Monday, July 16, 2012

Thoughts on Tarbosaurus, Part 3

Previously in this series on the poached Tarbosaurus skeleton, I've discussed the role of museums in fossil collecting, how the specimen was identified as Tarbosaurus, and how we know the skeleton came from Mongolia. Today, I'll discuss one final question: Why is fossil poaching such a big deal, anyway?

(Various museum trips, manuscript deadlines, and fieldwork in Dinosaur Provincial Park have kept me from returning to the blog as quickly as I had hoped, and much has transpired in the Tarbosaurus case in the last few weeks; in particular, see Phil Currie's article in New Scientist. Hopefully, posting will become a bit more frequent, and optimistic, in the next little while.)

To me, it seems obvious why fossil poaching is a big deal (in a bad way) - it reduces or removes access to fossil specimens, and reduces or removes important information about that fossil. First, let's talk about access to fossils. As I discussed in part 1 of this series, the role of museums is to conserve artifacts for present and future generations; additional responsibilities include facilitating research and education, and usually involve displaying objects to the public. Private owners of fossils have no such responsibilities. Some private collectors may choose to display some of their fossils to friends and family, or may even open their private residence to visitors. But they don't have to, and most fossils held by private collectors are probably only ever seen by a handful of people. For really common, super-abundant fossils, perhaps this is not a terrible thing. Vertebrate fossils are rarely common and abundant, and each specimen often has important information to contribute to the study of any particular organism.

A second point about access that is probably not widely known is that palaeontologists cannot really study or publish on privately-held fossils. This is because other palaeontologists may not be able to access those specimens to verify the original palaeontologist's findings, and so therefore the science would not be reproduceable. There are probably lots of instances where private collectors have made substantial contributions to museum collections by donating their discoveries or purchases, but while the specimen is privately held, it is, for all intents and purposes, 'invisible' to the scientific community. A specimen that cannot be published in the scientific literature does not contribute to our understanding of the fossil record, and represents lost knowledge. This is why it is important for fossils to be in recognized institutions like museums or university collections, so that palaeontologists (and the public!) can study the material and use it to better understand our world.

Next, let's talk about how poaching reduces the information content of fossils. Fossils do not exist in a vacuum. The sediments encasing a fossil are nearly as important as the fossil itself, as these provide at least two crucial pieces of information about the fossil: 1) how old it is, and 2) what the depositional environment was. Interpreting the age and depositional environment of a rock is not always easy, and requires specialized training in geology in order to be done properly. When a fossil is yanked out of the rock with no attention paid to where or how it was found, important information is lost.

Pop quiz! Is that the Nemegt or Baruungoyot Formation?

Finally, and most obviously, poaching can damage the fossils themselves, if the poachers do not have the appropriate tools or training to properly excavate the fossils. The more a fossil is broken, the more information is lost. Collecting fossils is tricky, difficult work that requires a lot of patience and strength. Without the right tools and people, fossils get broken. Amateur or commercial collectors may be excellent record-keepers and skilled excavators, and so this may not be a problem - but from my experience at least in Mongolia, poachers don't seem to be really good at collecting the dinosaurs they aim to sell.

 See those white bone fragments there? Those used to be a Tarbosaurus skull.

I hope the attention given to the Tarbosaurus auction marks the beginning of the end of fossil poaching in Mongolia, although I suspect I may be being overly optimistic with that sentiment. But fossil poaching and destruction is not limited to Mongolia, as evidenced by a tragic story that happened basically in my backyard this week. A few weeks ago, the University of Alberta and Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative field crews found a beautiful hadrosaur skeleton, with skin impressions, along the Red Willow River near Grande Prairie. The PCDI team was excited because this would make for a great display specimen (not to mention it being a scientifically important specimen) for the museum they are working very hard to get funded and built. Earlier last week while in Dinosaur Park, we received the terrible news that the partially-excavated, plaster-jacketed specimen had been vandalized and severely broken. We're not sure who did it or why. Even earlier in the summer, an in situ display of the Pipestone Creek Pachyrhinosaurus bonebed had been smashed and vandalized as well.

In Alberta, excavating fossils without a permit, or damaging fossils, can get you a $40 000 fine and/or a year in prison. Nowhere else in Canada has fossil protection laws as good as Alberta's, and in no other province is the general public as widely educated about fossils. Fossils are everywhere in Alberta, we have an abundance of museums and public outreach, several universities conduct palaeontological research, and there's an active amateur society. And STILL people feel the need to wreck our fossils - no, scratch that, THEIR fossils. I find this intensely discouraging, and I don't have a good solution.

Given the recent international attention on the Tarbosaurus case, I hope Alberta sets a good example by prosecuting the fossil vandals to the fullest extent possible, if they are able to catch them. At the very least, I hope that this provokes a renewed interest in protecting our amazing fossil resources. Wherever you're from, support your local museums and universities, and be interested in the natural world around you. It will take all of us working together to protect it.