Policy Statements

Paleontologists Concerned Over Fossil Sale

On October 3, the skeleton of a 40-foot-long, 7.5 ton dinosaur was put up for auction in Las Vegas. The dinosaur in question was a skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex, the iconic flesh-eating dinosaur that lived some 66 million years ago.

Nicknamed "Samson," the fossil, which was found on private land in 1987 and was being sold by a private owner, was expected to fetch a price of several millions of dollars. The maximum bid of $3.7 million did not reach the undisclosed minimum set by the sellers, however, and the fossil was not sold. By comparison, a similar skeleton, known as "Sue" sold for nearly $7.9 million in 1997 and was subsequently donated to the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

The sale at auction of fossils such as this and others is a matter of deep concern to the profession of vertebrate paleontology (the study of the fossils of animals with backbones).

"Although we welcome the desire of the owners that this fossil end up in a scientific institution, in reality when such things are up for public auction, museums can rarely if ever afford the prices the items fetch," says Ted Vlamis, treasurer of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. "Public institutions simply cannot compete with wealthy collectors or major corporations for such rare items, and public auctions will push prices ever further out of reach," he continues.

The loss to science and education of such items is incalculable. Philip J. Currie, well-known dinosaur expert and vice president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, notes that "science is an ongoing process of study and re-study in which the rejection of old hypotheses by new data is essential, so if new specimens of rare species are lost to science it may halt progress in our field for a long time to come."

In the end, science and the public are the losers. Many children become interested in science through visits to museums, and fossils such as T. rex are have an eternal, irresistible appeal.

"If important and exciting fossils are not available for public viewing this may in the end result in fewer children and teenagers choosing careers in science to the detriment of us all," says Currie. "Paleontology can not always expect the intervention of a rich donor to ensure that a valuable specimen is preserved for research, education, display and inspiration!"