But I don’t even *like* tyrannosaurs…

22 May 2012

Drama in real life by the inimitable Valin Mattheis.

I mean, I don’t not like them, but they always seemed bit … gauche you know? Like truck nuts or something. No, no … truck nuts are obviously odious, but for me those bone-crunching Cretaceous behemoths are just, a little much. I mean like speed metal, metal. I mean if that’s your thing, great. More power to you. I’ll stick with my thalattosaurs and Indonesian garage rock thank you very much.

Anyway, so it was an odd weekend.

Late Friday afternoon, moments before leaving to pick up my father and step-mother from the airport I posted a petition at Change.org. In short, the petition was a response to a letter by the President of Mongolia calling attention to a lot of fossils, including a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus/Tarbosaurus bataar, which went up for auction on Sunday. Soon the petition had picked up a hundred, then five hundred, then, shortly before the sale went forward crossed one thousand signatures. I am not going to reiterate the details of the situation which you can dig into in great detail by checking out the petition page (and you can sign it if you’d like while your there) and by reading Brian Switek’s coverage of the auction and attendant backlash.

I’m not yet convinced that online petitions are worth anything but it seemed like literally the least I could do, aside from doing nothing. Not because I felt a particularly strong personal attachment to the issue of probable looted Mongolian fossils going up for auction. I do think that it is an affront to science and more broadly to the dignity of both land and people to skirt local laws and regulations, rapidly and often recklessly digging up potentially invaluable fossils shipping them overseas and raking in millions by selling them to some overly-wealthy douche who wants a dinosaur for his den or whatever.

But it happens everyday, and I’ve never before been moved to try to get out and effect change on this issue. And I’ll readily admit that things get complex. In the United States fossils found on private land are treated as property of the landowner just like mineral rights and it seems to me that this is not out of keeping with broader U.S. social and legal culture and that’s fine. It’s regrettable when it means that scientifically important fossils are lost to the scientific community, but it’s the law and I accept that. If you have fossils on your land in the U.S. you can build a cabin out of them, sell them to a creationist museum or grind them up and smoke them. Knock yourself out, I guess.

But there is something decidedly different about going to a country that has clear laws in place to protect its fossils and exploiting the inability of that nation to effectively enforce its laws and get rich by ripping off its resources. Sure, maybe Western scientists operated in a similar fashion decades ago, though often minus the “clear laws in place” and “get rich” parts. And sure, maybe you invested thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to find, collect (steal), transport, prepare and mount your plunder. And maybe if you are sneaky enough to get it out without detection and manage to destroy or obscure any evidence of criminal activity and get your ill gotten gains to another country the actual sale itself might be perfectly legal.  None of these excuses, which appeared in various forms in statements by the auction house and in the fascinating and at times brain-crushingly frustrating comment thread on Switek’s post, make it an ethical thing to do.

As to my prior ambivalent feelings about tyrannosaurs, let’s just say they’re “evolving.”



4 Responses to “But I don’t even *like* tyrannosaurs…”

  1. Boesse Says:

    One can certainly argue about the utility of online petitions – back in 2004, a local fossil site in Santa Cruz county was going to be paved over by a seawall, to protect the houses of 12 families/owners from being eroded away. The fossil site would effectively be lost forever, even though in the EIR they had the audacity to claim that a seawall would protect the fossils! Regardless, they did not bother to look into whether buying clifftop property in an actively eroding area was a smart real estate decision or not, so to hell with them. I started an online petition (still on the web) to try and raise awareness and motivate people to voice their opposition. And, holy crap, it worked – little did I know that it would galvanize the seawall opposition and eventually become one of the uniting forces that led to the seawall being turned down. 5 years later, the locality was one of the cornerstones for my master’s thesis, and in the intervening time, I’ve collected several fossils from there that one day will be holotype specimens. So, petitions really do have the possibility to change!

    • Neil Says:

      Thanks Bobby, that’s an encouraging story. In this case I hope the petition can at least be a small piece of a broader coordinated effort to raise awareness and force some accountability. I imagine it will all come down to the legal machinations, but hopefully the petition helps (and thanks for signing!)

  2. Boesse Says:

    No problem – in the long run, all it comes down to are legal machinations (as it did with the seawall). The real power of a petition is to garner support (or opposition, for that matter) and spread awareness, and hopefully help a larger number of people turn up the heat, so to speak.

  3. You have such an awesome blog that I have nominated you for a Sunshine Award, with nothing to do other than enjoy it! http://missapismellifera.com/the-sunshine-award-iii/

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