said.

That said, museums far prefer to collect fossils themselves than buy them — partly because many have trouble affording them, and partly because commercial specimens are often missing important scientific data about their origins.

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