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Re: Minotaurasaurus controversy

But what if you saw a specimen described in a journal that you strongly suspect was stolen from Riversleigh? Alternatively, if you were asked to review a manuscript and you strongly suspected the specimen was being described was stolen, would you recommend publication in spite of the theft? Combining the two, what if you were asked to review a manuscript and the specimen was something you were pretty sure was stolen from Riversleigh? Would that not be an issue in recommending its publication?


John Scanlon wrote:
I fully appreciate the need to discourage looting, but when an excellently
preserved specimen of an apparently novel taxon becomes available, it should
definitely be described. The description and phylogenetic interpretation of
a biological entity depends only on its intrinsic properties: it should be
possible to do that part of the science while the locality information is
unknown to the describer (e.g. held by the museum or collector in a sealed
envelope), or currently unknown to anyone. Dead Sea Scrolls and Agrosaurus
are apposite examples. The 'chain of evidence' analogy from law-enforcement
is not so much, because nobody's signature or date-stamp (or their absence)
can overturn evidence from the fossil itself. The physical evidence doesn't
lie, and it can refute otherwise impeccable (in a court-of-law sense) claims
that a specimen comes from a certain locality - like Piltdown, or Gupta's
'Himalayan' material. Those of us trying to construct phylogenies are often frustrated by the lack
of good fossils for certain groups, and one good skull can go a long way in
testing and refining hypotheses. If laws were broken or ownership is
disputed, that needs to be settled, sure... but why should it prevent the
science from being done?
I was reading the other day of a taxon described from a less-than-adequate
specimen: _Ompax spatuloides_ Castelnau, 1879. This fish was served up for
breakfast to Mr Carl Staiger, Director of the Brisbane Museum, in 1872 at
Gayndah, Queensland (followed by _Neoceratodus_ for lunch). The duck-billed
oddity was said to live in a single waterhole where lungfish were also
present. Castelnau's description was based entirely on a letter from Staiger
and enclosed sketch; no part of the specimen was kept (seems odd, for a
Museum man, but these things can happen). Many years later in 1930, a
pseudonymous contributor to the Sydney 'Bulletin' told a story of this fish
being a hoax (perpetrated on Staiger, not by him) composed of parts from
eel, mullet and lungfish. This undocumented and anonymous claim (chain of
evidence, what?) led to _Ompax_ being declared 'mythical' (Whitley 1933,
American Naturalist 67: 563-567). Maybe so. (But what if another one turns
up, illegally collected, swimming around in a privately owned aquarium.
Still mythical, then?)

Dr John D. Scanlon, FCD
Riversleigh Fossil Centre, Outback at Isa
"Get this $%#@* python off me!", said Tom laocoonically.

-----Original Message-----
From: Dann Pigdon [mailto:dannj@alphalink.com.au] Sent: 04 February, 2009 12:01 PM
To: dinosaur@usc.edu
Subject: RE: Minotaurasaurus controversy

Quoting Allan Edels <edels@msn.com>:

I think that Dann was trying to say (and forgive me, Dann, if I get it
wrong), is that museums have, in the past, accepted and used and published
items that had lousy provenance, or were 'confiscated' [aka stolen] from
native populations.

Exactly. Also, anything found in a museum collection and subsequently
described (like Dyslocosaurus) may well have had a checkered past as far as anyone knows. Do
we only publish something after an exhaustive inquiry that ensures that every aspect of the
item's past is above-

As far as unknown provenance goes; the Agrosaurus debarkle shows what's
possible if you're determined enough to analyse the matrix around the fossil and match it with
known fossil beds. Such a study has shown conclusively that Agrosaurus was not found in
Australia, despite what it's museum label declared. In fact, the material has probably never even been
outside of Britain. A similar study on the matrix surrounding the Minotaurasaurus material might
also pinpoint the fossil beds it was possibly 'stolen' from.

Vickers-Rich, P., T.H.Rich, G.C.McNamara and A.Milner 1999 Agrosaurus:
Australia's Oldest Dinosaur? Records of the Western Australian Museum Suppliment No.57: 191-200

See also http://home.alphalink.com.au/~dannj/agrosaur.htm


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