Big Money ruining Tyrannosaurus science


This 16 April 2020 video from the USA says about itself:

Mr. Nick talks about Stan, the resident T-rex at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha.

By Michael Greshko in National Geographic, 12 October 2020:

‘Stan’ the T. rex just sold for $31.8 million—and scientists are furious

The fossil was priceless to paleontologists, but experts fear it may be lost to research now that it belongs to an unknown bidder.

More than three decades ago in South Dakota, an amateur paleontologist named Stan Sacrison discovered a titan of the ancient Earth: the fossil of a mostly complete, 39-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex. Nicknamed “Stan” after its discoverer, the beast was excavated in 1992 and has long been housed at the private Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota. But even if you’ve never been there, chances are good that you’ve seen this particular T. rex. Dozens of high-quality casts of its bones are on display in museums around the world, from Tokyo to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Now, an auctioneer’s hammer has thrown Stan’s future into question, with the dinosaur bones sold off to the highest—and, so far, anonymous—bidder, stoking fear among experts that this beloved T. rex may be lost to science.

On October 6, the London-based auction house Christie’s sold the T. rex for a record $31.8 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a fossil. The previous record was set in 1997 with the sale of “Sue,” a largely complete T. rex dug up by the same South Dakota institute and eventually purchased by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for $8.36 million (equivalent to nearly $13.5 million today).

The day after Stan was sold, paleontologist Lindsay Zanno of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences described the sale price as “simply staggering.”

“That’s an astronomical price that borders on absurdity, based on my knowledge of the market,” added paleontologist David Evans, the vertebrate paleontology chair at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who suggested the anonymous buyer could have spent the same funds in a far more effective way to deepen humanity’s understanding of the prehistoric beasts. “If this kind of money [were] invested properly, it could easily fund 15 permanent dinosaur research positions, or about 80 full field expeditions per year, in perpetuity,” he wrote in an email interview.

Scientists also have raised concerns about the negative ripple effects the sale could have on the study of dinosaurs by incentivizing people to seek out and sell well-preserved fossils rather than leaving them for paleontologists to study. (Find out more about the U.S. fossil trade in National Geographic magazine.)

“This is terrible for science and is a great boost and incentive for commercial outfits to exploit the dinosaur fossils of the American West,” says tyrannosaur expert Thomas Carr, a paleontologist at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Paleontologists fear that if the buyer turns out to be a private collector, researchers and the public could lose access to the fossil, limiting their ability to repeat results such as measurements of its bones or conduct new analyses with more advanced tools and techniques. (Find out how scientists are reimaging dinosaurs in today’s “golden age” of paleontology.)

The ability to repeat experiments is “a tenet of science; it’s part of our ethical foundation,” Zanno says. “The paleontological world is holding its breath” to find out Stan’s future. …

For years, the Black Hills Institute had Stan on display in its Hill City museum. In addition to selling resin casts to other museums, the institute gave researchers access to the fossil, resulting in a flurry of scientific papers about everything from T. rex’s immense bite force to how the skull of T. rex could flex and move.

“The skeleton of Stan is without doubt one of the very best Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever found, and it’s been published in the scientific literature many times,” Evans says. “Stan is one of the keystone specimens for understanding T. rex.”

Carr, for one, included Stan in three studies of tyrannosaur diversity and skull shape earlier in his career. He now regrets that decision because the fossil was always in private hands and therefore at risk of being sold. “In the end, I wound up contributing to the successful sales pitch of the fossil … along with the other 45 scientific publications on Stan,” he says. “We shouldn’t have touched it with a 10-foot pole.”

Stan’s path to the auction block began in 2015, when Neal Larson, a 35-percent shareholder in the Black Hills Institute (and brother of the institute’s president, paleontologist Pete Larson), sued the company to liquidate its assets. According to South Dakota’s Rapid City Journal, the company had removed Neal Larson from its board of directors three years earlier, after a bitter dispute over business dealings and his defense of a former employee accused of sexual misconduct.

A judge ruled in 2018 that Stan had to be auctioned off to pay Neal Larson for his stake in the institute, according to a company press release. …

In the U.S., fossil bones found on federal land are public property and can be collected only by researchers with permits. These remains also must stay in the public trust, in approved repositories such as accredited museums.

However, fossils discovered on U.S. private land can be bought and sold, and Stan isn’t the only U.S. dinosaur fossil recently on the auction block. In 2018, the French auctioneer Arguttes sold off a skeleton of the predatory dinosaur Allosaurus, drawing criticism from scientists because its sale, like Stan’s, risked creating the perception that dinosaurs were worth more in dollars than they were in discoveries.

The 2,000-member Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), which represents paleontologists around the world, opposes fossil auctions and has long discouraged the study of privately held fossils, out of concern that researchers and the public wouldn’t always be guaranteed access to them.

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