[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index][Subject Index][Author Index]

SVP Ethics Statement

As I see it, one of the points is simply this: if an important vertebrate fossil
specimen is owned by a private individual, where is the guarantee that
scientists will have access to the specimen in perpetuity?  There is nothing
guaranteeing this.  An individual collector who ultimately wants to contribute
to science may will the piece to a museum or university, but until the actual
transfer takes place the potential donor could always change his /her mind about
the deal, perhaps (as in a similar recent example) to cover unanticipated
medical expenses.  Hence, even though a description can be written up and
published, the fossil could well be sold off to an anonymous collector.
Paleontologists would not be able to study the specimen further, so any new
interpretations would be stymied.

If (I am saying "if"), for instance, _Sinosauropteryx_ had been studied by John
Ruben alone, then sold off into oblivion, any response to Ruben's description
would be weakened by the inability of experts to study the specimen(s) first
hand.  In other words, the science of paleontology loses its "repeatability";
long term peer review would be hindered.  In a free market system, chimeras such
as _Archaeoraptor_ are inevitable.  Luckily, peer review sorted that one out,
albeit amid bruised reputations, acrimony, and hard feelings.  But clearly, more
such monsters are being prepared as I write this, and the black market price tag
on such specimens is putting them out of reach of China's own paleontological

There is also the problem of proper collection, retrieval and curation.  Kevin
Padian has brought up these problems associated with _Bambiraptor feinbergi_.
Kevin Padian once took me on a personal tour of the UCMP, so I can clearly see
his point.  The UCMP collection policy is nothing if not thorough.  Typically,
all pertinent fossil and rock material from a given site is carefully prepared
and catalogued, and furthermore, it is all kept _together_ in its own set of
drawers.  So if someone wishes to study the geology, the flora, and the fauna
associated with a specimen, the material is all readily available.  Good luck
reconstructing the ecosystem of a poorly documented commercial trophy specimen!
This situation is nothing new, it is only more vexing today because fossil
studies are much more rigorous and painstaking than they once were.

Locality data is basic to paleontology, yet it is often not available from
commercial collectors.  This problem goes way back.  Ostrom's _Osteology of
Compsognathus longipes_ suffers because Ostrom could not determine the precise
site where the type was excavated.  Why don't we have good records of this?
Ostrom writes that the fossil's collector didn't want competitors to find out
where it came from.

Do I personally see value in _Bambiraptor_, a damaged specimen of unknown origin
which was reconstructed without proper documentation?  Yes, as purportedly the
most bird-like of non-avian dinosaurs, it is a significant find, but it is so
much less meaningful than it might have been.  If it is purchased by the Graves
Museum or another accredited institution, it will gain scientific value, because
present and future scientists would then be able to study it in more detail.
Had it been collected and curated more carefully in the first place, it would
have been much more useful to science.

I would think that future paleontologists working on important finds would find
it useful to make in situ casts of smaller specimens such as this prior to their
removal, reconstruction, and mounting.  Under the circumstances of its
collection, this was not an option for _Bambiraptor_.  Too bad.

I appreciate the efforts of conscientious commercial collectors, but I would
like to see them follow Padian's advice and make their profits from selling
casts of important specimens to private individuals, limiting the sales of the
actual fossils to accredited public institutions, and at reasonable prices.  One
of a kind fossils are more than trophies, they are stores of information.
Anyone who complains that specimens just gather dust in museum collections
probably doesn't have much knowledge or experience with the actual purpose of
museum and university paleontology collections departments, which are
essentially repositories for important material which is the subject of
scientific research.

-- Ralph (yes, another SVP member) W. Miller III   ralph.miller@alumni.usc.edu