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Re: feathered dinos and bird taphonomy

"Dino Guy" Ralph W. Miller III
Docent at the California Academy of Sciences
proud member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Ken Carpenter <KCarpenter@dmns.org> wrote:

<I recently saw a feathered dinosaur in a private collection. The specimen
was legally purchased in this country, but <possibly illegally smuggled out
of China. "Possibly" because there are at least two Chinese fossil dealers
in the US who <claim to have permits to export the fossils for sale. I have
seen these types of specimens for sale at the Denver Gem and <Mineral show
for the past 3 years. What is interesting is that the feathered dinosaurs
are clearly not as rare as we might <think. Although not as common as
oreodont skulls, they are nevertheless more common than T. rex (and those
are not so <rare anymore either).

I mean no disrespect to Ken Carpenter, and I want to make it clear that I
have considerable admiration for his body of work, and that I am grateful
that he is taking the time to contribute to on line discussions here.  I
echo Ken's interest in the Liaoning discoveries, and I, too, am hopeful that
scientists will be able to unravel the mystery of the taphonomy responsible
for such a unique fossil assemblage.

I will preface the following comments by saying that I am sure that Ken had
no intention of endorsing the illegal sale of scientifically significant
Chinese fossils, and that I chalk up his statements to trusting the word of
the US fossil dealers.  I am afraid that his trust was misplaced.
Furthermore, I feel that it would be irresponsible of me to permit the above
passage to be posted without opposing commentary, as it could mislead the
public regarding the proper disposition of feathered dinosaur fossils.

I am sure that Chinese fossil dealers in the US have their motivations for
claiming that the specimens they were selling were obtained legally with the
proper permits for export from China.  But unless the permits were obtained
from uninformed or unscrupulous authorities, I am extremely doubtful that
the fossil vendors with whom Ken spoke were telling the truth.  Because
these sellers are conducting their business on American soil, and the US has
no restrictions on these sales, these dealers can operate with impunity.  On
Chinese soil, however, dealers could be charged as thieves and smugglers,
even though the fossil black market there certainly persists, due in no
small measure to the poverty of the locals and the lack of adequate

At a minimum, local education and more comprehensive enforcement are needed
to prevent the loss of scientifically valuable fossils.  Given the
challenges, Chinese policy and procedures will require new strategies.
Needless to say, such efforts would be greatly enhanced by international
laws and agreements to cut off the free distribution of these smuggled
fossils.  Given the laissez faire approach to fossils currently excavated in
the US, such cooperation would require some persuasion from the
paleontological community.  The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has been
making efforts to promote legislation that would protect significant
vertebrate fossils found on US federal lands.  If this program is
successful, it would be a sign that the political climate might be amenable
for the adoption and implementation of restrictions on sales of imported

As I understand it, any significant Chinese fossils -- i.e. vertebrates
(aside from fish), or any other unique specimens -- are legally considered
national treasures and thus are not permitted to be sold or otherwise
exchanged except by special arrangement between recognized paleontological
institutions, and this status has been in place since 1996.  (Chinese
institutions will pay farmers a finder's fee but typically cannot afford the
exorbitant prices demanded by commercial dealers).  To the chagrin of
Chinese paleontologists and officials, specimens (such as dinosaur eggs)
exported prior to 1996 may well have been exported legally, as such
restrictions were not on the books at the time, but feathered dinosaurs
offered for sale in the US are certainly contraband.  (Please correct me if
I am mistaken about any of this).

Regarding the abundance of the Chinese fossils, yes, some of them, notably
_Confuciusornis sanctus_ fossils, have been found in large numbers, but
others clearly have not, and many taxa are known from the holotype alone.
Perhaps more feathered dinosaurs have been found than _T. rex_ specimens.
But how many specimens of _each_ of the ten described feathered dinosaur
species have been recovered?  Not all that many if you are just counting the
ones that are properly curated.  An abundance of such fossils offered for
commercial sale only points to the loss that the black market claims.

The unique preservation of the Jehol Biota is such that different specimens
present scientists with different information regarding such precious
details as integument, pigment patterns, preserved keratin, and gut contents
in addition to the osteological characters which are often hard to discern
from a single, delicate, flattened skeleton.   And those fossils that aren't
properly curated generally lack adequate documentation and preparation, and
are frequently subjected to "creative reconstruction" as in the unfortunate
case of "_Archaeoraptor_," a mosaic combining _Yanornis_ and _Microraptor_,
which has become the poster boy for Creationists and those few scientists
who still dispute the theropodan origin of birds.

For further commentary, I direct you to Kevin Padian's article, "Feather,
fakes, and fossil dealers: how the commercial sale of fossils erodes science
and education" at http://palaeo-electronica.org/2000_2/editor/padian.htm.
As Kevin correctly states, it is our aim as members of the Society of
Vertebrate Paleontology to see that important fossils are properly
protected, prepared, and curated.

I am not intending to initiate a general discussion of fossil protection
politics.  I, personally, see no harm in the sale of truly common fossils
such as _Knightia_ (excavated by the thousands every year) to private
individuals, and I can see the case for the  reasonable compensation of
those individuals who properly excavate, prepare, and document fossils for
the institutional market, but I want to send the message that terrestrial
vertebrate fossils of Liaoning deserve special status -- a point that the
Chinese government recognizes -- and that we must see to it that our
discussion here in no way contributes to the problem of significant fossils
such as these ending up in private collections.

Yours truly,

-------Ralph W. Miller III