The Economist, 26 October 1991©
When cows die on the arid Wyoming ranges, their necks gradually bow backwards as the tendons dry and shrink in the sun. Much the same applies to dinosaurs. An Allosaurus unearthed near Graybull, Wyoming this September had its neck curled so sharply that the back of its fearsome skull almost touched the spine. Anyone innocent of the effects of dessication on a neck might think it has died in paroxysms of agony; or was throwing its head back in laughter at the shenanigans of its discoverers.
Although the Allosaurus skeletons are relatively common in museums, they are usually composites. They are made up of bones taken from a number of animals whose remains were jumbled together by scavengers, floods and other post-mortem mishaps. The Greybull Allosaurus, encased in the sands of what once was a flood plain, was 90% intact, the first such uncovered. The fact that it was not quite adult adds to the interest.
The find has received considerable attention for its sheer scientific interest. It has also fanned the flames of a hot debate among those who find and study fossils: a debate about the role of commercial fossil diggers. The Allosaurus was unearthed by Hans "Kirby" Siber, a Zurich-based palaeontologist who searches for fossils to sell to museums and other institutions. Mr. Siber and his team thought they were digging on private land, but a fire lookout from the federal Bureau of Land Management spotted the dig from an aeroplane and asked a colleague on the ground to check local maps. It turned out that Mr. Siber has misjudged his dig by 60 metres (200 feet) and was on federal land. "Perhaps it was an honest mistake on the part of Kirby," says one palaeontologist, hinting darkly that perhaps it wasn’t.
In any event, the Allosaurus became government property. Mr. Siber was left to watch glumly as palaeontologists from Montana State University, the University of Alberta and the University of Wyoming swept onto the site, encased the skeleton in plaster bandages, and carted it away to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. The Zurich team flew home, pondering the $500,000 that the skeleton could well have fetched on the open market.
American palaeontologists took cheer at all this. They are used to seeing dinosaur specimens spirited away to foreign museums that can afford to pay huge sums. The Japanese are particularly avid dinosaur buyers. Dinosaurs are crowd pullers in Godzilla’s own country, and there is also a national push to refurbish and re-stock natural history museums at a time when many other countries are running theirs down. Even a mundane duck-billed dinosaur, by far the most common dinosaur of the size that punters prefer, can go for $350,000 in Japan.
Worse still, in the eys of university-based researchers who would like to see digging restricted to academics, is what they see as the hired shovels’ shoddy science. "They way they do reports on their finds, but I never see them," says one palaeontologist. Of particular interest are clues left in the stone as to the circumstances of the animal’s death and the events that followed: clues like the Allosaurus’ bowed neck. Did the animal die on dry land or near water? Was it dragged around? What were the adjacent rock layers and fossils like? Commercial diggers, the academics moan, do not bother with this sort of thing, or do it carelessly.
Peter Larson, a commercial collector who operates the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota, the world’s largest palaeo-for-pay firm, says this is nonsense. Mr. Larson says his 17 employees study sites thoroughly when they are after something significant, although they are less meticulous, he freely acknowledges, for dime-a-dozen fossils such as trilobites. Some of the best fossils ever dug up have been found by commercial diggers – Archaeopteryx (the earliest known bird) in 1861 and, more recently a fossil nesting-ground that gave Jack Horner, an academic palaeontologist, evidence to support his belief that some dinosaurs were social animals who cared for their young. Mr. Larson is no slouch, either. This week he described to the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontologists the huge, nearly complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton he found in South Dakota last year. That skeleton will stay in South Dakota as the centrepiece of a museum Mr. Larson is building.
The furore over commercial-versus-academic digging misses the point, Mr. Largon says. Far more fossils are lost to erosion and other natural phenomena each year than to improper digging. The more collectors (professional, amateur or scholarly) the better, to ensure that future intact Allosaurus skeletons are not washed away in a summer thunderstorm.
Anyway, commercial collectors are hardly lining their pockets with gold-plated Comarasaurus thigh bones. Mr. Larson recently contracted to install two duck-billed dinosaur skeletons in Japanese museums. Digging a skeleton from the bone quarry which Mr. Larson’s firm owns, cleaning it and assembling it takes 15,000 man-hours. At the going rate, that comes out as around $23 an hour. A living wage, but not likely to incite hordes of pick-wielding fortune-seekers to tear up the Wyoming badlands.