Monday, March 7, 2011

Fossil Collectors and Academic Paleontologists: Grudge Match, Love Fest, or a Little of Both?

In July of 2010, while in the small outback-Queensland (Australia) town of Boulia – mentioned in a previous entry – I was reminded through one simple question about a huge cultural and communicative gap dividing many people otherwise connected through their mutual love of fossils. The question, posed to me by Dick Suter, an extraordinary fossil collector who lives in Boulia, was: “Do you have a Ph.D.?” I have heard this question before in both the U.S. and Australia, and it is almost never asked out of curiosity, but to pick a fight. This time was no different, as I sensed his inquiry was tinged with antagonism. I braced myself, and said, “Yes.”

Here I am, having a cordial conversation with fossil collector Dick Suter (right) of Boulia (Queensland, Australia) at the Stone House Museum. He was a great guy and had lots of paleontological experiences to share during our visit with him, for which we were grateful. Just don’t tell him you’re a paleontologist and have a Ph.D. Photo by Ruth Schowalter.

Sure enough, he launched into a tirade about academic paleontologists, which is not worth repeating here. After all, I've heard variations on this theme in the U.S. from a few fossil collectors who felt likewise about people of my ilk. So instead I will emphasize that he was otherwise a very nice bloke who took much of his time to personally show my wife Ruth and me what fossils he had collected in the past few years, and which ones he was extracting from Cretaceous rocks in his own “fossil prep lab.” He also told us some stories of his discoveries, which were considerable, colorful, and memorable. What is most impressive about Mr. Suter – 74 years young - is that he works as a volunteer. As far as I know, he does not sell or trade fossils, so he is not trying to profit from all of his hard work. I’ll also bet he bought all of his equipment for his fossil-prep lab by using his own money. Further complicating matters (by making you like him more, that is), he does the right thing by contacting academic paleontologists about his potentially important finds.

Cretaceous marine reptiles are Mr. Suter’s forte – ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and sea turtles – but he is particularly good at finding ichthyosaurs. A few he had on display at the Stone House Museum were stunning specimens, including one of the few in this part of the world (that I knew of) with evidence for live birth in ichthyosaurs. Wish I could say more about it, but I don’t know if these fossils are being described by academic paleontologists, and do not want to compromise any peer-reviewed study of them.

Which introduces one of the challenges of fossil collectors (most without Ph.D.’s) and academics paleontologists (consisting of university professors and museum professionals, most of whom have Ph.D.’s) working together. How to reconcile the idealistic rules of paleontological inquiry with the realistic concerns of people on the ground (literally) who are out there finding many of the fossils that need to be studied?

In truth, the success stories of fossil collectors and academics working together are actually more common than the not-so-successful ones. There are some fantastic examples – most recently, here – of where fossil collectors and other non-academic folks have been invaluable for finding, recovering, contacting academic paleontologists, and actively participating in the study of important discoveries. Indeed, Australia has some of the finest examples of this, especially in Victoria and Queensland, where people without Ph.D.’s and formal educational training in paleontology have found numerous scientifically significant Cretaceous fossils.

On a more personal level, I have examples to share of where trace fossils were first found by fossil collectors (not me), which later led to some real science happening. Here you go, mates:

Fossil amphibian (temnospondyl) tracks from 310 million years ago, found by amateur fossil collectors of the Alabama Paleontological Society, in Alabama (USA). Specimens described in a peer-reviewed publication by Martin and Pyenson (2005).

Ediacaran fossils initially identified as trace fossils, later shown to be body fossils, from 550-million-year old rocks in North Carolina (USA), found by an amateur fossil collector. Specimen described in a peer-reviewed publication by Tacker, Martin, Weaver, and Lawver (2010).
Fossil fish trail in Eocene-age (50 million-year-old) rocks, made by the bottom-feeding fish Notogoneus osculus, and found by a professional fossil collector in Wyoming (USA), but donated to the U.S. National Park Service at Fossil Butte National Monument. Specimen described in a peer-reviewed publication by Martin, Vasquez-Prokopec, and Page (2010).

What also happens, though, is that such “good news” stories are sometimes ignored in favor of tabloid-like fare that emphasizes personal conflict over science, a siren-like call of sensationalism that can even slither into respected science journals. This reporting of strife (whilst also ignoring cooperation) has a long history, harkening back to the days of the late 19th century with American paleontologists Edwin Cope and Othniel Marsh. Nevertheless, media bias aside, I know for sure that some fossil collectors are regarded with venomous disdain by a few academic paleontologists, and the feeling is reciprocated on the part of a few fossil collectors. What’s up with that – can’t we all just get along?

Speaking as an insider privy to some rather heated conversations on this topic, I can say that part of the contempt for fossil collectors coming from  academic paleontologists stems from their adherence to an ethical stance, and one I also support, incidentally. Scientifically important fossils should not become mere economic commodities that end up in private hands, akin to, say, Barbie dolls. (As the proud owner of a Paleontologist Barbie doll, though, I can understand the zeal of some collectors.) In fact, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has an ethical pledge taken by all of its members to not be involved in the sale of vertebrate fossils for non-scientific and non-archival purposes. For proper study – so that results can be repeated and tested (you know, what scientists are supposed to do) – fossils typically need to be held in perpetuity by an academic or otherwise accredited institution. Or, as fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones once famously said, “It belongs in a museum!”

As mentioned earlier, this tension between fossil collectors and academic paleontologists is nothing new, having been around for about 200 years and going back to the early 19th century of Europe. For example, Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme Regis in the U.K., discovered beautiful specimens of Jurassic ichthyosaurs in her local environs, much like Dick Suter finds Cretaceous ichthyosaurs in Australia today. Sadly, Anning received little credit for her discoveries at the time, while wealthy collectors and academic paleontologists profited handsomely from her finds. Only belatedly has she received her due for her contributions to paleontology, with several biographies (here and here, for example), historical accounts (here and here), and even a commercially successful novel (Remarkable Creatures, 2010, by Tracy Chevalier) that tell of her astonishing life. Granted, Anning was also ignored because of British chauvinism and class-based snobbery: she was poor, female, unmarried, and uneducated, a socially lethal combination in the U.K. at the time. Was she aware of this lack of respect and recognition? Oh, yes. She once wrote, "The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone."

Along those lines, last year I had a rather unpleasant encounter with a fossil collector in the U.S. who felt the same way as Anning, only this person’s distrust was accented by aggressive hostility. I was with two other academic paleontologists (yes, they had Ph.D.’s too), and we were shown a “pterosaur beak mark” in a rock this person had collected. It was an extraordinary claim, thus requiring extraordinary evidence. Yet all three of us recognized the fossil as the external mold of a clam (also known as a “bivalve” to those Ph.D. types). Did I wish it were a trace fossil of a pterosaur feeding? Not just yes, but hell yes! But we couldn’t just wish it were so.

Look, a trackway made by an 8-legged river otter in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.! Isn’t that amazing? It must be an extremely rare genetic mutation that caused this phenomenon. What? You think those tracks were made by two normal otters, each with four legs, and one was following the other? Why should I listen to you, when I obviously have so much more experience tracking animals than you with your fancy-pants Ph.D.?! Face it: You can’t handle the truth!

So one of us spoke, and not unkindly. All three of us academic paleontologists teach undergraduate non-science majors at our respective schools. Accordingly, we have learned through years of classroom experience how to correct misconceptions as part of educating, as well as let people down in a way that does not crush their hopes and dreams. (Well, except when we assign final grades.)

But the collector, instead of listening to an explanation of why his/her find was a bivalve impression, reddened, quivered briefly, and exploded. This collector berated us for our over-education, which had obviously blinded us to any other possible explanations for what was in front of us; accused one of us of spreading vicious rumors about this collector on the Internet (needless to say, but I have to say it anyway, my colleague had not done such a thing); then smugly asserted how his/her considerable field experience was worth far more than our paltry ivory-tower opinions, especially because none of us had ever visited his/her field site.

Gee, which fossil collector you think I’m more likely to work with in the future: Mr. Suter, who had a few bad things to say about academic paleontologists (some of which may actually been justified, and none of which was personally directed at me); or He/She Who Shall Not be Named? First guess doesn’t count.

But here’s what interesting about this collector’s braggadocio and verbal bullying (in a Chinese curse sort of way): he/she actually had a point about our never having been to his/her site. And this is an advantage that fossil collectors will always have over academic paleontologists, which the latter do not like to admit: the collectors see heaps more rocks and fossils than we do, and sometimes all year round. We academics, on the other hand, are limited to seeing natural outcrops of rocks for a few months a year (if we’re really lucky), or not at all.

For example, while I spend my time doing the following:

• Writing these blog entries (admittedly, this is more fun than most work);
• Teaching classes at my university;
• Grading assignments, exams, and papers from those classes;
• Reading and answering student e-mails;
• Meeting with students for advising and counseling;
• Writing recommendation letters for these same students (not to mention former students); and
• Attending departmental meetings, committee meetings, college-faculty meetings, and, of course, other meetings.

What do you think amateur paleontologists are doing in the meantime? That’s right: they’re in the field, looking for (and finding) fossils, which they often bring back to their own fossil-preparation facilities to extract them, and thus learn even more about what they have discovered. So who do you think has more direct, hands-on experience with the nitty-gritty-dirty of paleontology, them or me? (Was that a rhetorical question?)

A rare photo of me in the field, walking along the coast of Victoria, Australia, looking at Cretaceous rocks, which was great! (Hmmm, that would make a great name for a blog.) A less-rare photo of my daily life would show me in front of a laptop computer in a cluttered office, on a university campus in an urban setting, underlain by metamorphic and igneous bedrock, and more than a two-hour drive from any trace fossils. In other words, tragedy. Photo by Tom Rich (who has a Ph.D., and is an academic paleontologist - poor bloke).

The point here is not to play some game in relativism, as in “Aren’t we both amazingly accomplished and clever in our own special ways, while also having our jerky moments with one another?” Instead, it is to provide a peek into how the different approaches of fossil collectors and academic paleontologists with relation to their beloved subjects – fossils – and their respective cultures can sometimes lead to misunderstandings, miscommunications, and mistrust, thus missing out on the mysteries.

So next time at The Great Cretaceous Walk, we’ll talk about something that really matters – trace fossils – and how these fossils fit into some of the continuing cooperation, conflict, or other ways fossil collectors and academic paleontologists relate to one another, somehow resulting in science and other ways of learning along the way.

Australian band Midnight Oil, performing perhaps their most well-known song, Beds Are Burning (1987). My two reasons for featuring this video: (1) it’s a great song, with a theme of reconciliation (fossil collectors and academic paleontologists: group hug!); and (2) to watch former Australian Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, dance like a larrikin.


    Nest of Pterasaur from California.
    Egg's Hatchlings and Tails!

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