Thoughts on Tarbosaurus, Part 3

Previously in this series on the poached Tarbosaurus skeleton, I’ve discussed the role of museums in fossil collecting, how the specimen was identified as Tarbosaurus, and how we know the skeleton came from Mongolia. Today, I’ll discuss one final question: Why is fossil poaching such a big deal, anyway?

(Various museum trips, manuscript deadlines, and fieldwork in Dinosaur Provincial Park have kept me from returning to the blog as quickly as I had hoped, and much has transpired in the Tarbosaurus case in the last few weeks; in particular, see Phil Currie’s article in New Scientist. Hopefully, posting will become a bit more frequent, and optimistic, in the next little while.)

To me, it seems obvious why fossil poaching is a big deal (in a bad way) – it reduces or removes access to fossil specimens, and reduces or removes important information about that fossil. First, let’s talk about access to fossils. As I discussed in part 1 of this series, the role of museums is to conserve artifacts for present and future generations; additional responsibilities include facilitating research and education, and usually involve displaying objects to the public. Private owners of fossils have no such responsibilities. Some private collectors may choose to display some of their fossils to friends and family, or may even open their private residence to visitors. But they don’t have to, and most fossils held by private collectors are probably only ever seen by a handful of people. For really common, super-abundant fossils, perhaps this is not a terrible thing. Vertebrate fossils are rarely common and abundant, and each specimen often has important information to contribute to the study of any particular organism.

A second point about access that is probably not widely known is that palaeontologists cannot really study or publish on privately-held fossils. This is because other palaeontologists may not be able to access those specimens to verify the original palaeontologist’s findings, and so therefore the science would not be reproduceable. There are probably lots of instances where private collectors have made substantial contributions to museum collections by donating their discoveries or purchases, but while the specimen is privately held, it is, for all intents and purposes, ‘invisible’ to the scientific community. A specimen that cannot be published in the scientific literature does not contribute to our understanding of the fossil record, and represents lost knowledge. This is why it is important for fossils to be in recognized institutions like museums or university collections, so that palaeontologists (and the public!) can study the material and use it to better understand our world.

Next, let’s talk about how poaching reduces the information content of fossils. Fossils do not exist in a vacuum. The sediments encasing a fossil are nearly as important as the fossil itself, as these provide at least two crucial pieces of information about the fossil: 1) how old it is, and 2) what the depositional environment was. Interpreting the age and depositional environment of a rock is not always easy, and requires specialized training in geology in order to be done properly. When a fossil is yanked out of the rock with no attention paid to where or how it was found, important information is lost.

Pop quiz! Is that the Nemegt or Baruungoyot Formation?

Finally, and most obviously, poaching can damage the fossils themselves, if the poachers do not have the appropriate tools or training to properly excavate the fossils. The more a fossil is broken, the more information is lost. Collecting fossils is tricky, difficult work that requires a lot of patience and strength. Without the right tools and people, fossils get broken. Amateur or commercial collectors may be excellent record-keepers and skilled excavators, and so this may not be a problem – but from my experience at least in Mongolia, poachers don’t seem to be really good at collecting the dinosaurs they aim to sell.

 See those white bone fragments there? Those used to be a Tarbosaurus skull.

I hope the attention given to the Tarbosaurus auction marks the beginning of the end of fossil poaching in Mongolia, although I suspect I may be being overly optimistic with that sentiment. But fossil poaching and destruction is not limited to Mongolia, as evidenced by a tragic story that happened basically in my backyard this week. A few weeks ago, the University of Alberta and Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative field crews found a beautiful hadrosaur skeleton, with skin impressions, along the Red Willow River near Grande Prairie. The PCDI team was excited because this would make for a great display specimen (not to mention it being a scientifically important specimen) for the museum they are working very hard to get funded and built. Earlier last week while in Dinosaur Park, we received the terrible news that the partially-excavated, plaster-jacketed specimen had been vandalized and severely broken. We’re not sure who did it or why. Even earlier in the summer, an in situ display of the Pipestone Creek Pachyrhinosaurus bonebed had been smashed and vandalized as well.

In Alberta, excavating fossils without a permit, or damaging fossils, can get you a $40 000 fine and/or a year in prison. Nowhere else in Canada has fossil protection laws as good as Alberta’s, and in no other province is the general public as widely educated about fossils. Fossils are everywhere in Alberta, we have an abundance of museums and public outreach, several universities conduct palaeontological research, and there’s an active amateur society. And STILL people feel the need to wreck our fossils – no, scratch that, THEIR fossils. I find this intensely discouraging, and I don’t have a good solution.

Given the recent international attention on the Tarbosaurus case, I hope Alberta sets a good example by prosecuting the fossil vandals to the fullest extent possible, if they are able to catch them. At the very least, I hope that this provokes a renewed interest in protecting our amazing fossil resources. Wherever you’re from, support your local museums and universities, and be interested in the natural world around you. It will take all of us working together to protect it.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Tarbosaurus, Part 3

  1. Who are these people poaching fossils? Are they rogue paleontologists or amateurs? The auctioned Tarbosaurus skeleton seemed to have been handled competently.


  2. I'm afraid I'm not sure what you mean by 'rogue palaeontologist', and I would also note here that 'amateur palaeontologist' does not necessarily mean that the person is not skilled. I do not know exactly which people are poaching the fossils.

    Without having seen the auctioned Tarbosaurus myself in person, I cannot comment on how competently it was handled. But I do know that many poached dinosaur fossils from Mongolia are not competently collected, because we often find quarries with large amounts of freshly broken bone. The point I am making here is that fossil poaching is more likely to lead to damaged fossils than collecting by trained palaeontologists.

    However, whether or not the Tarbosaurus was competently collected is a bit of a moot point – it is illegal to do so without a permit, and it is illegal for Mongolian fossils to leave Mongolia for sale or auction. The only way dinosaur fossils leave Mongolia is for temporary loan to other institutions for display or research.


  3. Methinks you are conflating fossil poachers with amateur paleontologists in general. Contrary to what some might believe, not all amateur paleontologists are unscrupulous hacks who are out to destroy our heritage through their negligence.

    I think the main problem here is that people generally don't tend to think of fossils as their heritage or resource. This was discussed in some detail in the previous post, but compare a museum to an institution such as a public library. If someone wants to access a book or journal in a library, they are able to just go in and do it. If the book in question is rare, they may still be able to set up an appointment to examine it, unless extenuating circumstances exist (e.g., the book is extremely fragile). Consequently, people tend to think of a library as their resource.

    Now, compare this to a natural history museum. While some fossils are on display, many more are in the collections. Some of these are generally uninteresting to the public, such as the bone fragments and Paronychodon teeth you mentioned before, but others are not. Some species of animals, say for example bathornids (big Oligocene North American cariamans) or the fauna of the late Pennsylvanian-early Permian Dunkard Group of Ohio, can only be found in museum collections. As an additional example, in Mark Renz's “Fossiling in Florida”, the author mentions that a dugong skeleton they found which was better preserved than the one currently on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History went into the collections. The reason it did so is understandable, mounting a fossil takes time, money, and space, but at the same time the average person will probably never be able to see that fossil again.

    In contrast to a public library, in order to get access to the fossil collections at a museum, you either need to be a paleontologist with several papers under your belt (whether you work at a museum yourself, or are like the guys at SV-POW), or you need to a college student working under a vertebrate paleontologist who has “sponsored” them, like in a modern version of a debutante ball. If you want to break into paleontology and don't have enough money for college, you're essentially dead in the water(with rare exceptions). And, having gone through a similar situation myself, I can say that if your paleontologist sponsor works with ceratopsians and you want to move into, say, phytosaurs and the Chinle fauna, good luck getting access to the Triassic collections. Indeed, I know of several amateur paleontologists who became amateurs (as opposed to professionals working at a museum), because they had no other way to work with fossils.


  4. Despite how cynical the above might sound, most paleontologists I know of are genuinely devoted to preserving the ancient relics of our past and educating the public about prehistoric life. But at the same time there are a few “bad eggs” which do give the public the impression that paleontologists are more fossil hoarders than fossil researchers. The “museum” at Berkeley is probably the worst in this respect. Despite calling itself a museum, it does not allow anyone access to its collections for ninety-nine percent of the year. People who have wanted to do actual research on the fossils there have been turned away. In some cases, Berkeley has acted as the repository for fossil sites as they were initially collected. Later, when the fossil site turned out to be more rich than expected and a museum was built, they ask Berkeley for the fossils discovered at the site to be loaned back for display. Berkeley will say no. I repeat, there are museums out there who try to prevent their specimens from going on display for the public to see. It is not just Berkeley, either. Something similar has happened with the Gray Fossil Site and the University of Tennessee.

    Does this mean we should let everyone access the fossil collections of a museum whenever they want, and handle any fossil they want? Of course not, no. Some fossils are too fragile to touch. But at the same time, having it so that no one can see the fossils except for a handful of people doesn't seem right for a resource that is supposed to be everyone's heritage. While fossils are supposed to be preserved for generations, keeping them in collections where its virtually impossible to access them is like how people keep action figures and comic books in mint condition and never use them. Indeed, in the case of fossils it's worse, as you can at least see a mint comic book or action figure through the plastic. A fossil in a museum cabinet, on the other hand, may as well not exist for the average person. And if it gets misplaced or lost, as museum fossils often do, it may as well not exist for anyone.

    However, at the same time, is the poaching and/or vandalism of fossils from public places like Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Pipestone Creek Beds terrible? Oh, yes, definitely. Parks like these are supposed to be used to conserve our heritage, and in destroying that heritage no one wins. Indeed, vandalism is even worse than poaching, as at least in poaching some kind soul may give the fossil to a museum where at least the morphological data can be preserved, but if a fossil is vandalized no one gains from the specimen. Additionally, while some private collectors are scrupulous in the way they collect, it would only be beneficial for paleontology as a whole if there were some way to teach them about how to properly collect and store fossils (that are legally collected, of course) so at least the data associated with them is not lost if they later end up in a museum.


  5. Metalraptor – thanks for your comments. I've tried to be careful not to conflate amateur palaeontologist and fossil poacher, because I don't feel at all that they are the same thing. Amateur palaeontologists (ie., people who are interested in palaeontology but do not earn a living from doing palaeontology) have often made substantial contributions to the science. Amateurs can make important fossil discoveries, can volunteer their time in fossil preparation and excavation, and can contribute to scientific research and publications. I am all for amateurs being involved in palaeontological research. However, in order for amateur palaeontologists to make contributions to the science, they need to be careful that they document where and how fossils were found, and be open to donating their fossils to museums or universities. I'm also, in principle, not opposed to commercial collectors who legally and carefully excavate and prepare fossils for sale to museums. I hope I've been clear about why selling fossils to private collectors is disadvantageous for the science of palaeontology. Poachers, on the other hand, remove and sell fossils illegally, which I cannot condone.

    Also, I'm sorry to hear about your experiences at some of the museums you've mentioned. I have never been to the Berkeley collections, so I cannot comment on their access policies. Based on my experiences at least, I would have to say that the majority of museum collections are relatively easy to access if you are a student or researcher.

    As a final note: all of my collections visits have occurred while I have been a student, so I don't know what it would be like to try to access a collection as an amateur (ie. not affiliated with any institution). The high costs associated with obtaining a university degree is certainly a barrier to those wishing to study palaeontology, and unfortunately that's a much bigger socioeconomic problem than I can address in this comment. However, if you are an interested amateur who would like to study palaeontology and make contributions to the science, there are ways to be involved: for example, we have an active volunteer preparation program at the University of Alberta, and we usually have numerous volunteers at our digs and field sites. In Alberta, the Alberta Palaeontological Society hosts workshops, field trips, and a yearly symposium, and members have helped researchers with microvertebrate sorting and other research. There are ways to be involved without having a university degree, although I will grant that these opportunities may be more difficult to find.


  6. To be fair, not all of these have happened to me. Many of these are things that have happened to other people that I have just heard about. I also think that your statement that amateur paleontologists have to be open to donating fossils to museums at the same time. While there are many types of invertebrate fossils that are common enough to be collected, and even a few types of vertebrate fossils, it is the responsibility of a fossil collector to make rare and unusual specimens accessible to the public, so it is possible for everyone to use the opportunity presented by this specimen to learn more about ancient life.

    It's nice to hear that there are many ways to get involved in paleontology in Alberta, even if you are not an amateur. The same thing is true for us in Wyoming, Colorado, and the like down in the states. Sadly, in many fossil-poor states, such as in the eastern half of the U.S., the only way to be able to work with vertebrate remains is to be affiliated with a large museum or university. And in at least some volunteer programs, curators act more like a child being forced to share a toy than someone interested in stimulating a desire to learn about the ancient world. They will often let volunteers only work with fragmentary material that has no scientific value, or they might not even let them work with the bones at all. Again, this is more-or-less on a case-by-case basis, and I also know of several museums where volunteers are highly valued and have sometimes risen through the ranks to become staff members.

    I suppose the best way to combat the behavior of paleontologists who ruin everyone else's relationship and the idea that fossils are not the public heritage is through some kind of education. Blogs such as this are good ways to show that even if your local paleontologist might be a jerk, this is not necessarily the general rule. I still can't figure out a way to impress on the public that fossils are THEIR resource rather than a specific institution or organization. The best I could think of was rotating displays, but at the same time people would need more information about what they are seeing in order to care about it. Anyone have any ideas?


  7. Pingback: Save Mongolia’s Dinosaurs! | pseudoplocephalus

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