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Vying for Fossils on the Front Lines

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Vying for Fossils on the Front Lines

Science

Vying for Fossils on the Front Lines

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FRANK STASIO, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington.

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Tomorrow on "Science Friday," join host Ira Flatow for a look at possible scientific solutions to global problems.

And speaking of science, old bones are big business, the science of paleontology. Fossil hunters have become extreme--brave extreme climates and intoxicated cargo plane pilots in their globe-spanning search for mammoth tusks and trilobites. The collectors from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to Charlie Sheen compete to acquire the most appealing specimens. It's not all adventure and intrigue, though. There's also intense ideological battle over the ethics of selling a natural resource.

Do you collect fossils? Do you think about where they come from? If you study fossils, what's your opinion about the commercial side? The number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK to join the conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lew Simons, Lewis Simons, who has joined two very different fossil hunters on the trail of hetivines(ph), and his article appears in the May issue of National Geographic magazine. He's in Studio 3A. I think that's where we are, Lewis. You're...

Mr. LEWIS SIMONS (Journalist): I hope it is.

STASIO: ...here with me and it's good to see you. So the two men you followed, very different strategies. First, tell us about your adventure with Fyodor Shidlovskiy.

Mr. SIMONS: Fyodor Shidlovskiy, an extraordinary man, larger than life character who I followed from Moscow to high up above the Arctic Circle in northeastern Siberia, spent several weeks with Fyodor on the tundra and on a riverboat, transiting a river into a national park, where he was intent on discovering a fossil of--a full fossil of a baby woolly mammoth, a very rare specimen, and in the end, it turned out that we did not find that particular specimen, but we came back with this riverboat loaded down with more than a ton of bones from woolly mammoths buried all up and down the river.

STASIO: So what was surprising to me about the article was sort of how much of this stuff is still out there and how--you know, sort of how the information travels about its whereabouts that attracts collectors.

Mr. SIMONS: Right. Certainly in Siberia, the mammoths seem to be plentiful. Obviously, the quest that Fyodor mounted for a fully intact juvenile or a fully intact adult, for that matter, is another matter. There really are not very many. And most of the specimens that we get to see in commercial settings or in museums are put together from parts that are brought together from various animals. But there's a lot of them, that is true.

STASIO: And these quests take--you know, you pull together a lot of people and you end up in places that are pretty remote, so it could help, I guess, local economies.

Mr. SIMONS: Right. His approach, Shidlovskiy's, is that he hires hunters and fishermen who live in these extremely remote areas of Siberia and, more or less, puts them on a retainer, saying, `When you're out doing your real job,' which is hunting or fishing, `if you come across any large bones, pick them up, bring them home, let me know. I'll be back in the fall.' And he pays them either in--well, usually in cash, as well as in kind, and everybody seems to be pretty happy about it.

STASIO: And these things are selling at the retail level for a lot of money.

Mr. SIMONS: Yes. A fully put-together woolly mammoth fossil will go for something like a quarter of a million dollars.

STASIO: And who's buying these things?

Mr. SIMONS: Well, I happen to know of somebody who's gotten several of them from Fyodor, who's putting them in a museum in Waco, Texas, a privately owned museum in Waco, Texas.

STASIO: And we're going to talk a little bit more, too, about where these things get placed and therein lies some of the controversy. But I want to get to the second hunter, Mike Triebold. Tell us about his method.

Mr. SIMONS: Yeah, Mike's a very different kind of a person. He lives and works out of Colorado. He's been a collector and a commercial dealer in fossils for a long time. My recollection is around 20 years. And like a lot of the people who are on the commercial side, he is basically self-taught. He came out of a radio background, actually, and has learned most of what he knows from digging in the field. And I accompanied him and his team to a location in Montana, not quite as remote as where I went with Fyodor, and he was tracking a small dinosaur, again a juvenile, on the basis of a single rib bone that one of his colleagues had discovered poking out of rock-hard sandstone. And eventually, I think it took two seasons, which means the greater part of two years, they did get most, if not all, of this animal unearthed.

STASIO: So these adventures sound very exciting on the one hand. On the other hand, they are maddening to scientists, who say that this whole commercial enterprise is really cutting into their ability to investigate.

Mr. SIMONS: Exactly. Yeah. It is a controversial area, and more than controversial. It's a source of tremendous friction and bitterness and anger between these two groups of people who have an abiding interest in collecting fossils. The dealers, of course, are interested, at the end of the day, in making a profit. And the scientists are interested, at the end of the day, in learning something more about the evolution of species. What they both are dancing around and avoiding is any opportunity of doing something together; that is to say, the commercial people who are better funded are in a position to mount more expeditions.

The PhDs, the academics, the paleontologists with the universities and the museums are in a better position to do serious research. It seems like a no-brainer that they ought to be working together. They used to work together in this country and all over the world. Most of what you see in major museums in this country today were collected by commercial dealers who sold to rich people or scientists or both, and the results ended up in museums where the rest of us can appreciate them.

STASIO: Well, of course, the commercial value, though, is to be able to display these, you know, bones, and if you have, if you're lucky enough, an intact creature, how destructive is the scientific process? Can you really do both? Can you do the research and still show the animal?

Mr. SIMONS: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. When the scientists are done examining the bones and examining the surroundings, which is a very important element--in other words, the earth out of which they came, the pollen that's in the earth, the leaves, whatever, and perhaps other bits of other animals--are there, they don't do anything to destroy the bones. Quite the contrary. They're most interested in retaining them, putting them back together and hopefully--yes, hopefully putting them on display at their museums, at their university.

STASIO: What can we learn from the study of these bones?

Mr. SIMONS: Well, as I say, the evolution of the species is really the ultimate goal or the evolution of species, I should say. I think what is arguable is how much new is learned from one set of bones vs. another set of bones vs. another. Eventually, a dinosaur is a dinosaur is a rose is a rose, and I think that the commercial people have this argument on their side. Of course, there is the occasional odd piece that comes along that is a missing link, to use...

STASIO: Right.

Mr. SIMONS: ...coin the term, but that's a very rare item.

STASIO: There's more than that. I mean, you talked about pollen and some of the other environmental discoveries around the bones themselves. Is there much environmental information that can be gained; apart from the species itself, sort of how environments change and what impact they've had on evolution?

Mr. SIMONS: Yes, absolutely. And it's true that the commercial dealers for the most part--not entirely--and I think Mike Triebold is one of the exceptions--but for the most part, they know very little. They don't have the time or the inclination to do that kind of examination. But yeah, there's a great deal to learn about, you know, when was the last time we had global warming? I'm just making this up, but that kind...

STASIO: You want to make up an answer? That's OK with us. Right.

Mr. SIMONS: I don't have that depth of knowledge. But, yeah, that's the kind of thing that scientists are looking for, and they're right to be annoyed when an interesting fossil is removed from the earth and that kind of information is lost. But it doesn't have to be that way. That's the point of my article and it's what I learned--that's the basis of what I learned uncovering this story.

STASIO: You had some real insights into the struggle itself and how it plays out. I mean, farmers who had been calling scientists now call the collectors...

Mr. SIMONS: Right.

STASIO: ...and there's some--it leads to some pretty hostile confrontations.

Mr. SIMONS: Yeah. That's absolutely true. Most of these scientists who come out of museums and universities have had long-term arrangements with family farmers and ranchers, and just on the basis of personal relations, had access to their land and pretty much pulled out bones as they found them, in return for which they might help the farmer stringing fence or, you know, branding cows. But it's true that the commercial dealers come along with deep pockets, or a lot deeper pockets anyway, and can offer the land owners cash payments, so there's that that's happening, and it is very contentious.

STASIO: I'm talking with Lew Simons. He's the author of "Fossil Wars: Dispatch from the Front Lines" in the new National Geographic magazine. We're looking at the fossil-hunting business, its impact on science and its impact on the economy, at least the economy of those who do the collecting. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

So if you collect bones, you're a fossil collector or a buyer, give us a call, (800) 989-8255, totn@npr.org, if you want to join the conversation and weigh in on whether or not this should be somehow protected or whether there needs to be some better understanding about how to bridge the gap. You also talked about some of the people--I mean, movie stars are getting into buying these things, and how much are they paying for fossils?

Mr. SIMONS: Well, the price range is all over the place, from pennies or a few dollars anyway well into the millions. There are people like Bill Gates, Charlie Sheen, others, who collect a variety of specimens. Their prices are probably in the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands.

STASIO: And they're putting them on display in their homes.

Mr. SIMONS: Generally, they're putting them on display in their homes, right.

STASIO: Yeah.

Mr. SIMONS: And, you know, I think the point to--the central point to be made here is that the academics have long made the argument that there's a limit to the number of specimens buried in the earth. And, of course, there is a limit, but I got the rather clear sense from the dealers that I accompanied and some of the scientists that I spoke with that that limit is really way, way off, and there is really no point in adding to the warehouse collections of museums.

STASIO: Well--and you write about in your article the enormity of some of the conventions that go on. I mean, there are a lot of bones out there and a lot of people are showing them.

Mr. SIMONS: Yes. And there are a lot of people who just enjoy it. Most of the people I met who are in this, either commercially or academically, have been interested since childhood, and they love it. They love getting their hands in the dirt. They love getting down there and blowing the dust away from something that's millions of years old.

STASIO: Let's go to Boston and Ben is on the line. Hello, Ben.

BEN (Caller): Hello.

STASIO: Hi. You have a question for us?

BEN: Yes. I was wondering, why is it that when the commercial collectors make a find, that the scientists can't work alongside them?

Mr. SIMONS: Right. It's a point I was trying to make earlier on. It is beginning to happen in a small way. The piece I wrote for the Geographic has an example of a museum buying two specimens from Mike Triebold, the man I've talked about in Montana, and the museum will have full access not just to the bones that they bought, but to the site from which they came. So they'll be able to do the kind of investigative work that they want to. And I think that somewhere down the line, that's got to be the future.

STASIO: Let's go out to Raleigh. Bob is on the line. Hello, Bob. You have a question for us?

BOB (Caller): Well, yeah. There's a system in England about registration of antiquities that allows, it seems, due consideration to the commercial and the scientific side. It's kind of opposed by the UNESCO people and people that like to prohibit the commercial side. Do you have any comments about the possibility of that in the United States?

Mr. SIMONS: Well, the only thing I know about it in the United States is that the scientific community here opposes it greatly. What you're talking about in Britain is also pretty much the case throughout much of Europe, and there's--in other words, there's a much looser and more relaxed attitude in government about private collecting. I don't anticipate that there's going to be that kind of change in the United States anytime soon.

STASIO: Do we get into the problem of commercial dealers not being--sort of in the way they excavate, damaging some of the potential scientific data?

Mr. SIMONS: Absolutely. It's all over the place, again. And as I tried to say in my piece, a lot of the collectors are really very careful and very painstaking. A lot are not. A lot are yahoos who just get into an area late at night, turn on the brights from their trucks, and dig out as much as they can and get out of there. And the real issue is not--in this country, the real issue is not what is removed from private property, but what is removed from government-owned property. And that is completely a no-no under US law. Even the scientists must be licensed by the Bureau of Land Management, and that's a very rare thing.

STASIO: Lew, thank you very much.

Mr. SIMONS: My pleasure.

STASIO: Lew Simons is the author of "Fossil Wars: Dispatch from the Front Lines" in May's National Geographic magazine. He joins us here in Studio 3A.

That's TALK OF THE NATION for today. I'm Frank Stasio, NPR News.

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