Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thoughts on Tarbosaurus, Part 1.

Last time I promised photos of our fieldwork here in Edmonton, but then over the weekend the palaeoverse kind of erupted (in a good way) over the auction of a Tarbosaurus skeleton. Go read Brian Switek’s articlefirst if you’re not acquainted with the story.

Because I am insane, I often read the comments sections on news articles about palaeontology. There are a lot of weird and misguided statements in the comments sections of some of the Tarbosaurus auction news articles (e.g. at CNN, USAToday, Wired). Some of these comments make me frustrated, so I figured I’d try to write down my thoughts on some of the most common recurring themes: 1) Paleontologists are just as bad as fossil poachers and/or private collectors because we hoard the dinosaurs all to ourselves and lock them away in cabinets where the public can’t see them; 2) How do we know the tyrannosaur came from Mongolia?; 3) Why does the auction company call it Tyrannosaurus bataar while palaeontologists call it Tarbosaurus?; and 4) Why is fossil poaching such a big deal, anyway? I’m going to address these over a couple of blog posts because for some reason on these topics I am unusually longwinded and the answer to the first question was getting kind of gigantic.

So, to start with: “Paleontologists are just as bad as fossil poachers and/or private collectors because we hoard the dinosaurs all to ourselves and lock them away in cabinets where the public can’t see them.”

I sort of understand where this sentiment is coming from, but unfortunately it is wholly incorrect, and it saddens me that there folks who have become disenfranchised with science in this way. The role of museums is to conserve artifacts for the long haul – not just a few years, not just this generation, but theoretically for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Museums also facilitate scientific research (thus contributing new knowledge to society), and education (passing new and old knowledge to members of society). Although there are privately-run museums, many museums in Canada are at least partially supported by the government – ie. the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Because these are publicly-supported institutions, their role is to conserve cultural and natural history artifacts for the people, and so the whole concept of fossils being locked away from the public in museums is largely incorrect.

But let’s dig a little deeper (har har). Yes, a lot of specimens are stored in cabinets and rarely seen by the public. This is not because palaeontologists are trying to ‘hide’ specimens, but because at any museum there is limited space and funding for exhibiting specimens. Choosing which specimens go on display involves a lot of factors: is the specimen sturdy enough to be mounted or displayed, does the specimen need to be easily accessible for research, is there enough space to display the specimen, will it require special new cabinetry and lighting, will it require an entire overhaul of the existing displays or can it be slotted into an existing gallery, how much new interpretive material needs to be created, and more. Not all fossils make great display specimens, but that does not mean they are ‘worthless’ or have little scientific value. For example, many studies require the identification and measurement of THOUSANDS of teeth and bone fragments. How else can you know if a particular fossil is rare unless you have a large, unbiased sample? Yes, we could display these tiny fossils, and I actually think that would be a great way to teach the value of large collections of otherwise mundane fossils. BUT given the option of displaying 1000 Paronychodon teeth in a glass cabinet, or one really excellent Albertosaurus skull, it makes sense that the museum would display the showier, more easily relatable object (sorry, Derek). In a perfect world we would not need to make that choice, but in reality there are constraints on what can be displayed based on time, money, and space.

A lot of commenters on the news articles have mentioned that a lot of museums offer ‘backstage tours’ to the collections areas. While this is true, it is also true that many museums require visiting researchers to be professional palaeontologists associated with either a museum or university (or to be a student studying towards that profession). I can’t speak for all museums here, but I suspect that the main reason for limiting visitors to the backstage areas comes back to conservation of the material. A lot of fossils don’t do well with repeated handling, and even gentle handling by careful scientists (or contact with things like metal calipers!) can gradually erode and damage specimens. As such, limiting access to the collections is not really because we want to hoard the fossils and keep them to ourselves, but out of concern for the long-term safety of irreplaceable objects. The flip side of this is that some museums have dedicated teaching and outreach collections of sturdier specimens that can be handled often.

But a lot of these comments seem to come back to a sense of distrust of professional palaeontologists, and perhaps a distrust of the ‘scientific establishment’ as a whole. I don’t really know what to say to this – yeah, there are probably some really awful people who are also palaeontologists, who don’t look kindly on amateur palaeontologists or private collectors, and who may be generally unpleasant people to be around. But there are awful people in every profession. It doesn’t excuse their behaviour, but there’s not necessarily a lot any one of us can do about it. From my experience, the vast majority of professional palaeontologists are just that – professional. They are excited to learn more about life on earth, to contribute to the scientific record, and to educate the public about those findings. They like dinosaurs (or brachiopods, or trilobites, or sabre-toothed cats) SO MUCH that they literally want to spend their entire career thinking about them ALL THE TIME. (There is no escape.) Many of them would love to display more of their fossils, but are unable to because of lack of funding or space. So, if you are really and truly concerned about the lack of public access to fossils, the best thing you can do is go out and support your local museum. Petition your local or provincial or federal government to make museum funding a priority. Participate in fundraisers or organize your own. Donate your time by volunteering as a fossil preparator, or go out into your community and teach others about palaeontology. The worst thing you can do is support the illicit trade of poached, illegally-acquired specimens. And we’ll talk about why in the next post.

(And if you want to help out re: the Tarbosaurus auction, there's a Change.org petition you can sign.)


  1. Well said.

    It really is sad how much people distrust science.

  2. Nice post. Just goes to prove that we have to continually engage the public in as many ways as possible, as often as possible, to promote our science and help dispel the stereotypical image of scientists, volunteers and other workers and the museums/institutions they work in.

  3. Thanks. I think part of what we need to do as a profession is be really honest about what we are actually doing with museum collections and why we collect certain things in certain ways. Maybe there needs to be more media attention on some of the 'smaller' stories, rather than stories just about new species. The 'smaller' stories tend to actually be the larger-scale projects looking at hundreds of specimens, larger geographic areas, or longer stretches of time! Perhaps then people would appreciate better why large collections are necessary.

  4. Craig,

    It is more than just distrust. I have recently been debating evolution online with three creationists. One rejects all statements by all scientists because they are men and not "the infallible Word of God." A second rejects anything that scientists say because they sometimes use the words "possibly" and "probably" and therefore know nothing at all. The third compares teaching science in public school to Hitler indoctrinating children. And that's the mild stuff.

  5. Jerrold- No worries you're speaking to someone with many first hand dealings with creationists. I worked at the Tyrrell museum for 4 years, and we had our fair share of big C's come through. More recently I had a year long tour of duty working with an otherwise lovely family who were Creationist. On any other topic they'd be total fine rational people, but the instant the kids asked me a question about animals/plants/germs/fungus/etc my answer would almost always trigger some sort of imaginary fight on their part. Even if I avoided certain wordings. The fact they knew I didn't share their beliefs was enough for them to fight me. On a side tangent, for the supposed "true way" they are very very insecure about it. They're only good with their beliefs if you agree too..

    No the distrust I speak of is with more normal elements of society. Even people who don't identify with religious views of the world distrust and dismiss science these days.

    When I was training as a teacher, it was almost sickening how all my fellow soon to be teachers mocked and ignored our science cirriculum lectures and principals. There was a point late in our program where everyone would make fun of me because I could somewhat explain things using my science background (and I'm no expert... but in comparison to them I was Einstien! Some of them didn't even understand how the basic states of water worked!?!)

  6. Not all brawls with creationists are unpleasant. I remember how I got one to throw in the towel:
    "I surrender. You're right; the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming only a fool would doubt it...I am throwing out all my books by creationists and will never read another one."
    As for "the word of god" it seems times are changing. Erhman's bestsellers show just how phony the "word of god" is. At last, the public is becoming aware of what scholars have known for a century.