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Clarifications on fossil theft -long

>Tom wrote:
>>Would Paul be quite as funny if someone broke into the Black Hills
>>Institute and stole all the specimens that are still there (i.e., those the
>>U.S. government hadn't confiscated)?  I don't think so.
>Bad analogy. As far as I'm concerned(along with lots of other people)
>the BHI have already been the victims of "theft" by their own government.
>As you well know, their *prime* specimen and perhaps the greatest find in
>the history of paleontology has been taken from them on what even the
>gov't now admits was an invalid premise. 

Given my byline below, it is not advisable for me to post my true feelings
with regard to the siezure of Sue, a specimen which was not in danger of
being sold (before)...

Also, you CANNOT find in this world someone who is more obsessed with
Tyrannosaurus rex than me (AS obsessed, maybe, but not more...). 
Nevertheless, BHI 2033 (= Sue) is hardly the "greatest find in the history
of paleontology"; perhaps the original Java Man or Archaeopteryx
lithographica specimens hold that honor.  Also, with the arrival of the
Saskatchewan specimen, Sue has a rival for most complete T. rex specimen.

>In a sense, the gov't has
>"stolen" SUE from everybody and to quote Dr. Bakker, "that's a tragedy".

Depends on your point of view.  Actually, Sue is currently back in the
hands of the man on whose property it was found, so the whole thing is an
even bigger mess than before.

>Neil wrote:
>>I agree with what Thomas Holtz wrote.  I do not think that what Paul 
>>wrote was helpful.  I don't know who Paul is, but from what Thomas 
>>wrote, I presume he works for the Black Hills Institute.
>Your presumption is incorrect. I don't work for the BHI. I don't even
>know them very well. I met Pete Larson for the first time in Feb 1994 
>at the Tucson Gem and Mineral show. I spoke with him for a grand total
>of about 10 minutes. My support for them dates back to when I saw the
>segment on Prime Time Live in January, 1993. I knew nothing about them
>prior to that.

I am sorry that I led people to think that.  I used BHI as an example
because Paul posted several items earlier this year discussing the
Institute in a very favorable light.

>>>I could go on......but basically I am saying that 'erosion is acceptable;
>>thefts from sites, collections and museums are not'.             
>So Neil, what you are saying is that the loss of over 99% of specimens to
>science is acceptable to you, while this fraction of one percent is not.

The number (from a geological history point of view) is vastly larger than

>I totally agree with your position on the fraction of one percent. Theft
>is wrong and should be punished whether it's fossils, diamonds, or VCRs. 
>However, I find your cavalier attitute about the loss of over 99% of 
>fossil specimens to be bizarre for someone interested in paleontology. 
>For myself and many others, the 99% loss is also unacceptable and we feel 
>obligated to do something about it.

Hell, when you deal with paleontology, you realize that vastly more than
99% of SPECIES are irretreviably gone, so we do develop a cavalier

In any case, lost is lost, whether to weather or to private collectors who
never show their specimens to the community.  Is either truly preferable?

>And we are not a bunch of criminals

The cases I mentioned (PIN Moscow, La Rioja in Argentina, the Maxberg

Not all commerical collectors are crooks, but people who make money off of
vertebrate fossils collected on federal land are (it is legal to collect
invertebrate and plant fossils, which make up the VAST majority of

>We can discuss the pros and cons of everything from commercial
>collecting to gov't policy to museum practices, but IMHO it all pales
>in comparison to the continuous specimen loss through erosion. The science
>of paleontology is about specimens, and the fact that over 99% of the
>available specimens are lost to erosion is a scandal. When a fossil is 
>lost to the elements, ALL the data is lost forever. And over 99% are 
>being lost right now. What we need are some creative new ideas on how 
>to make fossil preservation and data collection self-funding, so that
>orders of magnitude more fossils can be rescued each year.

Okay, we force the entire population of the Earth into slave labor
collecting fossils for the rest of their lives.  We will still not get all
the ones eroding now, nor catch the ones that eroded millions of years in
the past.  The science of paleontology is about well-documented specimens,
so lets get as many of those as we can.  Legally.

(Incidentally, there is still nothing illegal about selling fossils
collected on private property, and in America at least I doubt it ever will
be.  It is, however, criminal to sell vertebrate fossils collected off of
federal land).

>Since you guys seem so eager to take shots at me, I'll tell you right
>where I stand so you wont have to make any more presumptions.
>Erosion is the bogey man of paleontology. 

An uncounquerable bogey man, indeed.  Deal with it.  If it means going out
there wearing your fingers to the bone collecting, all the better for you. 
If it means doing the best with what we can reasonable get, that's fine
with me.  

There is a real world, and some problems are unlikley to be overcome.  I
will never see a live Tyrannosaurus, nor travel to another galaxy, nor live
to see the sun go red giant, nor save every last fossil from erosion.  I
can still sleep nights.

>We have already discussed the 
>Baucus vs House Bill. I support the House Bill along with the set of 
>recommendations made by the National Academy of Sciences(1987) with regard 
>to access to fossils in the field. My earlier post on "fossil theft" is 
>consistent with these policy statements. I'm not sure where Tom and Neil
>stand on these issues, but it seems that some of their collegues 
>believe in the following philosophy:
>1) Let ME dig for fossils.

More correctly, let ME dig for vertebrate fossils on federal land.  We
still need to get permits for that, however, and need to deposit in an
accredited instituion.  I do not personally own a piece of a T. rex, and
much as I like, am unlikely to.

>2) Lock up and fine anybody else who picks one up.

.. on federal land, without a permit.  And again, invertebrate fossils are

>3) Let erosion destroy the other 99% of specimens. 

Discussed above.

>4) Allow no fossils to be bought or sold, just bring them to ME.

Allow no vertebrate fossils collected on federal land to be bought and
sold, certainly.  It might bug me that some good fossils be sold away from
science's eye, but it's still legal if collected on private land.

>I'm reminded of the old Cope-Marsh tradition, where they would smash
>bones rather than let the other guy get them. 

See Neil Clark's posting on commercial collectors in Scotland doing just

>Surely you guys don't
>feel that way, do you? What are your views regarding this larger
>issue of fossil preservation? Do you ever think about what it would
>be like if we had (at least) an order of magnitude more teams in the 
>field each year? 

A classic example of excellent "commercial" collectors were the Sternberg
family.  They were "shovels for hire", who made many expeditions to the
North American West, and collected thousands of specimens.  Almost all
paleontologists who work with Late Cretacous vertebrate fossils from the
west work with some of these "commercially" collected fossils.  However,
all the Sternberg's collected for money, they only sold the specimens back
to museums and other institutions, not to private citizens who hid them
away in the privacy of their own home.

I believe that both Vert Paleo collection bills allow for this kind of
commercial collector.
Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Vertebrate Paleontologist in Exile
U.S. Geological Survey
Branch of Paleontology & Stratigraphy
MS 970 National Center
Reston, VA  22092

email:  tholtz@geochange.er.usgs.gov 
Phone:  703-648-5280
FAX:            703-648-5420