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"Paleontology in the spirit of cooperation"
Issue #19: Winter 2024  February 10, 2024 
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The Paleontograph


Walter Stein "Lost to Science"
by Walter W. Stein

When I was a young boy I simply loved science. The whole study of nature and animal life, in particular, fascinated me. I remember wading down the creeks of my home town collecting fish and frogs, bugs and plants. I spent my youth on the beach gathering shells, digging in the clay for fossils, collecting rocks and studying the stars. I read book after book of chemistry, biology geology, paleontology and anything with a dinosaur in it, until my eyes ached and my mother insisted that I finally turn off the light. My teachers recognized and encouraged my curiosity and for most of my life, I was under the “illusion” that science, aka “the study of the natural and physical world”, was something that everyone could participate in. It didn't matter whether or not you were a full-fledged PHD type, the gal down the street or a kid with a collecting bag and some spare time. Everyone could have a part to play, no matter how big or small. For under every natural nook, as a result of every nobel question, a new scientific discovery might be found, and science, that non-partisan goddess, might grace you with her presence.

Unfortunately, over time and experience, that boyhood naivety has been whittled away and the truth of the matter (at least in today's world) has become clear: Science, or at least paleontology, is no longer something that everyone is allowed to participate in. According to those in the "know", one must have certain credentials and operate under certain very specific conditions to be part of the process.

My disillusionment reached a glowing crescendo with the July 30th, 2013 article in the New York Times called, "Clashing Titans for Sale; Dinosaur Skeletons Headed to Auction, Not Museum". In this article, the fate of the now infamous "Montana Dueling Dinosaurs", a magnificent set of specimens purported to have two dinosaurs (a Nanotyrannus and an un-described ceratopsian or older Triceratops) locked in a mortal death match, was discussed. In this article the elitism of some members (not all) of the academic world really showed their true colors.

"Other experts worry their scientific worth may have already been lost in the rush to exhume the fossils. Untrained commercial hunters can destroy contextual evidence needed to study them properly."

"I don't think it is important at all because it was not collected as a scientific specimen," said Jack Horner of Montana State University, a longtime dinosaur paleontologist. "So in my book, it is worthless."

"Worthless?" Really? That's a pretty strong statement. Here we have two extremely rare dinosaurs, lying side by side, one with teeth of the other possibly embedded in its neck, both fully articulated and both possible new species. This individual claims that they are "worthless" simply because they were not collected by people he considers "experts," and because they were not collected as a "scientific specimen." Is this how science must now be conducted? Unless the discovery was made by professional researcher its merits are forfeit? Should we now exclude every amateur, independent, and private citizen from the process?

This isn't the only time the concept of "lost to science" has been employed in this manner. The UK Independent claims that "Unique Dueling Dinosaur Could be Lost to Science when it is auctioned." The Irish Times says "Fears that New Species of Dinosaur Could be Lost to Science." The BBC states, "Rare dinosaur remains could be forever lost to the scientific community when they go under the hammer in November." In fact, we tend to find this phrase, or versions of it, repeated over and over again. It shows up in news articles. It shows up in mission statements. It's in official government documents and websites. It's not a new phrase. If I was a conspiratorialist, I might think someone was passing around a memo of some sort.

So, what exactly does it mean when they say the phrase "lost to science?" More specifically, does this apply in the case of our Montana Dueling Dinos? Let's first define our definitions and dissect the phrase at length. According to the Oxford American Dictionary "Lost" means the following: "That [which] cannot be obtained, that [which] cannot be found or created again". Ever. Sounds pretty fina,l doesn't it? Just for kicks, let's also define "science." According to the dictionary, science is "knowledge about the structure and behavior of the natural and physical world, based on facts that you can prove, for example by experiments."

Another catch-phrase that comes around in these discussions frequently is the term "contextual data." Contextual data, or the entire context in which the specimen is found, is all the extra stuff that is collected at a dig site. This includes stratigraphy, geology and petrology, orientation/mapping, provenance or locality data, taphonomic data, and of course, microfossils also found at the site. These things are all terribly important from a scientific standpoint and would be collected at any site collected as a "scientific specimen."

So, in the dueling dinosaur's case, is the specimen "lost to science?" Are the bones forever destroyed never to be seen again? Is the contextual data destroyed, never to be seen again?

Well, not entirely. First of all, the bones themselves are certainly not lost. In fact, I bet if you called up Bohnams Auction House they can tell you exactly where the bones are currently housed! In fact, since they would love to sell it to a public institution, they would be happy to take you right to the skeletons so you can take a long, hard look at them. They aren't lost at all! They are not missing. They are not at the bottom of the sea. They are not ground into a power and used for medicine or dissected in a histology lab and cut up into pieces. They are still here, well known and still articulated. Even if they are eventually sold to a private collector their location is going to be pretty well known. In a worse-case scenario where they are sold to a private collector and that collector decides to prevent access to researchers, do you really think that 40 tons of solid rock are going to be thrown in the garbage can? Sure, 7 million dollars and 40 tons of priceless fossils tossed casually in a trash compactor! Not likely. A collector is going to want to keep the bones in as good of condition as possible otherwise they will be less likely to be able to resell them in the future. Also, most privately held specimens wind up in public hands over time. So, no, the bones themselves are not lost regardless of the status of their next benefactor or the ad hominem ramblings of a handful of folks.

Secondly, is the provenance lost? No, not even close. The locality where the Dueling Dinosaurs were discovered is well known by many people. Researchers now or 150 years from now can easily find the spot. There is no doubt as to where the specimen was found. There is no doubt what rock unit the specimen came from or what stratigraphic layer. There is no doubt at all who found it and under what context. This is a situation unlike that of the late 1800's where many specimens were recovered without locality data. Today, there are hundreds of "scientifically collected" specimens in drawers and museum basements where absolutely no locality or stratigraphy data was collected. Today, many academics and in particular the BLM refuse to publicly show locality data out of fear that someone might come along and either vandalize the site or entice the land owner (if on private land) away from them. So no, the provenance and locality data is still there. We know exactly where it was found.

Third, is the mapping, orientation, geologic or taphonomic data lost? No. The specimens were collected in large blocks of rock, preserving the orientation of the specimens and the rock that encased them. Sedimentary structures, detailed petrology, geochemistry, palynology, etc. is all still retained deep inside the jackets and can still be done at any time. Even such things as micro crossbedding are contained in the jackets and certainly at the quarry where it was recovered. So long as the next benefactor does not remove the specimens from the rock (a very unlikely event) or bulldoze the entire mountainside, all of this data can still be recovered. Let's not confuse, "hasn't been done yet" with "lost."

But what about micro-fossils you say? Well no, those too are also available to those who have the bravery to ask questions and do a little investigation. Microfossils were collected at the site. Many more are still, most likely, in the sediment surrounding the dinosaurs in the large plaster jackets. Many more can be recovered by the buyer and future researchers who are given access to the site. Again, the site location is not lost. It is not being held back, denied access, or sucked up in the Bermuda Triangle. It is not lost in any way shape or form.

Could access be denied in the future to some professionals? Sure, particularly to those who threaten to confiscate skeletons via eminent domain or government heavy handedness (that's another rant for the future). There have been several examples of some academics trying to do this, and those who have been known to do this, will most likely not be allowed out there and rightly so. Access to the site could very well be denied to some, but isn't this the case with any site? Public or private? I'd like to get a close up look at the old MOR 555 site. Or how about "C-REX", or any other cool fossil locale on public or private lands the academics have published on? Can anyone, particularly an independent paleontologist like me, get access to these sites? Not hardly. Go ahead and try.

But, it wasn't collected by "professionals"! These collectors do not have paleontology degrees and therefore are not qualified to excavate! Well, aye there's the rub, isn't it? No, it wasn't collected by folks with a grand degree or diploma on the wall. But, does a shiny piece of paper make one a professional or an expert in everything? Or does it show the level of passion or for that matter, ethics the individual has? Does it show how much field time they have logged? Or experience in fossil preparation or restoration? NO! To claim that a specimen is worthless simply because it was not collected by people with an advanced paleontology degree is an elitist, ignorant comment. Many amateurs, collectors, and commercial paleontologists have a vast array of passion, knowledge, associated skills, and experience that they bring to the table. All of it for the benefit of science whether they expect to be paid for their labors or not.

Jack Horner himself, at the recent NAPC convention in Gainesville, FL said "70% of specimens in museums today were found by amateurs." Well, Jack... does that mean 70% of all museum specimens are worthless? No. Not hardly. But, by his quoted standard, he must consider them so. In fact, along those same lines, most "professional" academic digs consist of one or two PI's (aka "principle investigators"- usually the ones with an advanced degree) and a large group of volunteers and students in support, none of which most likely, have advanced paleo degrees (at least not yet in the students case). Without those folks, few academic digs would ever even scratch the surface.

But, the PI's do have advanced paleontology degrees, Walter. And they can supervise and guide the volunteers at a site so the science is collected! Hmmm... That's true, and it brings me back to the DD's again and one of the biggest fallacies in this despicable saga. The Dueling Dinosaurs have had academic assistance. Several professional, degree-holding paleontologists, sympathetic and understanding of the commercial and avocational communities have examined them. They have been to the site, in the field. They have offered their professional opinions. They have given their guidance. One even tried to publish on the specimens at a professional conference, much to the hate mail of many of his peers. So, even the claims that the specimens were not collected by "professionals," or under the guidance and supervision of professionals or that the specimen has not been researched or published on by professionals, is not entirely accurate.

But what about repeatability Walter? Science requires that we must be able to independently verify our observations to ensure our conclusions are accurate. They must hold up to the scrutiny of others. This involves the testing and retesting of ideas "in perpetuity" [ aka- forever] and if the specimen goes into a private collection we do not have any guarantee of that. Hmmm.... well, newsflash... there are no guarantees in life. Yes, if the specimen goes into a private collection the owners may withhold access to the specimen. True. But, the operative word in that sentence is "may". Many privately held collections are available to anyone who is brave enough to ask for access. The problem is that many academics do not ask out of fear that they will be turned away, charged money or more importantly that their peers will chastise them if the do ask. This anti-commercial, anti-capitalism, anti-common sense mindset has become so ingrained in many, that any attempt to work with private fossil owners is met with a chorus of boos and hateful emails. Because of the repeatability argument and this vilification of commercialization, most major academic presses refuse to publish on privately held specimens denying these amazing specimens to the world. Given this fact, is it really the private fossil collector's fault for these issues, or is it the fault of the academics that set up the political environment and the rules for publication? Is it the lack of access that is causing them to be "lost" or the stringent rules that prevent them from seeing the light of day?

Also, just because a specimen is accessioned into a public institution is no guarantee that the specimen is accessible. Many institutions withhold access to specimens for various reasons, including, but not limited to, the desire to publish before someone else. There are plenty of examples where researchers have requested to see important fossils at public institutions and were turned away at the door.

The other issue with the repeatability complaint is the notion of "in perpetuity" [aka forever and ever]. The left side of the academic fence, argues that this can only be achieved in a public institution. This however is highly inaccurate. Many privately held collections are well cared for and passed down from one generation to the next. Eventually, many wind up in public institutions. Many private museums do a wonderful job of taking care of their specimens and provide access to bonafide researchers. But, more importantly- nothing is "in perpetude". Nothing lasts forever. As paleontologists who operate in the world of deep time, observing the natural rise and fall of species, the drift of continents, and the crumbling of mountains you would think that they would understand that. But, for some reason they don't. A perfect example of this is with the type specimen of Spinosaurus. The one and only partial skeleton of this amazing dinosaur wound up in a public museum in Berlin, Germany. But what happened in the 1930's and 40's in Germany? Life happened. War happened. Violence and chaos descended on Europe. Public museums across Europe were looted or destroyed. That very public museum in Berlin, was accidentally hit with an allied bomb and many of its priceless treasures, including the one and only good specimen of Spinosaurus, were destroyed. Should we now turn our backs on this incredible dinosaur and claim that it no longer existed since we no longer have the original fossils for study? Certainly not, but this is what we must do if we adhere to the left's insistence of repeatability in perpetude.

Certainly, these wonderful specimens exist. The Dueling Dinosaurs are clearly not fabricated, sculpted, invented or photoshopped. They exist. Their scientific significance exists. It's not lost. Turning ones back on these specimens and pretending that they, or in fact the entire industry of commercial paleontology, does not exist is foolish. It's not science- it's ignorance.

There is still much more scientific work to be done on the Dueling Dinos. Like everyone, including the owners, I have hope that they will find a good home, in a public institution very soon. They need a place where they can be studied, researched and published upon. This best case scenario, however, can only be achieved if members of both sides holster their verbal weapons and begin a productive dialog. Hurling ad hominem attacks, threatening to confiscate specimens or imposing draconian laws is not in the best interest of science or these specimens. Those who are truly interested in "finding" science instead of "losing it" must figure out a way to work with the other side. The time has come to end this idiotic, fabricated war. We all love fossils. We all want to help advance science. Everyone can and should play a part. The vast majority of us long for a time when our childhood illusions of what science was, should be and could be again, are reality.

Last Updated: July 11, 2024
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