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More on private specimens (a bit long)

Just some thoughts on this touchy subject. I have typically
avoided saying much on this subject because of my
affiliation at NMNH and not wanting to come across as
representing an Institutional position. These are just some
of my own thoughts and knowledge. I must stress this is my
personal opinion and not a representation of an
Institutional position.

First of all, I am on the SVP publications committee and
have been in on some of the discussions related to the
Society's publications with regards to privately-held
specimens (whew!). The policy - I believe it is in place -
is that specimens referred to in detail must be accessible
to scientists in the long-term or the specimens cannot be
described in Society pubs. Period. Bambiraptor, under the
ownership condition it was in last April, would never fit
within this rule. I added an exception - being the
morphometrician that I am - that allowed for specimens that
were part of large population studies where measurements are
taken  from lots of specimens from a general population of
organisms from a locality. Here I suggested that these
specimens need not be in institutions in the same way as
they represent only a sample of all the specimens from that
locality. For example, if you were doing an allometric
analysis of the Eocene Green River fish Knightia and wanted
to measure as many specimens as possible for lots of
measurements - or sample a pile of landmarks from these
specimens, or outlines - then you need not limit yourself to
museum specimens and could use those from private or
commercial hands since all such samplings are just that.
Anyone trying to duplicate the work would do a new
subsampling with different specimens, which will always be
the case even with just Museum specimens.

I do think the restriction is sound, however, because the
nature of codings and systematic descriptions is always
evolving and the original specimens have to be referred to
over and over again and we always, for the stability of the
work we do, need access to the specimens. Specimens in
private hands will never meet this criterion and this is not
at all a perjorative statement towards the owners. It just
is the way of the world. For example, a great person with
private specimen A can have the best intentions but if he
gets hit by a bus tomorrow, you can bet in many cases
his/her heirs, who have their own needs and priorities, are
going to sell it off for the money and the specimen can
disappear. I have great respect for Chris Bennett but his
simple example of the perfect specimen that dispels the
current phylogeny is too simple and not realistic. Too many
people would need to see it and try coding and running the
data for it to be even considered possibly important. It
would be a shame to lose such a specimen but it has to be
considered one of the many paleontological filters.  So it's
a tough world for those of us trying to do very quantitative
stuff, which is what is required in science these days. I
won't go as far as Chris Brochu saying it is as good as
totally lost if in private hands, but it really just points
to an unfulfilled possibility and may provide some good in
pointing to what to look out for in new specimens, but not
much more than that. So not much better, frankly. Again,
this is not perjorative towards private collectors and
hobbyists with material, I started as a bug-picker myself,
but if a collector really wants a special specimen he/she
has collected to have a lasting impact on the science, then
the specimen should go into a museum.

Oddly, the work I and others are doing in 3-D imaging can
help improve the information we can get for some of these
specimens but it will still not be what we need in the
long-term. Even there, with specimens in private hands the
ownership and distribution of these files becomes a problem
with a complex solution. there are solutions (Sally Shelton
and I are working on mss. on this subject) but we need to
work them out a bit more. Yes, it is better than nothing,
especially if the specimen disappears or is blown up, but
those circumstances will never provide any substitution for
the real thing and the result will always be scientifically
tragic when it happens. Thankfully, Josh is trying real hard
to find us more Spinosaurus stuff from the locality.
Godspeed, Josh.

Yes, some museums are better than others when it comes to
protecting specimens. I have heard lots of these horror
stories about museum purges of important specimens but they
always seem to turn out to be false - someone told someone
stories that start as maligning of others and they just
expand from there. If all you have is heresay of supposed
atrocities to specimens by some museum then, frankly, you
have nothing.  If you have real data and real examples, then
they need to be exposed and investigated. But maligning all
museums by second-hand innuendo about a supposed French
museum is not a constructive addition to the argument.
Museum people especially can't stand the thought of hurting
or tossing specimens, so expose real examples and we all
applaud. If you are not first-hand in your experience, then
do more work before spewing the data or accusations out.

Yes, lots of museums fall down on the job when it comes to
reasonable loan times, but most have really been reeling in
long-term loans. We are all happy about that, except for
those few pros who are irresponsible in their borrowing
actions. Have run into this problem in dinosaur stuff myself
and it's a pain. However, the system mostly works well and
is working better than it used to and is improving with
time. This is the tremendous value of people like Sally
Shelton who concentrate on collections issues in museums.

And, yes, some do a less than adequate job of taking care
of specimens during some periods, but most have been making
concerted efforts to fix problems of this sort and,
actually, lots of museums have swung (if necessary) to very
strong positions in protecting their material. This is what
SPNHC is the lead organization for. We are lucky enough here
to have Sally on staff to help us and lots of conservator
help. Of course, it doesn't help if the museum is hit by
bombs during WWII, but nothing is perfect. All in all,
though, there is no good alternative to making specimens
available to science in the long term. So, we should just
try and make sure there are no horror stories, and be
proactive (gov't term here) when and if  any come up.

Now, certainly there are arrogant pros who do not follow a
reasonable code of conduct when it comes to collecting, etc.
Hate 'em. they give everyone a black eye and I strongly
endorse the efforts that are ongoing to really make sure
everyone has all the permits they need to have to do their
job, and treat landowners right. When I was mostly in
inverts, I sure did and I treated the landowners I dealt
with like gold ( a bottle of scotch here, dinner there and
LOTS of communication). The pros I know do the same and,
again, it is silly to suggest arrogant, nasty pros treating
landowners badly is at all representative. Frankly, even in
addition to the moral reasons for not doing this - which are
tremendous, and frankly, it is more fun and professionally
rewarding to do the moral thing here anyway - it is
self-defeating to treat landowners badly because you end up
without land to work on. Whoever that grad student selling
the Trex is, he is not long for the professional paleo

Almost every pro I have ever known has treasured amateurs
and wished to work well with them. There have been a few
arrogant ones in this regard but they mostly show us their
own limits by that attitude. I've always been a good
collector, especially in inverts (Kraig Derstler and I
collected one evening a few hundred eurypterids and 6
synxiphosurids), but always tried to work with those
amateurs who really have the touch. Our own Ray Stanford has
that kind of touch and I'm jealous as hell that I don't, but
happy someone good does. Horner has it and that, plus lots
of other components in what he tries to do, has contributed
to make him, I suspect, the most important dino person of
the last 50 years from a professional end (I can't begin to
think I know enough to go beyond that). But I also notice
how good Jack has been to work with lots of "non-pros",
although many totally blur the line. People who work on
Paleozoic echinoderms tend to be that odd combination of
superb collector and professional - they can find things
that no one else even sees. usually right where you are

The most controversial area is, of course, commercial
collectors and the first thing to stress here is that they
are a totally different pool than the amateurs. When I was a
bug-picker, commercial collectors were a problem because
they removed outcrops wholesale when they could and I lost
lots of localities. I stress, however, that it was those
particular commercial collectors not commercial collectors
as a group. Like in the pros there is a gradient of people
here and I will never make a grand statement that is meant
to represent them all, at least one that isn't tautological
(I am therefore I am). I have always tried to walk the
tightrope of understanding all the sides and recognizing
better people in all areas. For example, I am a friend of
Peter Larson and tend to have lunch with him whenever he
blows into town - typically to install Stan somewhere. We
don't always agree on things, especially in this area of
discourse, but I would have no friends if I only held those
I agreed with. probably wouldn't be able to be a friend of
myself with that, as I often argue both sides of a subject
with myself. You just look for good people in all areas and
try to strike a reasonable position.

When the Sue debacle hit, there were awful statements made
everywhere that went over the line and we really need to
tone this down. I understand the awful experiences that some
good friends of mine have had with commercial collectors,
and understand how much a pain it is to have pros tell cc's
in a blanket way they don't have any idea how to collect
properly. I think it is very important for commercial
collectors to have the ability (help) in gathering all the
environmental/taphonomic data they need and collect things
right. I also know that most pros need help from other pros
to do this right in their own work. If I get out next summer
as I hope to and find something important, you can bet I'll
try and get Kay Behrensmeyer or Ray Rogers in for help
because they have far more knowledge in that area than I (or
most pros) will ever have. So, let's make sure commercial
collectors - and pros - collect specimens correctly when
they do somehow. Don't not read that as saying some haven't
been, just that it should be. Then we can worry about the
distribution of the material thereafter and hope the
important stuff ends up in the appropriate places somehow.

I also believe material on public land belongs to the
people and must reside in institutions that preserve this. I
also think there is some significant room for cooperation
between the 2 groups here. If indeed there are too many
areas of public land going uncollected, perhaps consortia of
the 2 groups can go out and collect the material (properly
of course) and have the original material go to long-term
museums and the costs amortized by selling casts. Everyone
has to eat. Would need really tight guidelines and may not
work financially, but might get lots of specimens out of thr
grounds and into museums.

Anyway, I blabbered too long. The aim should be to work
with all groups to get scientifically important stuff in
Institutions that provide access to them in the very long
term and to make sure they are taken care of well once
there. That serves everyone well and makes sense. That's

Ralph Chapman, Woodbridge, VA (for this email)