Saturday, September 19, 2009

Naming Samson

OK, enough of computer-animated dinosaurs running amok in Croydon and on to the real thing. Yesterday, a glossy auction catalog from Bonhams dropped onto my desk, for a sale to be held in Vegas on October 3rd. Pride of place was given to a specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex called Samson. As T-rexes go, "Samson" is pretty special - a 56% complete skeleton, which doesn't sound like much until you realize that there have only been three specimens of this dinosaur discovered that were more than 50% complete. All of this is laid out in loving detail in the catalog, along with a mini research paper from Black Hills Institute paleontologist Peter Larson describing Samson's pathologies, and a breakdown of the potential profits that might accrue from casting and exhibiting the specimen.

The big tyrannosaurs are catnip for museums, private collectors, and the general public. For a lot of professional paleontologists the picture is less clear. It's not clear that the discovery and subsequent media feeding frenzy over "Sue" (at 76% the world's most complete tyrannosaur specimen) did our field many favors. We like to think that people's eyes light up with wonder when they see spectacular dinosaur fossils, but where tyrannosaurs are concerned those eyes are more likely to have dollar signs in them - that, unfortunately, may be Sue's legacy. Reading Larson's account of the discovery of Samson (also in the sale catalog) you don't have to be an academic to feel a little queasy at his description of two collectors walking into a bar in South Dakota and promising "a large reward to any one [sic] who could lead them to a T. rex skeleton." Paleontology is a painstaking science; this sounds more like a California gold rush.

Over the years, I've wrestled with my conscience over commercial collecting. On the one hand, there is a long tradition of private collecting within vertebrate paleontology and museum collections worldwide have been immeasurably enriched by fossil specimens that were purchased from collectors. I'm also fully in favor of the principle that people have a right to profit from discoveries made on their land. At the same time, I can't seem to shake my gut response that seeing specimens on the auction block is deeply distasteful. Defenders of such sales argue that the ability to buy fossils on the open market is somehow egalitarian - now anyone can own a dinosaur. This seems a rather fatuous argument, since the only the people that can buy a dinosaur at open auction are those with several hundred thousand dollars at their disposal, or in the case of Samson a few million. The best way to make fossils egalitarian is to put them in a museum where everyone can see them.

To help myself cope with all this naked commercialism, I like to play a little game when I read auction catalogs. It's called "would I buy it?" - in others words, if I had the funds to meet the reserve price for a specimen, would I buy it for our collection. One of the nice things about having worked for some of the best fossil collections in the world is that I almost invariably answer "no." I can also enjoy some of the paradoxes of the commercial market - why would someone put a reserve of $45,000 on a skull of the American lion Panthera leo atrox (bigger than, but otherwise almost identical that of a modern lion), but only $15,000 on a really nice full skeleton mount of the Eocene titanothere Paleosyops? (the answer, of course, is that only one of them has big fangs - auction buyers are so one-dimensional) I guess if I had $6 to $10 million to burn I might buy Sampson. But if I had that much cash, then I'd probably spend it on remounting our Brontosaurus skeleton. That's right, the Brontosaurus, as in the type specimen described by O.C. Marsh.

Which brings us neatly to the only part of the Bonhams catalog that really annoyed me. Samson has a suite of anatomical characters that set it apart from the original type specimen of T. rex, suggesting that it may actually be a new species of Tyrannosaur. There are three other individuals with this character set - one each at the Museum of the Rockies, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and AMNH. The catalog makes the following statement regarding these specimens - "Only one (AMNH 5027) besides Samson ranks in the top 10 most complete specimens. Samson is by far the most complete and would likely serve as the holotype for the new species. Naming rights for such a species, once published with definitive evidence, would likely revert to the new owner or institution."

Let's unpack this statement, shall we? First, there is no hard and fast rule why Samson should act as the holotype just because it's the most complete specimen. In fact, if Samson passes into private hands, it would be negligent for the author of the species to designate it as the type when future access by researchers cannot be guaranteed. The type should be in a museum - end of story. Second "naming rights" - such as they are - reside with the person that describes the type, not the owner. No museum worthy of the name would ever attempt to claim that right, which is another excellent reason why type specimens should live in museums rather than private collections. The author of a species might choose to name that species after a donor whose funds have supported their research or the acquisition of the specimen, or to offer the donor the right to name it, and both those approaches are entirely appropriate. But the idea that an owner, whether institutional or private, gets to name a new species takes us into very murky waters ethically speaking. No-one would seriously suggest this were Samson not a tyrannosaur, which is yet another example of how common sense goes out of the window where this particular dinosaur is concerned. Finally the last sentence is nonsense anyway, because once the species name is published that name is fixed - it can't "revert" to anybody.

Of course, if there's someone out there who'd like to buy Sampson for our collection, you can ignore all of the foregoing and just give me a call......


  1. Erecting a new species based on a holotype that is not available to other researchers for study is not just negligent. It is very probably a violation of Article 72.10 of the ICZN and therefore wouldn't be taxonomically valid correct?

  2. I know this is dodgy, but based on the catalogue description, could you publish a description and name?

    Naughty, but during the fun with Ida I was hoping someone would do that just to make a point.

  3. Bob - the self same thought crossed my mind; I'm just not that naughty...