Dinosaur property war

Phillip Pantuso of the Guardian reports on the legal battle over the ownership of significant dinosaur fossils: “Perhaps the best dinosaur fossil ever discovered. So why has hardly anyone seen it?”

In a test, last November that court ruled that fossils on Montana state and private land could be considered minerals. “Once upon a time, in a place now known as Montana, dinosaurs roamed the land,” begins Judge Eduardo Robreno’s opinion. “On a fateful day, some 66m years ago, two such creatures, a 22ft-long theropod and a 28ft-long ceratopsian, engaged in mortal combat. While history has not recorded the circumstances surrounding this encounter, the remnants of these Cretaceous species, interlocked in combat, became entombed under a pile of sandstone. That was then … this is now.”

This is a well-reported case recently, and the Guardian account provides more detail and background than other stories I’ve seen. It is very different for me as a paleoanthropologist to think about the world of commercial fossil hunters. I can’t disagree with Horner’s opinion expressed in the article:

They contacted natural history museums around the world, including the Smithsonian – where the bones were offered for a reported $15m – and the Museum of the Rockies, in Bozeman, Montana, whose then head paleontologist, Jack Horner (the inspiration for the character played by Sam Neill in Jurassic Park) told them they were scientifically useless.
“In order for a specimen to be of scientific use and publishable, we have to know its exact geographic position, its exact stratigraphic position, and the specimen must also be in the public trust, accessible for study, which this specimen is not,” Horner says.

Fossils are often beautiful objects, and museums are often great showcases for these objects for public engagement and understanding. But today the science requires a lot more detailed examination of the sedimentary context of fossils than the nineteenth century. Not every fossil is of great interest to present scientists. For scientific research today, separating fossils from their context should be a scientific judgement, in which we must weigh the destruction of context against the possibility of collecting and analyzing information.

For the interests of science, the best place for many fossils is to keep them in the ground. When we excavate anything, there is a loss of information and context, a destruction. As technology has developed, it has given us ways to study fossils and their context with less destruction, and to collect information that was once invisible or simply discarded. The future will bring better methods. In every case, we must consider whether today is the right historic time to separate a fossil from its context, balancing the gain to science against the loss of future opportunities—and any risks to the fossil in its present location.

For hominin fossils, the decisions are just as complex. I’m very glad that private ownership and market value of the fossils is not an issue for our work in South Africa.