The bone wars

No book about dinosaurs and fossil trading would be complete without some mention of the famous American palaeontologists Cope and Marsh. Most of us remember them for their infamous bone wars, each one racing to find and describe more species of dinosaurs (or mammals, fish, reptiles, whatever they could find) than the other. Charles Othniel Marsh, Professor of Palaeontology at Yale University since 1865, had men digging in the Como Bluff area since the first discoveries there in 1877, and his team had excavated many fine skeletons which were shipped by train back to New Haven for analysis and description. His arch rival, Edward Drinker Cope, was then a man of means living in New Jersey and based at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. He was a prolific research scientist, publishing enormous amounts of work (in 1872 alone Cope published some 56 scientific papers). In 1868 Marsh and Cope spent a week together hunting around in the Cretaceous rocks of New Jersey. Only one year later they were bitter enemies, but Colbert (1968), unlike other authors, doesn't attribute their rivalry to one particular event, but instead puts it down to their ambitious, competitive natures, and the fact that neither of them was over-scrupulous if the other stood in his way.

In 1879 Marsh's team had a particularly good find, the first complete skeleton of a theropod, a meat-eating dinosaur. Up to this time various bones, including skulls, had been found, but no complete articulated skeletons were known. Not a single museum anywhere in the world had a meat-eater in a fully mounted display. Under cover of darkness, Cope's men slipped into Marsh's pegged site and excavated the complete skeleton. It was shipped back to New York, but because the boxes were not properly labelled, and many of the specimens were just partial bones or debris material, the boxes went unnoticed for many years. In 1906, a few years after both Cope and Marsh had passed away, the boxes were opened and the magnificent skeleton of Allosaurus prepared and mounted for public display. Its reign as the world's largest meat-eater would be short-lived, however, as in 1908 the first complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton was found in Montana by Barnum Brown; it was erected at the American Museum of Natural History a few years later.

Cope sold most of his lifelong collection, comprising some 10 000 specimens, in 1895 to the American Museum of Natural History, for nearly US$32 000. The rest of his collection, sold later, fetched another US$29 000 (Boyce 1994).

Thursday 20 September. We move on from Boulder to Salt Lake City. After stringent security checks at the airport, we finally board the plane, which has numerous empty seats.

Each of our party has an entire row of seats, so I spread out and enjoy the flight, musing over the geology of the Rocky Mountains. Below me I can see a vast area of eroding sedimentary rocks, and I know that there are perhaps millions of fossils in these isolated regions that are weathering out, that need to be collected and studied if new pieces are to be added to the big jigsaw of life. Such sights encourage the spirit of fossil collecting, whether it is by amateur or professional. As long as someone gets the specimens before they weather away to dust.

Friday 21 September. We are in Salt Lake City, northern Utah, and today we will visit a private fossil museum. The North American Museum of Prehistoric Life, at Thanksgiving Point in Salt Lake City, opened to the public only a few months before our visit. It's a private museum, a tourist venture sponsored by businessmen who saw the commercial potential of dinosaurs.

Unlike the major State-operated natural history museums, such as the Utah Museum of Natural History (situated on the campus of the University of Utah), private museums have no ethical obligation to let foreign scientists study their specimens, or to loan specimens to academic institutions. Such museums can, at any time, dispose of their specimens as they wish.

I had a good look through the museum and must say that I was very impressed by its displays. The quality of fossil specimens, the accurate information supplied on the labels, the scenic backdrops and atmospheric lighting all showed that it was professionally put together, with an impressive budget for design and exhibition planning. One of my good friends in Perth, Travis Tischler, a renowned sculptor of prehistoric animals, was commissioned to make several models for the museum, and I was the palaeontologist who signed off on their authenticity. So, I reasoned, most of the scientific displays there would also have been checked out by other palaeontologists.

There were some very interesting specimens on display—Chinese dinosaur eggs, dinosaur bones from China and Mongolia, fossilised birds, such as Confuciusornis from Liaoning, a well-preserved original skull of a pterosaur (a flying reptile), from the Santana Formation of Brazil and skulls of mammal-like reptiles from South Africa and Russia. All of these might well have been bought legally in the USA, but they would have been smuggled out of their country of origin. There were also some spectacular dinosaur remains—original, complete skulls and partial skeletons of magnificent late Jurassic species which were labelled as new genera, despite the fact that the names had not been formally ratified through publication in acceptable journals (as designated by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature). Rather than add to the existing confusion of taxonomic literature, I won't go into details here.

The museum is an impressive one, obviously enjoyed by members of the public. The specimens are fantastic, both originals and very well-made replicas, and Travis' excellent reconstructed models of prehistoric animals, such as the dinosaurs Coelurus and Othneilia. However, the museum can also be viewed as an elaborate extension of a very large fossil shop in which the best specimens are put into professionally-made commercial displays. There is nothing wrong with this concept—where the problem lies is that none of the specimens is in a publicly recognised registered collection. In other words, no holotypes of new species can be deposited there, nor can specimens be loaned to or accessed by other scientists for study, unless, of course, such requests are approved by the Trustees or Board of Directors. To my knowledge there are no professional palaeontologists to curate or conserve the museum's specimens. As a commercial venture, the museum's scientifically important specimens are, to my mind, only as safe as its profit margins. If the museum ever became unprofitable, the specimens on display could be auctioned to pay off its debts.

The many mounted skeletons of dinosaurs in the galleries reminded me of a current case in Utah, one of a poached Allosaurus.

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