Whose fossils?

Last week, I was interviewed by a major American TV program regarding potential changes to the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and how it might impact paleontology. Of course, I spoke about the importance of the monument for the science, and how monument status and its accompanying infrastructure facilitate research. In the moment, though, I also had a realization--monument recognition and protection of these fossils isn't just for the benefit of scientists. It's for all Americans!

Through several takes of filming, I effectively said this: The fossils in GSENM aren't my fossils, as a scientist, even though I have collected and studied many of them. They aren't my museum's fossils, even though we are the repository and put considerable financial and facility resources into caring for them. These fossils belong to the American people. A loss to the monument is not just a loss to science, but a loss for all citizens (and indeed, a loss for the world).

With this in mind, I challenge my fellow scientists to broaden our thinking and the way we communicate about fossils. It is so easy to focus on preservation of fossils relevant to our research and the research of colleagues. This is indeed important, but we should never lose sight of the fact that these aren't "our" fossils in the end. Indeed, many of the positions taken by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology--such as the importance of permanent repositories and proper accession of fossils--in my opinion advance the view that fossils are viewed as global heritage. Part of the stated goal for SVP is to ensure that everyone can learn from, understand, and appreciate vertebrate paleontology.

Skeleton of a baby Parasaurolophus, collected under permit within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and housed at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology.

Similarly, those of us who are paleontologists and American citizens should not forget our dual role. During my interview, on several occasions I used the phrase "As a scientist and as an American citizen..." I intentionally chose to do so, as a reminder to viewers that I am not some distant member of an ethereal secret society of bone collectors. I am not someone who views science as overriding all other interests. Instead, I believe that the interests of science and scientific research at their best are also America's interests, and in the interest of American citizens. A loss to science is a loss to our country, and a gain for science is a gain for our country. Our scientists, our fossils, and our national monuments are part of what makes America great!

The fossils of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are part of the United States of America's story. As that story is told, we have learned about some of the fascinating beasts that once roamed the landscape of Utah. These beasts have been featured in documentaries, museum exhibits, toy stores, and television programs all over the world. As a scientist and as an American citizen, I am fascinated by these ancient beasts and proud of my country's rich natural heritage. It is my sincere hope that all of my fellow citizens will share the same pride and fascination!

--Dr. Andy Farke is the Augustyn Family Curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.
Posted: 11/14/2017 11:49:14 AM by andyfarkeadmin | with 0 comments
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