On Tuesday, a fossil belonging to an unidentified species of large, carnivorous dinosaur sold for more than $2.3 million at Aguttes, a Paris auction house. The anonymous buyer, reportedly a French art collector, announced plans to make the specimen available to the public, but the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a major international professional organization of paleontologists, is not thrilled with this plan.
Private ownership of scientifically important fossil specimens — an unidentified dinosaur, for example — jeopardizes the scientific process and could render the skeleton useless, the society argued in a statement published in advance of the auction. The SVP’s current president, vice president, and former president urged Aguttes to cancel the sale. The group acknowledged that the fossil had been legally collected, that its geographic details had been carefully recorded, and that it was legally exported to France, but they were unambiguous about the impact that the auction could have on the scientific significance of the specimen. In other words, they were not having it.
You may be wondering: How could selling dinosaur bones be bad for science? It’s a fair question, and the answer comes down to one specific cornerstone of the scientific process: reproducibility. If a dinosaur specimen is owned by a private collector (even one who says they want to let scientists study it), there is no guarantee that scientists will always be allowed to study it. After one researcher takes measurements and identifies it as a new species, the next person who wants to verify these results or challenge the initial findings must rely on the goodwill of a private owner, rather than a museum whose mission is to support such work. When it comes to paleontology, which bases such identifications on precise anatomical measurements, reproducibility is everything.
“Scientific practice demands that conclusions drawn from the fossils should be verifiable: scientists must be able to reexamine, re-measure, and reinterpret them (such reexamination can happen decades or even centuries after their discovery),” the SVP officials write. “Fossil specimens that are sold into private hands are lost to science. Even if made accessible to scientists, information contained within privately owned specimens cannot be included in the scientific literature because the availability of the fossil material to other scientists cannot be guaranteed, and therefore verification of scientific claims (the essence of scientific progress) cannot be performed.”
As Inverse has previously reported, the private fossil market has made it impossible for important specimens to be studied by scientists, especially when fossil hunters hold out for higher prices. In the ‘90s, a bubble of private fossil sales formed, and while it has mostly burst, incidents like the current one still crop up. Because the private fossil market makes it hard for scientists to study specimens, the SVP specifically wrote into its bylaws that is discourages such sales unless they bring the fossil into a public trust.
Ignoring the professional outcry, Aguttes went through with the auction. It remains to be seen whether the buyer will be allowed to name the species, as Reuters reported on Monday, but at least one thing is clear: this sale will probably piss off the scientific community, unless the buyer donates the skeleton to a museum.