Paying the price for rare fossils

Primate paleontologist Elwyn Simons and (many) colleagues cosigned a letter in the current Nature protesting the high price paid for the “Ida” fossil, Darwinius masillae (“Outrage at high price paid for a fossil”). Reportedly, the “A” side of the fossil was sold for around $750,000, which Simons and colleagues suggest “amplified” the “publicity barrage surrounding this fossil.” The letter is worth reading in its entirety, but many of my readers do not have access to the journal so I will reproduce the final paragraph:

In our view, such objectionable pricing and publicity can only increase the difficulty of scientific collecting by encouraging the commercial exploitation of sites and the disappearance of fossils into private collections. We believe that payments on this scale are detrimental to scientific investigation, and respectable institutions should not be responsible for making or publicizing them. We strongly believe that fossils should not have any commercial value.

I hope the letter can spur some constructive discussion. Not every fossil is rare – but even common ones have scientific value, as we can understand the dynamics of ancient populations only by examining large samples of individuals with known provenience. Nowadays, it has become more and more possible to study ancient communities of organisms, not merely single species. Even at a site like Messel, with large numbers of specimens, there will be rare taxa represented by only one or two specimens. Rare things are inevitable, and the question is how to fairly allocate access to them by both researchers and the public.

References:

Simons EL, Ankel-Simons F, Chatrath PS, Kay RS, Williams B, Fleagle JG, Gebo DL, Beard CK, Dawson M, Tattersall I, Rose KD. 2009. Outrage at high price paid for a fossil. Nature 460:456 doi:10.1038/460456a