Enraging dinosaur bone markets in everything

For sale on eBay: what’s claimed to be “maybe the only” young Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered for $2.95 million. Paleontologists decried the sale, saying that the specimen’s cost was artificially inflating the cost of other valuable fossils. “Only casts and other replicas of vertebrate fossils should be traded, not the fossils themselves,” an open letter from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Bethesda, Maryland. read. “Scientifically important fossils like the juvenile tyrannosaur are clues to our collective natural heritage and deserve to be held in public trust.”

…“The asking price is just absurd,” one researcher said.

Here is the full story, via Ze’ev.  Might this increase the incentive to find such fossils?


The problem is that a lot of the most valuable information about a fossil comes from the surrounding rock. That's where you can learn, for example, the age of the fossil, how the rock was deposited, etc. So a bunch of bones that were secretly removed by a non-paleontologist and then sold on eBay to some private collector are nowhere near as valuable to science than bones that were dug out by a paleontologist documenting everything.

You do not say whether it is ok to sell it once it has been studied.

If you don't like this, what? May/should the government seize the object? If so, what are the government's responsibility to the public with respect to the object? What if those responsibilities are not met? (What are the current owner's obligations? What if you found it one morning at your doorstep?)

There are laws controlling removal and trade in antiquities; those laws are presumably satisfied in this case. Given that, I think a price based auction sounds pretty good.

But aren't the fossils worth more to everybody if professionally documented and excavated? Would the Field Museum have paid $7.6 million for 'Sue' if the dig had been done carelessly by rank amateurs

But museums aren't the only buyers. In fact, museums are often outbid by individuals who have more money than what to do with it, and think owning a dinosaur sounds cool. Those price-insensitive buyers don't care about the professionalism and documentation of the excavation. You can make a lot of money as a rogue fossil excavator selling exclusively to people who don't care how careful you are.

Exactly. The highest bidder is more likely interesting in a naive kudos, not science.

Individual art buyers also often outbid museums, but those individuals care very much about authenticity and provenance, if only to protect the value of the very expensive investment. Why would millionaire/billionaire collectors be less discerning when it comes to fossils than paintings?

have you seen malcom gladwell?

I love his writing, but he isn't a fossil yet.

what we meant is
do you know his current location?
because we do!

valuable information to whom? And how actually valuable, in practical terms, is information about an animal that died 68 million years ago? Paleontologists, not very high on the scale of utility in society, bless their hearts, are able to carry on their affairs only because we live in one that's so fabulously wealthy that their activities can be financed by the productivity of others. They are lucky to be able to carry on with their research at all.

It's really too bad that Homer's contemporaries allowed him to make a living by telling stories, rather than pushing a millstone or doing some other useful task. Had his efforts been directed in an economically beneficial manner, with 2700 years of subsequent compounding growth, we would probably be able to buy a couple more F35's now.

...”we would probably be able to buy a couple more F35's now.”

I’d name it the “F35 Achilles” (and not the “F35 Patroclus”) in a heartbeat tbh.

It all depends on scale.

If you're asking "What use is this going to be in the next fiscal quarter?" the answer is "Very little". If, however, you want to answer questions like "What would life on other planets look like?" or "How should we attempt to restructure the ecosystem so as to be amenable to human habitation in the long-term?" paleontology becomes absolutely critical. We are the only science that studies alien biologies and long-term trends in ecology.

And as Ethan pointed out, pure utility isn't the only metric. People LIKE dinosaurs, and Ediacarans, and all those wild and weird and wonderful critters that used to roam our planet. Entertainment is a good enough justification.

"They are lucky to be able to carry on with their research at all."

It's always cute when someone tries to be threatening towards paleontologists. You're dealing with a group of people who expect to be shot at, stranded in deserts, get into bar fights, and work in third-world hellscapes. A good day for us is 115 degrees fifty miles from the nearest settlement at 12,000 feet hiking along a crumbling rock ledge. We don't scare easily. ;)

Utility? OIL.

The most interesting fossils are the ones from small animals (plankton,bivalves, seashells). Establishing when those little creatures died in a drilling rock sample helps to imagine what's the structure of rock layers a few km below the surface.

Dinosaurs are sexy science, the fossils of seashell are the applied science/engineering.

Used to be the case. Not so much anymore. There are better ways to locate oil than micropaleontology, and there's been some strides in automation.

Salvage paleontology is experiencing a renaissance right now, what with development on federal lands and all.

What explains anguished paleontological concern with extractions of dinosaurs' calcium for sale as opposed to dinosaurs' carbon?

I might have missed something: what notable complaints were paleontologists raising over the past century of widespread extractions of dinosaurs' carbon?

I'm a paleontologist (Quaternary mammals mostly, but dinosaurs are my first love). I have to ask: What on Earth are you talking about?

Fossil fuels are not dinosaurs. They're not even fossils (outside of coal, and even there recognizable features of biology are rare). Oil/gas are made from MARINE organisms, mostly trillions of microscopic critters that died and were compressed and cooked over millions of years. Coal is terrestrial forests, usually of the Carboniferous (hence the name).

(Yes, we occasionally see compressed carbon films; no one's burning those.)

Further, with dinosaur bones in particular mostly the carbon is gone. Dinosaur bones are often pyrite. This presents some interesting problems. There's something called "pyrite disease", where the mineral reacts to the atmosphere and eats the fossil. To the best of my knowledge, once you start that process you're screwed; nothing can stop it, you can only delay it.

The SVP is rather notorious for being only interested in vertebrate fossils, which is somewhat unfortunate because A) invertebrate fossils provide more information, and B) regulatory agencies default to SVP guidelines. A T. rex fossil is rare and showy, but a dozen ammonite fossils will provide more actual useful data.

My O'ist/free market take on this is that there's a real market for fossils. Paleontologists should exploit that market. Museums should pay market prices for the material, and paleontologists should compete for these digs--sure, we're slower and more methodical than treasure hunters, but we provide vastly superior data (see Hadur's comment for just one example of why).

There's tons of surplus wealth around to fund all sorts of research instead of hitting up the taxpayers via careerist bureaucrats . But I'm always surprised how pedestrian our really-rich are, other than mavericks like Larry Ellison. I wish you the best in your work and wish I were rich enough to fund it!

Pre-history is pretty sexy though, so I would think there's no shortage of money to fund some serious, substantive projects.

Geez, dont talk science with todatoday's nomists!

Today, economists believe in voodoo!

Ie, that free lunches are possible.

That nothing is zero sum.

They want huge huge benefits at much lower costs. For themselves. But much higher costs, and lower benefits for everyone else.

"Might this increase the incentive to find such fossils"

Ie, get lots more people digging out fossils at much lower costs, to sell fossils at much higher prices that provide little to no benefits because they have no scientific/historical value.

And do this illegally on both private and public land, but with destruction of public land defended by the logic that property owned collectively is owned by no one.

(Which by the way, argues that corporate property, owned collectively, belongs to no one, so it's not owned by anyone so its ok to steal or destroy it.)

Scientists know tanstaafl, but economists have tried to throw that in the trash can since circa 1980.

Yup, sad but true.

Some people don't care about anything other than money and personal status.

If we can ban trade in rhinoceros horns why not ban trade in fossils? I don't see any benefit to encouraging greedy morons to dig up fossils.

Btw, they shoot elephant poachers on sight.

Rhinoceros are a living resource that would otherwise be extinguished by the crazed Chinese belief that keratin has medicinal properties. Fossils are dead and of zero utility just lying in the ground. They can be extracted and sold with zero harm to anybody or any living thing, and yield valuable scientific data which would otherwise not be available.

shells are difficult to crack, otherwise they wouldn't be revered.

"If we can ban trade in rhinoceros horns why not ban trade in fossils?"

Have you ever looked at paleontological legislation? It's a nightmare.

For one thing: It's easy to define a rhino horn. It's much, much harder to define "fossil" in a way that's legally actionable. I mean, "fossil" includes everything from a nearly-complete T. rex skeleton to a ratio of isotopes; quite obviously the same law cannot apply to these two very different things.

And what about hobby collection? Banning trade in fossils effectively shuts down the hobbyist arena. And paleontology is one of those sciences where the difference between "hobbyist" and "professional" is razor-thin; I know at least half a dozen non-professionals that are on editorial boards of journals.

Then there's counter marble/limestone architectural pieces. Ignoring the fact that 99% of limestone is biogenic, many have fossils embedded in them. See the John Wayne International Airport for fantastic examples. Can you trade them?

I could go on, but you get the picture.

"I don't see any benefit to encouraging greedy morons to dig up fossils."

I don' t see any benefit to encouraging people to check their email every few minutes, but that doesn't stop Apple from selling their watches. And frankly I DO see benefits. Sure, ideally we'd have provenance, but if the options are "body fossils only" or "not a damn thing", I'm going to chose the former every day of the week.

More fundamentally, the issue isn't that these fossils are being collected but that they aren't being preserved properly. If a "greedy moron" dug up fossils and tagged them with the geologic unit, date, time, lat/long, etc., it would still be very useful to science. (Even without that advances in trace-element analysis and isotopic chemistry mean that we can often demonstrate provenance of even the worst collection, at the cost of destroying a few micrograms of it.)

Private collections are a positive good to scientific investigation. That''s how we started, and paleontology has maintained that tradition. Remember, museums don't magically become good because they get their money from Uncle Sam rather than a person's own pocket; that's the same error that socialists make.

if air is inside, then what tyrannical definition of outside do you posit?

"if air is inside...."

Thank you for demonstrating another problem: paleontological regulations are typically drafted by people as ignorant of paleontology as they are of quantum mechanics. This isn't entirely directed at you; many regulations are built using archaeological resource preservation as a model, which has obvious flaws. Still, no one familiar enough with paleontology to have an informed opinion about how we should operate would imagine I'm discussing air.

"Private collections are a positive good to scientific investigation": that was true in the era of the gentleman scholar - an era with which we have almost nothing in common.

I wouldn't like to see amateur interest quashed. Volunteering in the local state park, I was asked to create a children's program - children's activities being the end of all endeavours nowadays. Nothing had ever been done on geology, so I took that since the area had quite a bit of interest: undersea volcanoes, Cretaceous fossils. In fact, the place is awash in exogyra ponderosas among other things. My supervising children's ranger wanted the children to hunt for fossils, but carefully instructed them to leave whatever they found behind, no matter how small. She had me buy play-dough so they could "make fossils." My program was well-received, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would (a good way for an amateur to learn something being to prepare to teach it). However, I did think that the children taking home a fossil - maybe just one per family - (more of which are turned up every time it floods) would have been a small price to pay for greater engagement on their part. Especially as, their parents were young enough to themselves have been exposed to plenty of nature and environmental programming of the same sort - and they didn't seem to know anything at all, only that they wanted their children to partake of activities so as to learn and become smarter.

As usual, good post.

Especially this: “I did think that the children taking home a fossil - maybe just one per family - (more of which are turned up every time it floods) would have been a small price to pay for greater engagement on their part.”

Good comment, mulp.

You made me look up "nomistic" and "tanstaafl."

After Bernie! or any of the skatey-eight clowns wanting to beat President Trump get done with them, they won't have $3 million to spend on bones.

My take: a bunch of paleontologist thought they should have a monopoly and are upset when it came out they can't have it, yet.

EdR: Shooting poaches is about saving endangered elephants and rhinos. T-Rex bones and paleontologists are not facing extinction.

"Might this increase the incentive to find such fossils?"

Well, such a notion (market!), coupled with an indifference to preservation, is making it more valuable to "find" komodo dragons, which one might have supposed safe due to their unpleasant temperament and the fact that they basically have their own island.


It's also one of the reasons that a lot of Anasazi artifacts are jumbled up in museum or private collections, without any context, even their provenance sometimes unknown.

Fedora: You got heart, kid, but that belongs to me.
Young Indy: It belongs to Coronado.
Fedora: Coronado's dead, and so are all his grandchildren!
Young Indy: This should be in a museum!
— Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

And Fedora won that battle, money talks.

TC's issue is tough, maybe the government should allow sales after a careful excavation? Pity that shipwrecks are not sold despite being in international waters, as per that Spanish galleon litigation from a few years ago. When Spain won, it shut down the market.

Bonus trivia: for the longest time the biggest opponent to the theory that dinosaurs were warm blooded was an expert in the Smithsonian Institute. He was a thorn in the side of the "warm blooded" dino school, which has since been vindicated (they've found preserved hearts and bone vessels proving dinos were like birds, homeothermic animals. I saw an excerpt about this guy and no mention of his obstinate stance.

This makes the bidding in the latest Jurassic World flick even more absurd than it seemed before people started bidding on dinosaur bones.

If the asking price is absurd then no one will buy until it comes down. If someone asks $250K for his 65 Chevy Impala SS it will sit in his yard until he lowers his price about 98%.

"Paleontologists decried the sale, saying that the specimen’s cost was artificially inflating the cost of other valuable fossils."
Such is life in Trump's Cretaceous.

>saying that the specimen’s cost was artificially inflating the cost of other valuable fossils.

The fossils that the paleontologist are finding...Isn't that a good thing from the paleontologist's perspective?

Is this more a case of the museums / lab paleos not wanting to pay the in-the-field paleos?

It would be an interesting study to try to determine the difference between a "museum/lab paleo" and a "in-the-field paleo". The reality is that while we all have our preferences (fieldwork, hands down, for all of us), we all do a bit of both, often leaning toward one side or the other (again, even the lab rats want to be in the field).

There are two things at play here.

First (and honestly least significantly), paleontology budgets are tight. We WISH we had shoestring budgets. I have a number of articles that are basically instructions for how to build necessary equipment out of stuff you have lying around. My favorites are turning an xBox One into a 3D Tomography tool, and turning a six pack of beer into microfossil slides. In short, we can't afford a million-dollar fossil.

Second, there is, as has been mentioned a few times, the information aspect. Fossils are informative in and of themselves, yes--but they become more informative the more data you have about the rock that surrounds them. Did this come from Subunit A or B? Were the bones randomly oriented or imbricated, or something else? Are we finding all one species, or are we finding fifty species in this area? There are a thousand questions a paleontologist automatically starts looking to answer as soon as they see a fossil in the field--and unfortunately, we've yet to find a way to monetize that data. When you extract a fossil without that data, that data is often completely obliterated. That's the main thing paleontologists are worried about.

What do you think of Roy Chapman Andrews (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Chapman_Andrews)? Are you a member of the NYC Explorer's Club? If not, why not?

I've not looked into Andrews at all. And I am not a member of any such clubs. As for why, why do you expect me to be a member of such a thing? I take it you think it's the type of thing I'm advocating for--and it may be, I simply don't know. But there are other avenues for pursuing a paleo career in the free market. I'm happy such things exist, but I've decided to walk a different path.

Is there a prohibition against paleontologists selling fossils? One potential strategy would be to sell a percentage (after doing all of the context work you mentioned) to fund future digs.

It depends. If you're working on public land (read, BLM-managed land) you're not allowed to sell the fossils. Private land is more tricky; most fossils are addressed in the same way mineral rights are addressed, meaning that the owner of the land owns the fossils and decides what can/can't be done with them. Of course, if you dig up a fossil as part of a project that involves federal oversight, the federal government trumps the private owner and all fossils found as part of that project are considered federal property.

There are also prohibitions in the law against distributing locality information. I can understand the intent, but in practice I've had lawyers tell me I can't give lat/long data of fossil finds to the repository the remains were going to. That's about like saying that a doctor can't have access to your medical history; it defeats the purpose the law is intended to serve. Fortunately the law is new enough (part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act) that we're still working out how to apply it, and have some influence on how the law will be interpreted.

"Might this increase the incentive to find such fossils?"

Probably, but why would that be a good thing? Paleontologists have plenty of incentive to find them right now. What we don't want is a bunch of untrained, gold-digging yahoos scouring the deserts for profitable fossils that they can hurriedly dig up and sell on the black (or maybe it's gray) market, without bothering to do all that slow unprofitable work of surveying the dig, sifting through the debris, etc. and carefully recording all that information and publishing the results.

It's a good thing the sale of gold is illegal so all the untrained yahoos aren't digging it all up without us being able to learn about the geology and physics of gold and how to process and refine it.

Did you really think that was a relevant analogy? Any paleontology or paleobiology involved in gold mining?

Of course it is. Fossils and gold are both scarce commodities requiring applied science and self-interested actors to extract their value.

Yeah.....no. Those things they may have in common, but there are important differences too, which you are ignoring.

I'm trying to think of the important difference that justifies government outlawing a market. Heroin I get, but not fossils.

I'm pretty sure you're just trolling, but in the small chance that you aren't: Hadur provided the answer in the very first comment, as have several other commenters: a fossil removed without thorough recording of data from its surroundings is of little scientific value.

Fossil looters (and often, private fossil collectors, which all too often is a euphemism for looters) do not record that information, do not share it with other paleontologists, do not publish it in a journal, etc. etc. because there's no profit in doing so. Or because they would be revealing their illegal transport of fossils.

Gold is different. You dig up the gold and sell it, end of story.

"Might this increase the incentive to find such fossils?"

Are fossils scarce in first place? During the times of Charles Darwin every new fossil was valuable because it helped to define the boundaries of the puzzle we call evolution.

Today, the boundaries of the evolution puzzle are more or less defined by past research. A new fossil will fill the holes, but I'm quite sure it will not change the boundaries. Every new fossil lowers the value of future discoveries.........for science, collectors can do whatever they want with their money while believing rocks are scarce.

"Are fossils scarce in first place?"

Depends. Brachiopods are everywhere, as are certain mollusks. Terrestrial vertebrate fossils are far more rare.

"Today, the boundaries of the evolution puzzle are more or less defined by past research."

This is factually incorrect. There are still major questions that need to be answered. We have a better understanding than Darwin had in his day, sure, but that doesn't mean there's not a lot to learn.

One are where major research is being conducted is biotic response to climate change. Simply put, we have no freaking clue what future climate change will do to our ecology (I am ignoring why climate changes for this discussion; that a change occurs is sufficient). The trouble is, biology sensu stricto has never studied a stable ecosystem; the last stable ecosystem ended with the Pleistocene. So literally the only way to draw conclusions about what ecology is supposed to look like is the fossil record.

This type of thinking--that once we get one of each species we're done, and even that paleontology=phylogeny--is called stamp-collecting in the paleo world, as a pejorative. There's a great deal more to paleontology than just collecting type specimens.

"Are fossils scarce in first place?" Yes, in certain time frames. There are many large gaps in the fossil record and filling them in would be very valuable. For an example, see the recent (unconfirmed) discovery of a fossil bed from the moment of the asteroid impact that killed most of life on Earth.

Mildly off topic, but: I read that paper. It's a convincing argument; I'm willing to accept that it's a deposit from the impact (a few hours after it, actually, but directly caused by it--time lag was due to distance).

The issue is, it's an interesting SEDIMENTOLOGICAL paper. There's very little paleontology in it, and what is there is.....dubious. His interpretation of the lack of scavenging is definitely open to question, to give one example. Basically he treats the fossils as clasts. Which isn't an incorrect way to look at them, it's just not a paleontological way to look at them, it's a sedimentological way. Not really surprising, as you can approach paleontology from either sedimentology or biology (few have mastered a good balance between them, myself included).

But your general point is a very good one--there are known gaps in our record of evolution, which these fossils help us fill. So long as the fossils include sufficient provenance data, whether they are in the hands of private collectors or museums isn't terribly relevant; frankly if we could get the public to understand the importance of the contextual data private collections would be better, as it would basically give us paleontologists an army of thousands of unpaid volunteers!

I want everyone to look at this link. Look at the grammar errors. You can even make a best offer, and make that offer $1. You can even pick it up yourself for free. I want everyone to understand how ridiculous (awesome? terrible?) I find this.


Here's my proposed solution: Have museums offer to make casts of the fossils in exchange for the fossils. You donate your T. rex, we give you a 3d model of it (suitable to standard 3D printers) and a full-scale cast (same quality as the museum would display). Both are standard procedures in museums anyway, so the only thing they'd be out is the cost of the materials to make the cast (the mold would be made as a matter of standard procedures, as would the data file).

Yes, it would increase the incentive to dig for bones, but would we want to?

Digging up more bones has relatively little value on it's own. It's the study of them that's important. As other's have pointed out, it's very important to understand the environment of the discovery. The location, the sediment. That increased incentive wouldn't increase the incentives for that.

In addition, it wouldn't ensure that bones were ever studied at all, with them going to private collectors. A private collection has almost zero societal benefit, it's just conspicuous consumption.

Following from that, when balanced against the other activities we might incentivize, is this one justified? Who is to say that the existing level of incentive isn't the efficient one? It's not as if these private collectors are truly rational actors in a way that the rest of us would find valuable.

It would only provide value if it incentivized miners, construction, etc. that might otherwise be actively destroying the fossil record to put more effort into preserving it. But seems more likely to encourage wildcatters than have any meaningful impact as a side business for excavators.

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