Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fruit of the Poison Tree

(Initially I wasn't going to blog on this subject, on the basis that a ton of other people probably would. Then when I was in the pub last night with my pal Carl Zimmer, he said that my impassioned and entirely one-sided ranting on this subject was ideal blog fare and that I should not deny myself. So if you don't like this, go over to Carl's blog and blame him)

For the last couple of days the Vertebrate Paleontology e-mail listserve (or “vrtpaleo” as it is commonly known) has been busy combusting with discussion of an unfortunate ankylosaurian dinosaur called “Minotaurasaurus.” The flare-up resulted after someone drew the list’s attention to an article in this week’s edition of Nature by Rex Dalton. For those of you who lack a subscription to Nature or who (like me) find it difficult to rouse themselves to actually read it, here’s the 10 cent version.

A few years back, a Californian neurobiologist called Vilayanur Ramachandran was tooling around the Tucson Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase with a buddy called Clifford Miles. Ramachandran is a keen amateur collector, while Miles runs a private paleontological outfit in Utah called Western Paleontological Laboratories, which makes its money selling fossils and casts of fossils to clients that include some major museums. Anyway, the two pals see a fine fossil skull of an ankylosaur, one of a group of armored dinosaurs that lived in North America and Asia during the Cretaceous era, some 80 million years ago. Now Miles, who knows a thing or two about ankylosaurs, immediately realizes that there’s something special about this skull, which sports a pair of big bony horns, and turning to Ramachandran utters the immortal line “you buy it, I’ll name it after you, handsome.” OK, I made up the “handsome” bit. But the skull is duly purchased and, as good as his word, Miles and his brother Clark describe it as a new genus and species, Minotaurasaurus (that would be because of the horns) ramachandrani (that would be for the $10,000 it cost to buy the skull). So far, so good.

So far so bad. So very, very bad. You see, when museums acquire a specimen, the first thing they do before handing over a single cent, or sometimes before even looking at it, is to ask the seller about provenance. Provenance is a useful term that encompasses all of the information defining a specimen. It includes the specific geographic point of origin as well is the background and history of ownership. And in the case of Minotaurasaurus, that information was almost completely lacking. According to Nature, it was bought from a fossil dealer called Hollis Butts, who’s based in Japan. Surprisingly, Butts was “unavailable for comment” when Nature came calling.

Now this is the point where Ramachandran and Miles should have politely said “thanks but no thanks” to the dealer and walked away. Quickly. During my time at AMNH, we would occasionally get mysterious one- or two-line emails from private email addresses, hinting at extraordinary fossils that might be available for us to buy – eggs, and embryos, and feathered dinosaurs. And we never responded. In most cases we deleted the emails immediately. If you work in a museum, or if you are a professional paleontologist, these fossils are toxic. They are the sort of things that can bring a mountain of bad press down on your institution, blight your career, put you in court, and even land you in jail. Quite simply, there’s a more than fair chance that these fossils are stolen. Countries like China and Mongolia have tough laws in place to stop their national heritage from leaving the country. Museums and researchers can borrow these specimens from Chinese and Mongolian institutions for study or display, but there is no way that a private individual can legally get export permits to remove a fossil like Minotaurasaurus from either of these countries.

Now no-one (except for the people that dug it up and, possibly, the elusive Mr. Butts) knows for sure where Minotaurasaurus comes from. The Miles brothers originally claimed the specimen was from the Barun Goyot Formation in Mongolia, but they’ve since retreated from this position and in their paper describing the specimen (Miles & Miles, 2009. Current Science, 96: 65-70) they merely hypothesize, based on the matrix surrounding the specimen, that the skull comes from the Gobi desert of China and Mongolia. Having seen a fair number of Gobi specimens in my time, and equipped with the color photo of Minotaurasaurus from the Miles’ paper, I too can make the highly scientific observation that it looks kinda like a Gobi specimen. If that’s so, then one way or another it’s illegal. Unfortunately without knowing which country it comes from, no-one’s going to be in a position to take Ramachandran up on his offer to repatriate the fossil to the appropriate nation, if someone shows him "evidence it was exported without permit.” Which is a convenient state of affairs for a man who might be $10,000 out of pocket if the provenance of the specimen was ever nailed down.

Back to the vrtpaleo listserve, where it took all of a few minutes for the discussion to break down into a good old-fashioned hair-pulling, face-slapping amateur-versus-professional bust-up. Some amateurs on the list see criticism of Ramachandran and Miles as typical snobbery on the part of professional paleontologists. Sure, the circumstances of the fossil’s acquisition were less than perfect, but hey - these selfless servants of science were just trying to get the information out to the community. Who knows – maybe further research will nail down the secret of Minotaurasaurus’ origins? To the professional paleontologist, this is more evidence that amateurs don’t understand good science. Without hard locality and stratigraphic data, the specimen is effectively worthless (which we know isn’t true – it’s “worth” $10,000, as Mr. Butts would happily attest if someone could track him down for a quote). Of course, the professionals add, there are many very careful and diligent amateurs out there, who occasionally make quite significant contributions to the field (BTW, I love it when this statement comes out, as it always does in such arguments. It’s a little like someone saying that some of their best friends are black/Jewish/gay/etc. No matter how sincerely it’s said, it never sounds entirely convincing). But this is what comes of letting people make money from selling fossils. Hah, the amateurs retort, this was a great teachable moment to explain the importance of associated data which has been lost because of academic arrogance. At which point several people write emails containing essays on why associated data are important.

Lost in all of the noise and scuffle is the most important point of all. Even if you could pinpoint the locality of this specimen to within an inch, and fix its age to the hour, this specimen should not have been bought, should not have been named, and should not have been published, because the lack of provenance strongly suggests that it has been illegally acquired. Despite Ramachandran’s attempt to argue otherwise, where cultural items of this sort are involved the onus is on the buyer to obtain proper evidence of provenance. Museums do this all time (or at least well-governed museums do) and it is a core feature of our professional codes of practice. We do not wait for a third party to emerge with evidence of wrongdoing. We exercise due diligence, and that means getting locality information, details of the collector, copies of collecting and export permits, invoices and bills of sale…. a complete paper trail for the specimen from the moment it comes out of the ground to the point where it reaches our door.

One of the respondents on vrtpaleo made a good analogy. Before he became a paleontologist, he was a cop. Cops need to be scrupulous about every item of evidence in a criminal case, because bad evidence can taint an entire investigation from the scene of the crime to the courtroom and beyond. The cops call it “The Fruit of the Poison Tree.” Minotaurasaurus is like the Fruit of the Poison Tree. This is the sort of fossil that no-one wants to be around. According to Nature the skull was cleaned at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, but the work was not done on DMNS premises because of concerns over the specimen’s origin. My former boss, Mark Norell, is quoted in Nature with a fierce denunciation of the decision to publish on the specimen, and his anger is hardly surprising given that he is acknowledged in the paper as having provided access to the AMNH collections for the purposes of the study. Mark has long-standing programs of collaborative research in both Mongolia and China and I’m sure he’s well aware of the potential damage that could be caused by being even distantly associated with this fossil.

Like another poison fruit, a biblical one this time, fossils like Minotaurasaurus are terrible temptations for the the unwary, with their promise of new knowledge. One of the most worrying things about the vrtpaleo debate is the speed at which the discussion moved away from the "ethical issues" as one respondent called them, to the issue of how much valuable information could be extracted from the fossil in the absence of associated stratigraphic and locality data. If this dialogue is anything to go by then despite the efforts of our profession to instill best practices and professional standards of conduct, collection managers and registrars will continue to have the all too common experience of facing down a curator desperate to acquire "cool stuff" and none too keen to delve deeply into its provenance. It is not a comfortable experience.

So for now, Minotaurasaurus sits on the edge of the High Mohave Desert in the unlikely surroundings of the Victor Valley Museum and Art Gallery of Apple Valley, California, alongside “Great Grandpa’s Workshop” and a display of mounted game “donated by Lenny Brewster.” Lonely and perhaps and little unloved, specimen number INBR21004 is part of the permanent corpus of paleontological knowledge now, a type specimen that will need to be considered by anyone who has an interest in ankylosaur evolution. But even if more locality and stratigraphic data is eventually unearthed, will anyone trust it?


  1. Carl was right. Excellent rant. :)

  2. Great rant! Hollis Butts strikes again...

    I've written one post about Raptorex, and am in the middle of writing a second one about the fossil trade and Mr. Butts for tomorrow.