A statement about fossil material in private hands
Today’s fossil (March 20th) was chosen to be the one highlighted due to the auction going on in NYC that I posted about yesterday. The Tarbosaurus skeleton is the most impressive of the pillaged paleontological prizes, but there is more Mongolian material slated to go up for auction than just this skeleton. In happy news the Tarbosaurus skeleton at least is not going up for auction today, thanks to a restraining order issued by a US Judge, but I am uncertain if this impacts the rest of the stolen material. There is still an online petition protesting the sale of these fossils, which covers all the material, not just the theropod skeleton.
I want to talk for a minute about why it is such a tragedy that auctions like this still occur. Let us examine the skull said to be a Saichaniaspecimen. This dinosaur is /only/ known from Mongolia. Currently at least. Thus it is very likely this skull is from Mongolia, but if it was not and did represent an occurrence of Saichania outside of its previous range? That would be extremely important. It would expand the geographic range of the species and possibly its temporal range as well. So this is a skull that should be in a museum (yes, we do say this) and studied, no matter its providence.
Locality information is a huge problem with private collections and reselling of this material. Museums take great care to record every single detail about where a specimen was collected. For a fossil this would mean exact geographic location, the rock unit it was found in down to precise detail, and if this specimen was likely collected in place or if there was some transportation previous to its discovery. At the bare minimum. You can write pages of field notes about a single specimen, and the collector’s name is also part of the accession information. I personally have dug though 100+ year old field notes in order to solve mysteries such as: “Is it possible all these bones do not belong to the same specimen?” or “Do these two different specimen numbers actually represent a single individual?”. You typically have none of this with private collecting. The locality information is sometimes nothing more than the country or state it came from. Yes, you can have more and there /are/ some private collectors out there who keep geologists on staff (or are geologists themselves) and this precious information is not lost. But that is by far the exception, and if the material is resold over and over again, each transition of ownership introduces another stage at which the specimen can be separated forever from its locality information.
So if we don’t have this information as to providence, so what? Who cares? What does it matter? It matters a great deal. You can have the most spectacular skull in the world, but if you do not know when and where it came from it can tell you hardly anything about the evolutionary history of the group it belongs to. You describe it and put it in an analysis and great, okay, so at one point somewhere on earth at sometime an animal looked like this and was related to these other animals. You don’t know the kind of environment the specimen was in, if it was found far from its close relatives, if it was occurring at the same time as the rest of the clade… Nothing. Anatomy and relationships are just the start of the study of evolution of a lineage, you need the time and geographic component to understand any of the really interesting and important parts of the story.
The above didn’t even touch on how terrible it is when the specimens are not even owned by individuals in their native country. I may really dislike it if say, a rancher in Wyoming finds a crocodile skull and sells it to the highest bidder, but that pales next to what is happening with these mongolian fossils.