Paleontological Art and the Creative Commons

During the past few years, I’ve been making more and more of an effort to incorporate artwork licensed via Creative Commons (CC) into my blog posts and presentations. Two reasons underlie this–for one, PLOS requests that its bloggers license their blogs under a Creative Commons license, and thus I have to be careful about the artwork I use (i.e., even if I get permission from an artist, they have to be okay with a CC license–more on this below). The second reason is that I want to make more of my presentation slides (and videos of my presentations) available via CC license. Although fair use allows many uses of copyrighted material for classroom lectures, etc., it doesn’t necessarily allow me to distribute those more widely (particularly with a CC license on them). Thus, using only CC-licensed work (and public domain work, when available) allows me more freedom in what I do with it.

Sinocalliopteryx eating a hapless dromaeosaur. From Xing et al. 2012. CC-BY.

Sinocalliopteryx eating a hapless dromaeosaur. Illustration by Cheung Chungtat, from Xing et al. 2012. CC-BY.

Finding Sweet, Sweet CC Artwork
It’s actually fairly easy to find artwork licensed under various Creative Commons licenses. Wikimedia Commons is my usual go-to, and a Google Images Search (with licenses specified) works adequately. PLOS ONE articles also function as sources, particularly if I have a particular topic in mind (the image above originally appeared in the journal). My other new favorite is Phylopic, for its broad coverage. That site focuses just on silhouettes–very handy for abstractly showing a whole bunch of taxa in a uniform style. It’s not just a bunch of Velociraptors drawn and redrawn, but lots of obscure insects, modern mammals, and the like (full disclosure: I submitted a silhouette of myself for the site).

This search strategy usually works pretty well, but I consistently run into three issues:

  1. Images are often of variable quality. On the Tyrannosaurus page at Wikimedia, for instance, they range the gamut from cartoony to inaccurate to woefully inaccurate to actually pretty good.
  2. Licensing. There are many flavors of Creative Commons license, ranging the gamut from permissive (attribution only) to quite restrictive (no commercial use, no modification, all derivative work must use same license). I usually err on the permissive side (CC-BY / CC-By), because I want others to be able to reuse my own work as easily as possible. Plus, the commercial clause freaks me out a little bit – if the artwork goes on an exhibit in a museum that charges admission, does that count as commercial use? Probably not, but I’m not inclined to test the waters.
  3. Permissions. In many cases, photos licensed under CC licenses are images of specimens in museums with restrictive photography policies. Thus, I suspect that they may not validly licensed as CC, particularly for casual snapshots from museum exhibits. I don’t necessarily agree with this (if museums argue that fossils shouldn’t be commercial commodities, why commercialize all of their images, even by casual photographers? This is what some call a mixed message.), but as a person who works at a museum I want to abide by the rules when possible.

Fortunately, the situation is steadily improving. The selection of artwork and specimen images available via Creative Commons expands daily, and I’ve found that the average quality is also getting better. I’m not a huge fan of some of the art styles, but at least it is something to use! In light of all of this, here are some of my own closing thoughts:

  1. Whenever possible, we should make our work available via Creative Commons licenses or a public domain dedication. A recent project required a human silhouette–so once I made it, I uploaded it to Phylopic under a CC-BY license. If going to that effort, it isn’t much harder to share the wealth.
  2. That said, if you commission an artist to produce original art for a publication that will be released via CC-BY (or another CC license), make sure the artist is aware of this. In talking with one artist, they said they aren’t always kept in the loop on the plans for a piece of work, and were surprised to see it released as CC-BY. Such a CC license could potentially affect their income down the road (especially for commercial artists). For a forthcoming paper, we alerted the artist as to our plans, and compensated the artist appropriately for releasing the work as CC-BY. It’s good to be good to artists (and they appreciate the concern, too).
  3. For those of you just starting out on designing lectures and the like, use Creative Commons and public domain images from the start. I have found it a real pain to retrofit some of my class lectures!

And that’s all I have to say about that (for now).

A ctenophoran, by Scott Hartman. Public domain.

A ctenophoran, by Scott Hartman. Public domain, from Phylopic.

Category: Miscellaneous, Navel Gazing, Open Access, Paleontology | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Paleoecology of Magnificent Megafauna: The Moa

There was a time not so long ago (thousands of years ago, not millions, which is not so long ago to a paleontologist) when ecosystems around the world had something that is generally lacking today: really big herbivores. I’m talking beasts such as giant armadillos, giant sloths, mastodons, and mammoths. Obviously there aren’t any mastodons lumbering around your neighborhood today, so what happened to them? In general, there are two main hypotheses: either humans ended their reign or climate change eliminated their preferred habitats. These hypotheses are hotly debated in the literature, but as it is difficult to prove any absolute cause in certain cases, the debate still rages on.

No matter what caused their extinction, extinct herbivore megafauna can still be extremely useful in studying climate change. What evidence is there about the structure of habitats where megafauna lived? Just this week a paper in PNAS seeks to answer this questions in great detail. And how did they do it? Ancient bird poop, of course.

The New Zealand moa was a giant herbivorous bird that has been extinct since 1400 AD. The two largest species of moa would have been around 12 feet tall and weighed up to 500lbs! Their extinction, like other megafauna, has been debated to be caused by overhunting and/or habitat loss. Due to the fact the moa only lived with one other animal that was big enough to eat it- Haast’s eagle- it is likely humans caused their extinction. The moa is a relatively well studied animal for being extinct: we have even been able to sequence their genome and see what kinds of parasites lived in their guts. The nine extinct species of moa were endemic to New Zealand and they likely shaped the plant communities they lived in, but it is difficult to know for sure when we were unable to critically assess their impact. The study of ancient poop (coprolites, which I also talked about here) can remedy these issues.

Artists rendition of a Haast's eagle attacking a moa. By John Megahan. Distributed under CC-BY license, PLOS Biology

Artist’s rendition of a Haast’s eagle attacking a moa. By John Megahan. Distributed under CC-BY license, PLOS Biology

In this study, the authors analyzed 51 coprolites rigorously: they were carbon dated, and individually assessed for ancient DNA (aDNA), plant macrofossils, and fossil pollen. Ancient DNA is critical in this type of study because not only does the DNA tell us that these coprolites are from four different moa species, but they can also provide DNA identification of the plant remains contained in the coprolite. Additional pollen and macrofossil study provide a detailed list of what plants were present at this site 400 years before the extinction of the moa. This combination of methods is extremely rigorous, and an incredible way of measuring paleoecology quantitatively. The results indicate that there were four species of moa living at the same time in the same area but occupying different dietary niches.

Figure 3 from Wood et al. 2013. Plant data from coprolite aDNA, fossils, and pollen. The different species had distinct diets.

Figure 3 from Wood et al. 2013. Plant data from coprolite aDNA, fossils, and pollen. The different species had distinct diets.

It stands to reason that ecosystems can be vastly changed when key organisms are removed. Large birds like moa likely had an impact on habitats through altering vegetation composition and seed dispersal. The species of moa from this study had dietary preferences from forest plants to grasses, and everything in between. In response to the idea that other herbivores could be introduced into ecosystems to mimic the effect a moa might have had on the vegetation community, the authors note modern ostriches and emus do not occupy the same dietary niche spaces as the extinct moa, and would be a poor replacement herbivore in a New Zealand ecosystem.

I think this study is so great because it really drives home the power of a multiproxy approach for understanding paleoecology. Combining traditional methods of fossil analysis with “newer” methods of aDNA and carbon creates a very clear picture of an ancient environment that otherwise would be impossible to obtain.


Resolving lost herbivore community structure using coprolites of four sympatric moa species (Aves: Dinornithiformes). Jamie R. Wood, Janet M. Wilmshurst, Sarah J. Richardson, Nicolas J. Rawlence, Steven J. Wagstaff, Trevor H. Worthy, and Alan Cooper. PNAS 2013 ; published ahead of print September 30, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1307700110

Category: Climate Change, Paleontology, Zoology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Not Just Jaws…Claws Mark Bone Too!

After a long journey through the millennia, fossils inevitably arrive in the present as damaged goods. Bacteria, scavengers, erosion, wind, rain, and even sunlight conspire to destroy the remains of previously living organisms. Although this loss of information is a bad thing for understanding many aspects of a long-gone organism, some post mortem adventures actually add data to the fossil record. A whole subfield of paleontology–taphonomy–focuses on this very topic.

Some of my favorite taphonomic artifacts are feeding traces–particularly the bite marks left behind by carnivorous animals. These traces tell us who fed on whom, and how they did so. Spend some time with fossil bones, and you are quite likely to run across these bite marks. For instance, a recent study in PLOS ONE documented croc bite marks on juvenile dinosaur bones, with one croc even leaving a tooth embedded in the bone. These kinds of fossils help paleontologists reconstruct the long-vanished food webs of prehistoric ecosystems.

Probable bite marks from a 75 million year old croc, left on the shoulder blade of a plant-eating dinosaur. Modified from Figure 2 in Boyd et al. 2013. CC-BY.

Probable bite marks from a 75 million year old croc, left on the shoulder blade of a plant-eating dinosaur. The blue lines point to the bite marks. Modified from Figure 2 in Boyd et al. 2013. CC-BY.

Because bite marks are so common, it’s easy to get in a rut and assume that all traces on bone result from bite marks. One great counterexample is trample marks–if a bone is pressed into the ground, sand and gravel can score the bone surface, mimicking bite marks or even human tool marks. Several colleagues and I also hypothesized that Triceratops may have injured each other with their horns, and Joe Peterson and colleagues inferred head-butting damage in the skulls of pachycephalosaur dinosaurs. A new study in PLOS ONE comes up with an even more interesting possibility–claw marks.

Claws–whether they are in birds, tyrannosaurs, or tigers–are covered by a keratinous sheath, pretty much equivalent to our fingernails. We all know that this keratin is fairly soft, particularly relative to bone. (If you’re a meat-eater, try to scratch the bony surface of that t-bone or pork chop next time you throw one on the grill) So, you really wouldn’t expect to see claw marks in the fossil record. To investigate this assumption, Bruce Rothschild and colleagues set up a nifty experiment.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright Photo by Nick Jewell, CC-BY.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright (apologies to William Blake)
Photo by Nick Jewell, CC-BY.

Rather than try to simulate claw damage in the laboratory, Rothschild and colleagues went straight to the source–a real, live tiger. Conveniently, zoos strive to give their animals a variety of boredom-alleviating enrichment activities. These can be a simple puzzle with a piece of food inside, or a ball to bat around, or in this case, a scientific experiment. The researchers devised a simple but effective contraption–a beef bone bolted into a piece of wood, inset so that sharp tiger teeth couldn’t get to it. If anything was going to mark the bone, it had to be the claws. Add the contraption to the tiger enclosure at a local zoo, and see what happens.

Contrary to expectations, the bone was quite prominently marked by tiger claws. These marks showed up at all levels of magnification (see image below).

Tiger claw marks on a beef bone, modified from Rothschild et al. 2013. Scale bar equals 5 cm in lower figure, and 1 cm in upper figure. CC-BY.

Tiger claw marks on a beef bone, modified from Figures 2 and 3 in Rothschild et al. 2013. Scale bar equals 5 cm in lower figure, and 1 cm in upper figure. CC-BY.

So, this means that paleontologists should probably be on the look-out for claw marks in the fossil record. As noted by Rothschild and colleagues, potential claw damage was previously spotted in monkey carcasses that had been feasted upon by eagles. The next step, of course, will be to see if the signatures of teeth and claws can be adequately distinguished by their traces. It would also be great to repeat the experiment with other kinds of bones and other animals.

All in all, this paper presents some pretty cool results. My only “major” quibble concerns part of the abstract, which seemingly refers to the marks as “pathology” (this came up in a recent discussion about the paper with some friends on Facebook). Pathology generally refers to disease processes in living organisms, and “taphonomy” is far more appropriate terminology here. I think the authors may be angling towards distinguishing claw- and tooth-induced injuries that occurred within the lifetime of the animal, but that topic isn’t covered by the paper. That too, presents an interesting question, and is definitely one for future research.

You can read the new paper here. For another look at the research, check out Brian Switek’s blog post.

Boyd CA, Drumheller SK, Gates TA (2013) Crocodyliform Feeding Traces on Juvenile Ornithischian Dinosaurs from the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) Kaiparowits Formation, Utah. PLoS ONE 8(2): e57605. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057605

Rothschild BM, Bryant B, Hubbard C, Tuxhorn K, Kilgore GP, et al. (2013) The Power of the Claw. PLoS ONE 8(9): e73811. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073811

Category: Dinosaurs, Paleontology, PLOS ONE, Zoology | 2 Comments

Dinosaurs Come Through In The Clutch

In the last few months, a lot has been going around about a pretty interesting topic—dino sex. Besides the mechanics of dinosaur sex and reproduction (some people love talking about that)- there are some more interesting questions to consider. For example, how many eggs did most dinosaurs lay? Some have suggested that enormous dinosaurs, such as sauropods, had many offspring per year, and this contributed to their gigantism. Previously, the only things we were able to discern about dinosaur reproduction were what was uncommonly preserved in the fossil record—such as complete fossil egg clutches, very rarely with a brooding parent on top. These finds are amazing and interesting, but because they are so rare, it is difficult to use these fossils to make broad generalizations about reproduction in different groups of dinosaurs.

Although rare, this brooding Citipati osmolskae is probably my favorite fossil ever. Uploaded by Dinoguy2, distributed under Creative Commons ShareALike 1.0 license.

In a paper out yesterday in PLOS ONE, authors Jan Werner and Eva Maria Griebeler looked at extant birds and reptiles in order to better understand how many eggs some dinosaurs may have laid during the year. They constructed a really cool allometric regression model based on modern species and found a close correlation between body mass, egg mass, clutch mass, and annual clutch mass.

Figure 2 from Werner and Griebeler 2013 showing the allometries of reptile, bird, and turtle body mass and egg mass.

Figure 2 from Werner and Griebeler 2013 showing the allometries of reptile, bird, and turtle body mass and egg mass.

When there is a clear idea of how extant animal size relationships function, the same equation can be applied to dinosaurs using extant phylogenetic bracketing. In other words, non-avian dinosaurs will be plugged into the same allometric equation as their closest ancestor. Theropods were plugged in to the “bird model” because they are most closely related to modern birds. Hadrosaurs and sauropodomorphs were plugged into the “reptile model” because the authors decided these dinosaurs were less related to birds than to reptiles since they were outside Therapoda. The results indicate that theropods probably only had one clutch per year, but hadrosaurs and sauropodomorphs may have had several. Surprisingly, using these calculations, most of the dinosaurs studied had less than 200 eggs per year. Enormous 75,000kg sauropods had around 400 eggs per year, which is less than extant sea turtles that can lay over 500 eggs per year!

But why did these different types of dinosaurs have different egg-laying strategies? Well, that is fairly open to interpretation. It is possible that the environments these animals lived in were so different that theropods were able to get by on one clutch per year, while other dinosaurs may have lived in environments where their clutches did not experience good survival rates. It is definitely clear though that there was a shift at some point during the evolution of non-avian dinosaurs to birds relating to egg and clutch size. Theropods had larger eggs than sauropodomorphs relative to body size, but had fewer eggs in their clutch. Modern birds have the largest eggs compared to body size of all, but by far the smallest clutch size, only laying 2.2-4.5 eggs per clutch. It will be interesting to explore and hypothesize about the drivers of this trend.

I always enjoy elegant studies like this one that utilize mostly published data to make new inferences about extinct animals. There are already so many data out there that paleontologists can utilize without relying on new fossil finds, so get (data)mining!


Werner J, Griebeler EM (2013) New Insights into Non-Avian Dinosaur Reproduction and Their Evolutionary and Ecological Implications: Linking Fossil Evidence to Allometries of Extant Close Relatives. PLoS ONE 8(8): e72862. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072862

Category: Dinosaurs, Paleontology, PLOS ONE | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Climate Change and Paleontology: Back to the Future

This week and next at PLOS Blogs, we are doing a focus on climate change. This is leading up to a great collection of papers that will be released at the Ecological Society of America meeting very soon (the link to the collection will be live on August 5th).

As paleontologists, we are frequently thinking about changes in climates over longer time spans that most people ever consider. Decades and centuries seem like small drops in a vast, overflowing bucket. Even though we often deal with thousands or millions of years of climate data obtained from proxies, we still are very concerned with how our science can help understand the current state of rapidly accelerated climate alteration and its impact on global ecology. Paleontology is indeed relevant to this discussion because we can gain perspective on the magnitude of events, such as extinction, in the face of normal climate change, but also in response to rarer, more extreme climate events.

Certain proxies in paleontology allow us to understand how past climate change impacted biodiversity, and we can use this information to make an attempt at predicting the future. As I have previously posted, ancient and modern small mammal communities are strong indicators of how climate change will impact the survival of vertebrates around the world. For example, research has shown certain rodents that feed mainly on seeds dominated past desert faunal assemblages during warm periods. Since warming is predicted to increase in many of the world’s deserts, this gives a strong indication of what may happen to certain key species of rodents over the coming decades.

It is no secret my favorite proxy for studying how climate change has impacted animals in the past is stable isotope paleoecology. By quantitatively studying what vertebrates ate and the types of environments they lived in at different points in time, we can visualize how changes in environments will impact the diets, ranges, and survival of certain species. Climate change will strongly impact the food webs of both marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and looking into how these changes have played out in the fossil record could give us an idea of what will happen in vulnerable areas in the future.

Using stable isotopes to assess diet in a unique, changing environment was the basic premise behind my most recent paper that came out on June 12th in PLOS ONE. My co-authors and I used carbon and oxygen stable isotopes to characterize the environment these extinct large marsupials lived in 3 million years ago based on the diets reflected in their tooth enamel. This locality that we analyzed was Pliocene in age, and represents the time preceding large scale megafauna extinctions in Australia. Being able to understand the environment these animals lived in is critical for assessing how the subsequent shift to grasslands in the region may have impacted biodiversity and factored in to future extinction events.

Euryzygoma dunense, one of the animals I sampled tooth enamel from for stable isotope analysis. Image by Nobu Tamura, distributed under GNU Free Documentation.

Euryzygoma dunense, one of the animals I sampled tooth enamel from for stable isotope analysis. Image by Nobu Tamura, distributed under GNU Free Documentation.

In this study, I compared the stable isotope values in the tooth enamel of fossil marsupials, such as kangaroos and giant wombats, to that of modern kangaroo tooth enamel in order to characterize the ancient environment. According to stable isotope data, this area of Queensland was much wetter than previously thought. Today, this same region is classified as grassland when, during the Pliocene, it probably more closely resembled a temperate or subtropical forest. Now that this is known about the past environment, with more sampling of later localities, we can better understand how climatic and environmental factors could have lead to a decline of certain species. While doing this research, I was struck by the vast range of plant fodder modern kangaroo species consume—it spans a vast range of carbon stable isotope values over their different habitats. While kangaroos may be generalist herbivores that can survive over a range of habitats, other animals may not be, which exposes them to a greater danger of losing their food source in areas strongly impacted by climate change.

Figure 2 from Montanari et al. 2013. This illustrates the range in plant diet in modern kangaroos, and also that the stable isotope values in the paleoenvironment indicate it may have been similar to a modern temperate or subtropical environment.

Figure 2 from Montanari et al. 2013. This illustrates the range in plant diet in modern kangaroos, and also that the stable isotope values in the paleoenvironment indicate it may have been similar to a modern temperate or subtropical environment. (Click to enlarge)

Typically in the megafauna extinction debate we talk about a binary cause of extinction: climate change or humans? In this day and age, it isn’t so clear. We have caused an accelerated shift in the carefully orchestrated conditions that allow us to have such a great diversity of life on Earth. In the future, we cannot really think of extinction debates in the same binary fashion—as almost all extinction can now be traced back to humans. The work of paleontologists to understand past climate change and its impact on global ecology and biodiversity will clearly only become more relevant in the near future.



Montanari S, Louys J, Price GJ (2013) Pliocene Paleoenvironments of Southeastern Queensland, Australia Inferred from Stable Isotopes of Marsupial Tooth Enamel. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66221. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066221

Category: Climate Change, Paleontology, PLOS ONE | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

USFS Regulations and Paleontology on Federal Lands — Closing Thoughts

It’s not a popular opinion in these days of budget cuts and fiscal austerity, but I’m going to go ahead and state it anyway: We do not have enough people employed by the federal government.

Okay, let me refine that a little. We do not have nearly enough paleontologists employed in the federal system in order to adequately manage the fossil resources on federal lands. The ones who are in place are doing an excellent job with the facilities available to them, but pretty much every federally-employed paleontologist that you ask will say they need more federal paleontologists. [speaking in their personal opinions and not as a matter of Official Record, of course] That fact has vast implications for how fossil resources on public lands are managed.

This blog has been swirling with a discussion about proposed regulations for paleontological resources on US Forest Service lands. A series of posts and the associated comments present various perspectives, clarifications, and corrections from many interested parties (there was also an excellent discussion at the unofficial Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Facebook group). This is my final blog post on the topic before the close of the comment period and before I head into the field.

Trilobite--because I show too many pictures of dinosaurs. Photo by Mark A. Wilson, in the public domain.

Trilobite–because I show too many pictures of dinosaurs. Photo by Mark A. Wilson, in the public domain.

To briefly summarize, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) requires that various federal agencies produce policy for the care of fossil resources under their jurisdiction. The US Forest Service (USFS) proposed regulations are the first to follow in the wake of PRPA, and as such may set a pattern for other agencies. The regulations govern such things as who may collect what, the role of museums in preserving fossils from USFS lands, permitting guidelines for fossil collection, law enforcement, and much more.

I have covered some of my evolving opinions on this topic here and here–make sure to read Matt Brown’s response with some counterarguments (and areas of agreement) here. My one deep regret about my original posts is that some gained the impression that I do not respect the work that our current federally employed paleontologists do; as already mentioned elsewhere, this is absolutely not the case. My concerns are with situations where these paleontologists may not be consulted (or where such paleontologists are not available). My other regret is that some gained the impression that I thought the rules as a whole were awful and should be trashed. Again, this was not my intent–careful readers will note I have focused only on selected areas of the rules (and also see below). As a bit of a gentle counter, I should also note that the regulations were presented for public comment. As an American citizen, I have a stake in how this issue is handled. I would be irresponsible in my citizenship if I did not comment on an issue that matters to me. Along the same lines, I fully accept that other people who care about this same issue differ in their opinions (and they may even be right where I am wrong!). Even when some have been critical of things I wrote here, I am heartened to know that they are disagreeing in good faith and out of a similar care for our country. I have learned from you, and thank you for the opportunity to have this dialogue.

So with that overly verbose preface, I will summarize a few things about the proposed regulations.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
A few colleagues (some of whom are paleontologists in the federal system) suggested that I have focused too much on the “bad” things about the proposed regulations, rather than acknowledging the many good aspects to the regulations. That was a mistake on my part, and so I will attempt to rectify it here with a brief comment.

All in all, the positive side of the proposed regulations is that they clarify many, many, many areas of previous confusion. The biggest aspect is in the permitting process. Speaking in general terms on the basis of conversations with colleagues who applied or attempted to apply for permits, the USFS permitting process needed an overhaul. The new rules provide for a consistent, logical, and accountable process–this is a major advance.

Many other areas–such as the designation of repositories and the repository approval process–are also generally well-crafted, and will not result in any major (or even minor) disruption to past practice and most stakeholders.

Every Silver Lining Has an Associated Cloud (and vice versa)
The hottest discussion topic in the comment threads has been the scope of authority that repositories have when caring for federally owned collections. As Matt noted, nobody here has disputed that the collections are property of the US government (and thus, the American people). Nor has anybody disagreed that federal officials (whether they are land managers, paleontologists, cabinet secretaries, or whoever) are ultimately accountable for this federal property. The whole discussion has been over the latitude that repositories (the usually non-federal facilities that care for federal specimens) should have in managing federal collections in their care.

One opinion is that if a facility has been approved as a repository, it has already demonstrated that it has the expertise, ability, and appropriate institutional policies to make certain decisions in its capacity as a repository (e.g., authorizing reproduction of specimens). One thing I did not realize going in was that some paleontological repositories do not have paleontologists on staff (on thinking about it some more I suspect at least some were institutions that originally had paleontologists but later phased out a paleontology program; in other cases…what? really?). As such, I see where the regulations need to account for such things (and I suspect they could be written to account for this while explicitly maintaining leeway for fully staffed repositories–perhaps a tiered repository status?). The alternative viewpoint is thus that repositories are holding tanks for federal specimens, and as such should have external sign-off for use of these specimens. This is to ensure accountability for and good stewardship of federal resources (see the post here and associated comments for more on this).

Although I completely understand and can support the latter sentiment, I am troubled by some of its implications. One is that an “authorized official”–who is not a paleontologist–is effectively acting as collections manager/curator/museum director. In light of the way federal property responsibilities are laid out, this is understandable. However, the regulations as drafted do not always specify that this official must consult with an agency paleontologist prior to making decisions over use of fossils. I would strongly urge that consultation with a paleontologist be written into the regulations at all appropriate points, so as to avoid any wiggle room. This has the positive effect of also emphasizing the need for more paleontologists in the federal system (see: my opening paragraphs).

My second concern is that the regulations (probably unintentionally) send mixed messages to repositories and scientists as to what activities are allowed without approval. Although I do not completely agree, I understand why molding and casting or consumptive sampling might require USFS approval (particularly for institutions without in-house expertise). However, a number of other activities are puzzling by their absence. Preparation–cleaning and stabilizing a fossil for study–has far more destructive potential even under the most experienced and highly trained hands, but is not mentioned at all in the regulations. Are museums to assume that they are allowed to prepare fossils without additional authorization? Or would a strict reading of “federal officers as stewards of public resources” mandate that fossil preparation receive appropriate permission from an authorized official? Similarly, should federal authorization be sought for research photography of federal specimens in a repository? How about simply study of a specimen? How about visiting a collection to view federal specimens? Or putting a specimen on exhibit? Gluing a broken specimen?

I ask these not to be difficult, but to think through the implications of what it means for a specimen to be federal property, and how this affects the way museums and scientists operate. As Matt Brown correctly noted, scientists have a checklist of things to do before and during study of a specimen, regardless of who owns it. Ask permission to open cabinets. Ask permission to study specimens. Let the museum know what your plans are for the research. If something breaks, tell the museum. Ask permission to take photographs. Make sure it’s OK to prepare a fossil before doing so. A museum would never place a loaned specimen on exhibit without asking permission of the owner. Etc. Strictly speaking, the concept of federal accountability for federal property leaves the impression that all of these should have federal approval first, but these are not written into the regulations (nor are they in most “official” repository documents that I’ve seen). Indeed, if the issue is just about accountability for the specimens, the level of oversight needs to be much, much higher than provided in the proposed policies. This is certainly not the case in practice (I’ve never had a collections manager ask me to wait while they check that it’s OK to photograph federal specimens), and as it stands things seem inconsistent (e.g., why does CT scanning receive special mention but not fossil preparation). Similarly, this level of oversight could approach the level of ridiculous (and it would be completely unsustainable even with 1,000 more federal paleontologists in the system). I am not saying that others have actually proposed this; just that accountability for museum specimens has many levels beyond inventory and duplication rights. Any museum’s collections policy manual will reflect this! Nor are museums operating with zero oversight in the current system–repository reports and the occasional facility inspection hold museums accountable.

As a result, parts of the regulations send somewhat mixed signals on allowable actions for scientists and repositories. I am not saying that this intentional or malicious on anyone’s part. If there is any fault here, it is poor communication between museums, federal officials, and scientists. Moving forward, I would like to see allowed activities more clearly defined, after discussion with all stakeholders. What is a scientist or a museum permitted to do without consultation of a federal official? Making “collections available for scientific research and public education” is vague indeed, particularly if the most strict interpretation of federal specimens as federal property is contrasted against the broadest interpretation of what it means to make something available for research and education. I realize that a list could never mention everything and that sometimes ambiguity permits flexibility, but most museums already have policies in place that could serve as models. Even if not enshrined in official regulation, perhaps this is an opportunity to discuss and outline these use cases. (if someone knows a resource that discusses this already, please post in the comments–my reading of publicly available documents mostly yielded National Park Service policies or policies at individual district levels, mostly discussing commercial rather than scientific use of museum specimens). In cases where federal land managers are worried about someone profiting off of federal collections (e.g., the case of the CT scan mentioned by Matt), a simple non-commercial use clause for repositories in conjunction with a clear permitting process for commercial uses would suffice.

No matter how broad or narrow one wishes the federal oversight of repositories, it is painfully clear that there are not nearly enough paleontologists in the federal system to manage the resources in the field or the repository. I will confess I am not optimistic for any change in that situation given the current federal budget issues (and part of why I advocate for a greater role in decision-making by repositories). Nonetheless, I will be first in line to write a letter and mobilize support on this issue (no matter what my feelings are on other aspects of federal policy).

Another issue that has been mentioned is that paleontologists can help out by offering support through federal advisory committees, etc. In the past, perhaps as a result of the small number of federal paleontologists, it has been very unclear that this was even an option (beyond presenting at a federal fossil conference). I look forward to seeing this achieve broader fruition. I particularly would like to see a deeper public dialogue on which uses of specimens by repositories and scientists do and don’t require prior approval.

With that, I should end this long and rambling post. There’s a lot of ground covered here, and I’m sure the discussion is not yet finished (nor should it be).

A Final Call to Action
Today is the final day to submit comments on the proposed USFS regulations for paleontological resources on its lands (prior to midnight, to be precise). If you think the rules are okay exactly as written, that parts need modification, or that the whole thing should be sent to the scrap heap, submit a comment! Read the regulations, read varying perspectives on the regulations, and formulate your own opinion. Even after you have sent in your comments, don’t let matters rest there. We have more proposed regulations coming down the pipe (e.g., for the BLM), so it is important to stay engaged in the issue. Engagement means more than just commenting on regulations–I certainly plan to take up any invitations to support ongoing work relevant to fossils on public lands. We all can!

[Disclaimer--all opinions here are my own, and do not reflect official statements by my employer or PLOS, etc., etc.]

Category: Government, Museums, Navel Gazing, Paleontology | 3 Comments

Counterpoint: Proposed USFS regulations are good for paleontology and the American people

[From time to time on The Integrative Paleontologists, we will invite guest bloggers to share alternate viewpoints about current topics. Today we feature a guest post from Matthew Brown, Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratories Manager at The University of Texas at Austin.]

The open comment period initiated by the publication of US Forest Service draft regulations in the Federal Register has sparked intense interest from the academic paleontology community (e.g., here and here). This is a great thing! However, both public and private discussions in recent weeks suffer in some ways from a lack of big picture perspective, and illuminate persistent misunderstandings about the responsibilities of public land managers to their resources. As an academic paleontologist, I argue that the draft proposal does not endanger research on Federal lands, contrary to points made by other scientists who wish to amend the regulations. In fact, it should only serve to strengthen research. The proposed regulations are asking for basic due diligence in scientific and collections methodology.

To summarize the protests, there is dissatisfaction with the requirement for USFS permission to undertake certain kinds of research. No one in this debate has contested the public ownership of vertebrate fossils from Federal lands. Federal agencies (USFS, NPS, BLM, etc.) are in the business of resource management, which includes balancing scientific research, public enjoyment, conservation, and commercial interests. Academic researchers are but one group of stakeholders in a diverse sphere of use, and academic institutions just one type of custodian for public resources. However, there remains a misconception about the role of custodianship within the museum community. This is not unique to paleontology, by the way; a number of museum groups have expressed discontent with the Federal system, especially directed toward the National Park Service.

The argument has been made that professional paleontologists and the museums they work for are best suited to make decisions about the well being of the specimens (see links above), assuming that they are more extensively trained (i.e., they are better equipped to assess the costs and benefits of various research techniques), and because they interact more regularly with the fossils in their care through research and curation. In many cases this claim may be true; though in fairness, many academically trained research paleontologists and collections managers are employed within the federal system. These are often the same individuals responsible for issuing permits and funding research projects in the first place, and many of them have advanced degrees in geology or paleontology. But even if the preceding argument was true, let us remember that Federal specimens housed in non-Federal collections are on loan to those institutions. They retain public ownership despite being held in non-Federal collections. Keeping that in mind, consider the following thought experiment.

Let’s say that my museum borrows a specimen from your museum for my research. Deciding that my 17 years of experience as a preparator, collections manager, and researcher qualifies me to make decisions about how to best analyze your specimens, I move forward with my project with no further communication to your museum. A few years later, you visit my museum, and open a drawer to find that I have sliced up some elements for histological analysis, ground up parts for isotopic analysis, loaned the skull to a grad student to mold the teeth for microwear analysis, that the student subsequently quit the program and no one can find your skull, and that I coated the remaining bones with Elmer’s Glue to “preserve” them. I also had the skull scanned and made the CT dataset available to a commercial company, who is now selling casts for profit. I got five great papers in top journals out of these studies, but I never sent you the references. You had no idea any of this took place, and when you asked me to return the loan and any data generated, I wrote to your museum director telling them that because this isn’t your area of expertise, you don’t have any business dictating how I do my job.

The described situation is not at all uncommon for inter-museum loans; any one aspect of this scenario should be familiar to anyone who has worked in collections for any length of time. Granted, it is highly unlikely for all examples to be represented in one loan; nonetheless, you wouldn’t be happy about encountering any of these facets in a loan returned to your institution. Yet this situation is precisely the kind of unilateral decision making that museums are calling for when it comes to doing research on publicly owned fossils.

Vertebrate fossils found on Federal lands belong to the American people, and the Federal agencies, under US law, are responsible for their care. The policies of the US Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc., are in place to protect the agencies, the resources, and the public from mismanagement. Certainly museums and researchers play a significant role as partners in the custodianship, but the Federal employees are the individuals responsible to Congress and to the public for the well being of those fossil specimens, and for balancing the needs of the diverse group of stakeholders with an interest in them. This fact cannot be changed through policy; it is regulated by United States law. It doesn’t matter if we think the policy places undue burden on researchers; the policy is written so that the agencies are compliant with Federal law.

The bottom line in these proposed regulations is accountability: accountability of the researchers to the land managers, of the land managers to Congress, and of Congress to the American people. To be sure, the Feds have not always been the greatest partners to academia, but of course the reverse is equally true. There are certainly not enough paleontologists in the Federal system; this is indeed a major problem. But that situation won’t improve if we as a scientific community fight the very regulations that lead to the creation of government research and resource management positions.

We already accept similar accountability in other aspects in our roles as shared custodians of these public resources, and they work to our ultimate benefit. For example, no museum should ever collect specimens under casual use provisions; research permits are an instrument to allow the land agencies to monitor land use, justify funding land maintenance, research projects, and government paleontology positions. It also prevents conflicting research and unnecessary destruction of public lands. Here, accountability prevents wasted public dollars and establishes that researchers are good partners in caring for fossil resources. Requiring specific permission and subsequent reporting is not an exercise in power trips. These are responsible accounting practices that demonstrate responsible use and support future research.

The core argument against the proposed provisions of USFS policy is that the expertise does not exist in the government system to make sound decisions in the best interest of specimens or research. However, this position abdicates the responsibility of researchers to educate those same land managers about the importance of their research and the resources. It also denies the federal agencies real data on how these resources are being used; data that can be used to justify further research, and further positions to enable that research. We as an academic community should be celebrating the opportunity to open positions in the Federal system for paleontologists. I have approximately 15 paleontology graduate students in my department who will graduate in the next few years. Will 15 curatorial or faculty positions in paleontology be available in that time? Probably not, given the state of most university and museum budgets. This leaves the Federal government as one of the few growth sectors in the science.

Sure, the proposed regulations may create more work for individual paleontologists. But conducting real science is hard, and the steps that the USFS and other entities are asking for strengthen the quality of that research, not hobble it. The system of permissions for sampling and analysis is a system of communication. If researchers are not communicating their desires (and research needs) to the agencies, then they are not doing their job as scientists and research partners in the use of these fossil resources. Refusal to work on Federal lands because the land managers want to know what is being collected, what is being done with the specimens, and ensuring accountability is petulant and shortsighted. The museum community reaction to proposed USFS regulations is the part of the conversation that is bad for paleontology.

Matthew A. Brown is the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratories Manager at The University of Texas at Austin, and is closing in on 20 years of work in public and private universities, museums, and parks. He has conducted and participated in field work in NPS, BLM, USFS, and Peruvian National Park Service units, and has prepared, molded and cast, and destructively sampled fossil specimens from many of them. He is currently volunteering as Scientist-in-Residence at Petrified Forest National Park.

Category: Government, Museums, Paleontology | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Help revise proposed US Forest Service regulations for paleontology–comment now!

The United States federal government is drafting new regulations for paleontology on federal lands, following the recent passage of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA). The first round of proposed regulations comes from the US Forest Service, an agency with many fossil resources under its care. Although most aspects of the proposed regulations are a step in the right direction, some parts could hinder the ability of museums to manage fossils in their care and the ability of scientists and other members of the public to learn from fossils. I outlined some of my own concerns in a recent post (available here, with a great discussion); scientific organizations (particularly the Paleontological Society) and paleontologists alike echo these and other concerns.

The US Department of Agriculture (the parent body for the USFS) is soliciting comments on the draft regulations. We have until July 22. If it appears that there is a lack of interest in this issue, the regulations may not changeAct now!

An outcrop of the North Horn Formation, rocks primarily on USFS land in Utah that preserve the end of the Age of Dinosaurs and the beginning of the Age of Mammals. Photograph by Andrew A. Farke; CC-BY 3.0.

An outcrop of the North Horn Formation, rocks primarily on USFS land in Utah that preserve the end of the Age of Dinosaurs and the beginning of the Age of Mammals. Photograph by Andrew A. Farke; CC-BY 3.0.

Comments made easy!
To make things easy, Joe Sertich (Curator of Dinosaurs at Denver Museum of Nature and Science) and his colleagues (including paleobotanist Ian Miller and me) have crafted a short form letter that outlines some major concerns with the proposed regulations as well as ways to fix them (text at the end of this post). All you have to do is cut and paste the text into the official comment form with your name. Modify the text any way you like, depending on your personal opinions…if you want something that exceeds the length limit of 2,000 characters, you have the option to upload a longer document (one option is available here). Make sure to take care of this by 11:59 pm EDT on Monday, July 22.

Your Homework

Quick Comment – Sample Text

Proposed regulations for paleontological resources impose unfair, uncompensated burdens on repositories acting in the public’s interest and deprive repositories of the professional discretion needed to manage collections to scientific standards. Help protect paleontological resources by giving repositories the necessary flexibility to grow and manage public collections.

291.11 Casual collecting on National Forest System lands. This section unfairly singles out research-based paleontologists for a greater level of regulation than the casual collector. Research-based collections of paleontological resources should require permitting only when fieldwork exceeds casual collecting.
291.22 Becoming an approved repository. Please clarify how the authorized officer will work with the repository official to determine the content of the collection prior to deposit. Undue interference with curatorial authority will lead museums to decline acceptance of specimens collected on Federal lands–specimens that the Federal government does not have the resources to care for.
291.24 Standards for access and use of collections. This section includes provisions not addressed in the Act and add undue administrative burden on repositories. By virtue of receiving Repository Approval, institution officials should have authority to make reasonable decisions on use and care of specimens according to institutional policies and professional standards.
(e) Fees–Clarify whether the repository may charge one-time curation fees for specimens collected on Federal land by permitted depositors and whether the USDA is able to provide ongoing funding to support curation of these federally-owned collections.
(f) Reproductions–Requirements of sections 1 and 2 on approval for reproductions are excessive and should be eliminated. As written, they would severely limit accessibility of even digital representations to the public. Modern digitization methods pose little physical risk to specimens.

Category: Government, Museums, Paleontology | 11 Comments

What’s My Age Again?

Earlier this month, an almost 40 pound rockfish was caught in Alaska that was allegedly 200 years old. The angler that caught the enormous fish based this age on body size estimates. Then, earlier this week when the fish was officially aged, it was found to only be 64 years old. Many of you at home may be wondering: how was this fish officially aged? How do we know how old any vertebrate is when all we have a carcass (or in the case of paleontology, just some dry bones)?

The term ‘sclerochronology’ was coined in the 70s to describe the study of accreted hard parts in invertebrates, but this study can be applied to any hard parts that have specific growth patterns. In corals, mollusks, and even vertebrate teeth and bones, we see growth lines that can reflect annual, weekly, or daily increments of time. Studying these lines and how often they form can tell us how old an animal is, since body size estimates are clearly unreliable once an animal reaches adulthood.

The aforementioned rockfish was aged by analyzing its otoliths- small bony structures in the ears used for sensing movement. These structures grow incrementally, and these increments form at known times. When they are counted, the fish can be assigned an age- a method that works in both modern and fossil organisms. The growth lines take on different characteristics in summer and in winter due to nutrient cycling and diet, so a pair of summer and winter bands can be counted as one year of life. Trace elements and isotopes can be measured in each band, which gives us an idea about migration and seasonal dietary change.

Otoliths from a Pacific cod.  Uploaded by Edgewise, distributed under GDFL Wikimedia Commons.

Luckily there are also similar growth lines in vertebrate teeth, and sometimes bones, although these lines can be slightly more difficult to interpret. Sometimes their formation is not regular, so they cannot simply be counted the same as tree rings to determine age. In vertebrate teeth, there are a variety of types of growth lines known as perikymata and striae of Retzius, that can be a valuable chronometer if the time between these increments is known. In humans, certain growth lines in teeth are essentially weekly, but since we are unable to perform experiments to study the growth of extinct organisms, the length of time between growth increments of fossils can be difficult to discern.

Last week, Kevin Uno and co-authors published a study in PNAS relating to growth lines in elephant tusks. This paper makes me so excited for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they use carbon-14 dating and stable isotope analysis to make vital points about animal growth, ecology, and wildlife forensics.

Basically, Uno et al. were interested in utilizing the carbon-14 “bomb curve” to date ivory and thereby show if it was legal or not, as ivory harvested before a certain date can be legal for sale in the United States. Nuclear weapons testing from 1952-1962 doubled the atmospheric concentration of carbon-14. Recognizing this spike in radiocarbon in a biological sample can give us an idea of when it was formed.

Figure 3 from Uno et al. 2013 illustrating the C-14 age of growth bands in an elephant molar.

Figure 3 from Uno et al. 2013 illustrating the C-14 age of growth bands in an elephant molar.

The work of Uno et al. illustrates that the dating can help discern whether the ivory is legal or not, but also, their detailed research into the dating of growth lines in elephant tusks and other mammalian molars allow us to be able to make more detailed paleoecological estimates with stable isotopes. Serial sampling fossilized materials for stable isotopes, such as molars, can tell us about seasonal changes in diets and water use. Understanding how often growth lines are deposited in hard parts of vertebrates by dating them is necessary if we want to have an accurate chronometer for assessing the age at death of a fossil organism. The work in this paper illustrated that elephants also have approximately week long increments of growth, and this knowledge now allows us to have a detailed chronometer for other extinct elephant relatives. I am of the opinion that serial sampling for stable isotopes and dating should be done on growth lines whenever possible so we have quantitative data on just how old these fossils are.

And next time the media throws us a fish story, we can all be a bit more skeptical.


Kevin T. Uno, Jay Quade, Daniel C. Fisher, George Wittemyer, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Samuel Andanje, Patrick Omondi, Moses Litoroh, and Thure E. Cerling. Bomb-curve radiocarbon measurement of recent biologic tissues and applications to wildlife forensics and stable isotope (paleo)ecology. PNAS 2013 : 1302226110v1-201302226.

Category: Paleontology, Zoology | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Act now! Proposed US Forest Service regulations are bad for paleontology

Public lands (those areas owned by the government) are a tremendous asset to the United States, brimming with recreational opportunities, natural resources, beautiful vistas, and best of all: fossils! Many spectacular fossil discoveries within the United States originated on public lands–the elaborately horned dinosaur Kosmoceratops, swim traces of fossil fish, and even beautiful petrified wood with insect burrows, to name just a few examples from PLOS ONE. A long-standing partnership between federal agencies and scientists has been wonderfully productive. But, a new batch of federal regulations threatens paleontological research on fossils from some public lands.

The skull of Kosmoceratops, a discovery made on federal lands. Modified from Sampson et al. 2009. CC-BY.

The skull of Kosmoceratops, a discovery made on federal lands. Modified from Sampson et al. 2009. CC-BY.


A little background
Fossils found on federal lands belong to the American people. In practical terms, the arrangement has worked out quite well for everyone. If I want to collect fossils (particularly vertebrate fossils) on federal land, I first have to apply for a permit from the appropriate agency (Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service, US Army Corps of Engineers, etc.). In the permit, I outline my qualifications as a scientist, state the scientific purpose of my work, and list the areas where I wish to collect. If the permit is granted, I agree to abide by a quite reasonable set of rules (many in place to protect the sites for the long-term).

As an important term of the permit, I must ensure that any fossils I collect are deposited at an appropriate museum that can care for them in the long-term. For vertebrate fossils in particular, this means that the fossils cannot disappear into a private collection. But, the museum will not own the fossils either–they remain the property of the American people. Basic standards of collection care are required for any such federal repository. This is generally a good thing, to ensure that the fossils are always safe and available to researchers. For instance, a cash-strapped museum couldn’t just sell off its dinosaur bones.

In practice, museums invest a lot of resources into these fossils (usually, but not always, with minimal federal support). They cover collection expenses, preparation expenses, research expenses, and curation expenses. When it comes to research, paleontologists historically have been given pretty wide latitude, particularly once the fossils are back at the museum. As long as the museum collections managers and curators responsible for the collections are OK with a research protocol, the feds have been willing to trust museums to make decisions about collections in their care. After all, who better knows what is good for the fossils than those who work with them every day?

This is all about to change.

Good news/bad news
The 2009 passage of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA), as part of a big omnibus bill, was hailed by many paleontologists as a big step forward for our science. In many ways, it was–previous laws governing paleontology on federal lands had been a patchwork quilt assembled over 100 years, with some regulations MacGyvered into service from archaeology (just mention the “1906 Antiquities Act” and you’ll see a paleontologist roll his or her eyes). With PRPA passed, it was time for the relevant authorities to propose guidelines for paleontology on federal lands.

First out of the gate are draft regulations from the United States Forest Service (USFS). Released just a few weeks ago (full text available here), they’re available for public comment until July 22. There is much to like about the regulations–indeed, most paleontologists will notice little difference in how they do business. However, one section in particular is quite worrisome (footnotes are mine):

“(1) Prior to reproducing a paleontological resource, the repository will notify and obtain approval from the authorized officer*. Reproductions include, but are not limited to, molding and casting, computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans, and three-dimensional (3-D) rendering.

(2) The repository may only allow consumptive analysis of specimens if the authorized officer* has determined, in consultation with an agency paleontologist, that the potential gain in scientific or interpretive information outweighs the potential loss of the paleontological resource and provides the repository with written authorization for such use.”

–Quote from Section 291.24, “Standards for access and use of collections”
*”Authorized officer” is not someone who works for the museum–it refers to a government official. As written, they are not necessarily a trained paleontologist!

Microwear on the tooth of the long-necked dinosaur Diplodocus. This image was produced after molding the original specimen--something that would be much more difficult for USFS specimens under proposed rules. Modified from Whitlock 2011. CC-BY.

Microwear on the tooth of the long-necked dinosaur Diplodocus. This image was produced after molding the original specimen–something that would be much more difficult for USFS specimens under proposed rules. Modified from Whitlock 2011. CC-BY.

Why so serious?
If these regulations are enacted as written, paleontologists and museums will need an unprecedented level of government approval for many basic tasks. Here are just a few examples of how this might play out:

  • A museum wants to replicate a Tyrannosaurus tooth found on USFS land, for public outreach. After all, it’s better than having the original specimen handled by countless people. Sorry–you’d better get the Forest Service to sign off before you even think about molding and casting that fossil.
  • A museum wants to laser scan a fossil horse jaw from their collections that was found on USFS land. Gotta get permission from the Forest Service first.
  • A researcher at another museum wants to make a 3D print of the aforementioned horse jaw, from the laser scan made by the museum after they acquired permission to make the scan. Sorry, you’d better check with the USFS before making that print.
  • A graduate student is studying dental microwear on fossil camel teeth from the Barstow Formation. The student gets permission from the museum to mold tooth wear surfaces for her study, and buys a plane ticket and books a hotel room. While browsing collections at the museum, she finds some fossils she didn’t know about that would make an excellent addition to her study. But…they’re from USFS land. Sorry, but she’ll have to come back another time after filling out the requisite paperwork. Unfortunately, her budget is too tight, and the fossil will never make it into her sample.
  • A paleontologist discovers a virtually complete dinosaur skeleton on Forest Service land, and collects the specimen after securing all of the necessary permits. It’s from a small dinosaur that looks like it could be a new species. Or, is it perhaps a young individual of another species from the same area? The best way to find out is to remove a piece of bone and study its microstructure. Previously, a collections officer at the museum could sign off on this. But in this case, the project first has to get clearance from a USFS official. They’re not terribly familiar with histology, and the agency paleontologist they consult certainly doesn’t like the idea of the skeleton from a new species of dinosaur being “damaged.” Permission denied.

Researchers and museums will be hobbled for basic scientific procedures such as CT scanning, histology, isotopic analysis, and molding/casting [important note: see clarification at the end of this post]. Indeed, the burden is such that many will just say “forget it” when it comes to working with USFS specimens. They’ll just sit in a drawer, with their full potential of scientific study never realized. This is completely against the spirit of the original legislation, and not at all what many of its supporters intended.

Thin-sections of this Tenontosaurus bone provide valuable information on how these animals grew. This kind of work would require special approval from the USFS under the proposed regulations. Image modified from Werning 2012. CC-BY.

Thin-sections of this Tenontosaurus bone provide valuable information on how these animals grew. This kind of work would require special approval from the USFS under the proposed regulations. Image modified from Werning 2012. CC-BY.

What’s the problem here?
In the current system, museums are trusted to make decisions about specimens in their care. After all, who knows better about what is good for fossils than qualified and trained collections managers, curators, and paleontologists? The proposed regulations would take these decisions out of the hands of the people with the most immediate knowledge of the specimens and the science, and place the ultimate decisions in the hands of individuals who may be completely unfamiliar with paleontology. Even if the official is a paleontologist, there is no guarantee that they have the expertise or background to make an informed decision about specimens they may have never seen! In the best case, the regulations could add weeks or months of waiting before basic research is allowed to proceed.

But wait…isn’t this just ensuring that rogue museum paleontologists won’t go willy-nilly with federal specimens? Not in the least! Right now, every single museum that is allowed to hold federal specimens (including those from the USFS) has to pass stringent criteria. They are held to high standards for specimen security, storage, and record keeping. If a museum has already jumped through all of the hoops to become a federal repository, it is certainly capable of being trusted to make decisions about scientific use and reproduction of specimens!

Not a scientist?
If you are not a scientist, you are affected, too. “Old” technologies such as molding and casting brought the public into contact with many fossils they never would have seen otherwise, and “new” technologies such as 3D printing have the potential to spread fossils even more broadly. The new regulations will make it much more difficult for museums and other institutions to share their specimens with the public. This is ironic, because the explanation of the proposed rules fully acknowledges the importance of fossil reproductions!

What should you do?
These regulations will have a chilling effect on paleontology, adding layers of red tape to research and outreach that have never needed it previously. Even if you don’t work on fossils from USFS land, you need to take action. As the first set of regulations from a government agency, they may well provide a template for other federal agencies (BLM, NPS, etc.) crafting their guidelines. If you study fossils from the United States, odds are quite good that the rules will eventually impact your work.

Fortunately, these regulations are not yet permanent. Read them over yourself. Submit a written comment by July 22. Encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same. Encourage your professional societies to take a stand (The Paleontological Society has already issued a statement; here’s hoping Society of Vertebrate Paleontology does also!).

The solution is simple: let the museums make decisions about specimens in their care. A simple rewording of the regulations is all that is required. This is best for science, and best for the fossils.

Update/Clarification: In some cases, a “Memorandum of Understanding” between museums and federal agencies is already in place (indeed, my own museum has some of these), that places some restrictions on the use of federal specimens (e.g., for destructive sampling). Anecdotally, these are not universally in place for all agencies. For the ones I’ve looked at, issues of digitization are not addressed yet. In any case, this is an opportunity to do things right. . .let’s remember that these are public specimens. It is not in the public’s best interest to restrict even digital access.

Category: Government, Museums, Paleontology | Tagged , , , | 36 Comments