Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dead Ringer

I've just spent the last 24 hours returning to my roots as a field biologist by participating in YPM's winter BioBlitz. If you haven't come across the concept of a BioBlitz before, it's a 24 hour inventory of all the living organisms in a given area, in this case the town of Stratford, CT. When it became apparent that my pre-paleo training was as a mammalogist, I was swiftly recruited to run the mammal team, which is based in Roosevelt Forest. Quickly realizing that our chances of success would be markedly improved if we had someone whose most recent field experience of catching mammals was not a) 2o years old and b) in the rainforests of New Guinea, I recruited my old AMNH Mammalogy buddy Neil to help. I did this by the simple expedient of telling him that there were Fisher martens in the forest - not a huge stretch, as a female and cubs were seen a few years ago. I also promised him alcohol.

So on Friday afternoon Neil and I, along with our YPM colleagues Tim and Jess, met in the parking lot at Roosevelt Forest. We were armed with an impressive array of trapping hardware, including multiple types of live traps, automatic cameras, and our secret weapon - two jars of Dead Ringer. This substance, which looks vaguely like beef stew, if smeared onto trees and bushes is reputed to attract carnivorous mammals from miles away. All I can say is that this particular mammal thought that it smelt like the concentrated essence of 50 rotting skunks. We also had a bottle containing a cocktail of several different types of urine to spray liberally over our traps. When you come right down to it, Mammals are disgusting things.

When applied to our camera positions the Dead Ringer was so potent that even we could smell it from a mile off. So it was with high hopes that we left the forest at nightfall. Of course, it pissed down with rain all night and we returned the next morning we found we had caught... nothing. However, when we pulled the camera traps we found that we had actually managed to photograph some mammals - an opossum, a couple of deer, and a fox. Add that to the racoon tracks that one of our colleagues saw at the beach, a squirrel sighting, and a couple of fresh-ish paw prints on the bank of a stream that we decided were coyote and we had added six species to the inventory. Most importantly, after years in the bowels of AMNH I had rediscovered that fieldwork was actually quite fun. We are already revising our sampling strategy for the next BioBlitz, in August.

Running around in the woods, hunting animals, and equipped with foul smelling substances. Oh My God - I have turned into Ted Nugent.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Crowdsourcing the Pests

I spent the first two days of this week in New York, attending the annual meeting of the Integrated Pest Management Working Group, otherwise known as IPM-WG. Not a very catchy acronym, I’m afraid, but we couldn’t afford to pay someone to come up with an elegant but meaningless name like “Acela” or “Cialis.” Skipping by the obvious analogies between priapism and high speed trains that arrive several hours late, I should probably explain that people who work in museums and libraries spend a lot of time worrying about pests. You may have noticed that you don’t see a lot of dead animals lying around when you go for a walk in the countryside. This is because evolution has generated a whole army of organisms whose sole purpose is to dispose of dead stuff. Over the course of the last few centuries humans have obligingly built enormous larders of dead stuff called museums, so it’s not surprising that some of these organisms have decided to skip the hard-knock life of the great outdoors and move in with us. When they cease being useful waste-disposal systems and start eating stuff we want to keep, we call them pests and spend enormous amounts of time and effort trying to eradicate them.

Early efforts in stopping the ravages of pests were not very successful, which is why there are very few survivors from the first natural history collections. The few remaining biological specimens from Oxford University’s Tradescant Collection, which dates back to the middle of the 17th Century and has a good claim to being the world’s oldest extant collection of natural history specimens, consist mostly of comparatively inedible bones and horns. By the nineteenth century over 95% of the original collection, including a stuffed dodo, had been consumed by insects. Later efforts, involving the application of enormous volumes of toxic chemicals such as paradichlorobenzene, naphthalene, and arsenic, certainly killed or repelled the insects. Unfortunately, there was a reasonable concern that they might kill or repel people as well and their use in museums has been gradually legislated out of existence. These changes have been bemoaned by many museum curators, who will loudly deny any adverse effects from using these chemicals. This will usually be accompanied by fond reminiscences about “old Smithers,” the museum technician, who spent 50 years scooping PDB crystals into the collection cabinets with his bare hands and lived to the age of 120 (in response to this, I will merely note that it was Smithers rather than the curator who had to actually apply the PDB).

However, long before the chemicals were outlawed, some prescient museum workers realized that there was another way. If you shut your specimens inside well-sealed cabinets, and put the cabinets inside a well-sealed building, then the pests can’t get to them. If you make collection spaces cold and dry, then things that like warm and damp conditions (which include fungi and most insect species) won’t want to live there. If you clean your collection spaces regularly, stop people from eating in them or filling them with pets and house plants, and remove clutter from floors and bench-tops, then you’ll deprive pests of food and shelter. And if you combine all of these approaches, and a few others, then you’ll have a strategy that lets you stop pests eating your collection while not poisoning your staff and visitors. This approach is called integrated pest management, or IPM.

So now you know why pests are important in museum collections and what IPM means and it may be that this is enough for you, in which case you can go and watch this excellent video of Bill O’Reilly losing all control which, frankly, never gets old or stale.

Now that those guys have gone, I can talk a little bit about IPM-WG. It’s weird experience when something that you started takes on a life of its own. Back in 2000, I sat down with a group of colleagues at AMNH to try and build a database that would help us store, analyze, and display the results that we were getting from our regular pest trapping activities around the museum. We had a wild idea that we could plot the distribution of pests on a floorplan of AMNH and then superimpose other factors like the building’s temperature and relative humidity to try and show areas where we should target our pest management activities. In the end we actually built a system that could do some of these things, which was called Pest Manager. Along the way, however, our project grew in ways that we really couldn't predict. First it became a database design collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian. Then it swelled into a multi-institutional group, meeting annually, with a floating membership, and a much wider remit encompassing not just databases, but the development of a whole range of tools and resources that could be used to implement IPM. This was the beginning of IPM-WG.

We got sponsorship from a couple of commercial participants in the group, Insects Limited and Steritech, and a whole lot of priceless technical support from Leon Zak, a software designer who came along to discuss possible IPM applications for the Image Permanance Institute's Climate Notebook system and ended up being bitten by the IPM bug (so to speak). Despite this, we were never able to provide participants with support to attend the meetings. We also did our best to dissuade people by making it very clear that 1) we would not teach them how to do IPM, and 2) we would make them work hard for the group’s (i.e. our) benefit. Despite this, and to our great surprise, people actually wanted to come and still do. This year we even had a waiting list. They have come from as far away as the UK and Sweden. And they have poured their labors into developing an on-line pest management resource, called MuseumPests.net, which is quite unlike anything else in this area. It is a genuine community resource, developed by the community and for the community.

Over the years, IPM-WG has steered clear of building associations, either with particular institutions or with any one professional society. Although the meetings are hosted at AMNH, this is because the founder members originally worked there and we are all either still there or within easy commuting distance, simplifying the logistics of organizing a meeting once a year. And although we have close links and share membership with societies like SPNHC and AIC, we’ve always felt that formalizing these might run the risk of narrowing the membership of our group, which consists not just of natural historians and conservators, but also librarians, archivists, historic house curators, fine arts curators, and professional pest managers. The breadth of membership is one of the real strengths of IPM-WG (also, we are a cantankerous bunch who prize our independence).

At last year’s SPNHC meeting in Oklahoma City, Lisa Elkin (a fellow founder member) and I co-authored a paper in which we made the rather extravagant boast that IPM-WG could act as a model for the development of best practices in the museum community (if you want to see our presentation – which, if nothing else, has some pretty pictures of insects in it - you can download a copy of the PowerPoint here). My experience of working with the Group this year has only strengthened this feeling. It’s hard for a traditional committee, of the sort that professional societies usually set up, to generate this volume of work. The most “active” members of these societies are often those with the least time to devote to new projects. By “crowdsourcing” the question of pest management to those who actually want to work, giving them 2 days a year to do nothing but work on the project, and taking several years over it, I think we are getting close to a set of best practices for IPM that are applicable to a wide range of heritage institutions.

There is a ritual to the organization of IPM-WG that is as changeless as the seasons. Every year, in the fall, our local organizing committee, currently chaired by Rachael Arenstein, gets together to plan a meeting for the following February. Every year, in the aftermath of this planning meeting, Lisa and I get together and bitch and moan about the amount of work involved, swearing that this will be our last year. And every year, in February, we find ourselves blown away, and more than a little humbled, by the work that the Group’s members put in over the two days of the meeting. At that point, you sit back, look around you, and think “wow, did we really start all this?”

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Saved by Science

Justine Cooper is an enormously talented photographer who spent some time a few years ago as an artist in residence at AMNH. When the project was first described to me, I was a little bit sceptical - it's easy to look at the collections and the specimens in them as interesting or attracive objects (which they often are), but to fail to grasp their deeper significance, which is a complex tapestry of science, culture, and history. I needn't have worried. Not only was she a great person to work with, but Justine captured the nature of collections perfectly in an extraordinary set of images that she called "Saved by Science." As part of its celebration of Darwin's 200th anniversary, Seed magazine has published a selection of Justine's works with an accompanying essay by Carl Zimmer. You can see a slide show with audio commentary by Justine here and Carl's essay can be read here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Collections and the Corinthian Ideal

This morning, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself thinking about a man called Gaston. It’s been a good 15 years since I last saw him and, as he’s been dead for a number of these, it’s a pretty good bet that I won’t be seeing him again, but before I explain why he crossed my mind I’ll give you a little character sketch. Gaston was, I guess, in his late seventies when I knew him. He had previously worked in some official capacity in the British colonies – he once produced a faded photograph of his younger self in baggy shorts and knee-length woolen socks, surrounded by ferocious looking Africans with spears. Under his command, I should add, although given his frequently-expressed and entirely unreconstructed views on people of ethnicities other than his own it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the spears stuck in him. Say what you like about him, but he was an equal opportunity hater – he also disliked women (despite being married to one for many years) and anyone more liberal than he was, which encompassed a lot of people. He was quite unwell in later life and spent much of his time in hospital where, to his horror, he found himself entirely at the mercy of nursing staff who were for the most part a) women and b) black. Who says there is no God?

I knew Gaston because he was one of the gallery of grotesques that inhabited the tea room at the museum where I was working. There was a small band of men, of varying degrees of age and decrepitude, who turned up every day without fail to work in the entomological collections, despite receiving no payment from the museum for their services. Retired clerics and military men predominated – women were unknown. Our paths would only cross at morning and afternoon tea breaks, when they would huddle in the corner and discuss the whys and wherefores of their various Diptera and Coleoptera, raising their voices to cope with the less-than-perfect hearing of their listeners. My fellow graduate students and I viewed their eccentricities with a mix of amusement, irritation, and bafflement (little realizing that such would be our fate with the advancing years). What possible benefit could there be in having such relics around the place?

The answer, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, is “a lot.” When Gaston died, his obituaries in the entomological journals were fulsome. It turned out that this unprepossessing ex-civil servant, with his profoundly bigoted views and mono-dimensional view of the world, was actually one of the country’s leading lepidopterists - that’s an expert on butterflies and moths, for those of you who have happily avoided any contact with entomologists. He was recognized as the world’s foremost expert on a family of moths whose identification was regarded as unusually challenging even for professional entomologists. And all this despite having never held a paid position as a biologist or museum curator.

Gaston came to mind because the vrtpaleo listserve (which clogs up my email to an annoying extent, but which also provides me with endless material for blogging) is currently being engulfed in one of its regular “amateur vs. professional” firestorms. This one was occasioned by SVP’s advocacy for the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act. The Act didn’t get passed in the last Congress and discussion is currently (and understandably) delayed by the House’s consideration of the Economic Stimulus Package. Most of the action on the listserve relates to the concerns of a few individuals that the purpose of the Act is to restrict the activities of “amateur” collectors, to the benefit of “professionals.” This got me thinking about the whole amateur vs. professional issue.

Today, “amateur” is a word with decidedly negative connotations. The adjective “amateurish” if applied to a job is unlikely to be meant as a compliment. Yet the ultimate root of the word is the Latin amator, meaning lover, so in the strictest sense being called an amateur simply means that you do something for the love of doing it, rather than for any particular reward. Go back a hundred years or so, and you’ll find an ironic reversal of the current situation. Amateurs were praised because they applied their labors for a higher goal than mere monetary reward, whereas professionals were looked down upon as money grubbers. This was particular true in sport, with its Corinthian Ideals of “amateurism.” Beneath these lofty ideals, of course, lay the unpalatable question of Class. Upper and middle class players could afford to take time to play for no pay. For working class players it was much more difficult.

In my own preferred sport of cricket (and yes, I do conform to that particular national stereotype) professionals were expected to address amateurs, at least to their faces, as "Mister" or "Sir" whereas the amateurs usually referred to professionals by their surnames. Newspaper reports often prefaced amateurs' names with "Mr." while professionals were referred to by surname, or sometimes surname and initials. At some grounds amateurs and professionals had separate dressing rooms and entered the playing arena through separate gates. This distinction between “Gentlemen” and “Players” was not formally removed until 1963 and until Len Hutton became captain of the England team in 1952 the idea that a professional player could lead the national side was unthinkable.

This was obviously a toxic situation, but I’d argue that it can be equally toxic when the positions are reversed. Basing status solely on the possession of graduate qualifications, or holding a tenured or salaried position in a museum or university, is a risky position for any “profession” to adopt, especially ones like paleontology or collection management, where our ultimate claim to professional status in the strictest sense is a shaky one – unlike doctors or attorneys, we have no formal system of accreditation that controls access to jobs. And in museums we have good reasons for ensuring that we do nothing to promote the spread of this toxicity to own field.

I can confidently say, based on my direct experience of the last 15 years and knowledge of the preceding 20 or 30, that we are not going to see any significant increase in the number of salaried workers in our collections and that any reductions in numbers from the current fiscal crisis will probably not be reversed when things improve. Put simply, we have proved too good at making do with less, and the apparent lack of any consequences for shrinking staff budgets have not gone unnoticed by our administrations. By and large, nobody dies when we screw up and short of wiping out some object of iconic significance most of our deficiencies will go unnoticed by those that are in a position to provide or withhold funding (boy, I am in a negative frame of mind today!)

If we have a shrinking salaried staff and we want to maintain or, ideally, increase both our standards and our output, then we are going to become increasingly dependent on unsalaried workers. We already are. At AMNH, our collection of 4.75 million fossils was cared for by a staff of 5 paid and 20 unpaid workers. We called the unpaid workers volunteers, but we invested as much time in training and managing them as we would for employees, and they more than repaid this investment. At YPM, we currently have only one paid fossil preparator, but her work is heavily supplemented by a crew of volunteer preparators of varying ages who she has trained to a high standard. Yesterday I was looking at work done by one of them, a retired doctor. The standard was exceptional, as good (if not better) than many “professional” preparators could achieve. And yes, as our budgets for collecting and fieldwork shrink, we are going to become more dependent on the efforts of avocational and commercial collectors. Without their efforts, the flow of fossils into many museum collections is likely to dry up.

If this is the case, we can no longer promote the sort of two-tier status for salaried and unsalaried that can be found in many museum policies and procedures. We should not refuse to extend access privileges to volunteers (as is the case at AMNH, whose collection policy mandates direct supervision of volunteers by paid staff at all times, regardless of the volunteer’s experience) unless we are prepared to withhold such privileges from our professional colleagues and students. The most egregious examples of theft and specimen damage that I’m aware of have been carried out by paid employees, visiting academics and students (who, unlike volunteers, tend to regard collections access as a right rather than a privilege). It is quite possible to carry out the same background checks on volunteers working in collections as we do on new employees and some museums already do so. And we can’t afford to demonize every commercial collector on the basis that some of “us” may have a distaste for commercial collecting and private collections. Clich├ęd though it may be to say it, there are no bad categories of people; only bad people.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Darwin: An Apology

After getting harangued by various people over one of my earlier posts, I feel the need for a mea culpa. So here goes:

1) I may have given the impression that I attach little value to the letter from Darwin to O.C. Marsh which is housed in YPM’s archives and that this is an item of limited significance. Not so, points out one of my colleagues. Darwin’s letter was written at a time when critics of his theory were questioning to apparent absence of evolutionary intermediates. Far from being “yet another” piece of supporting evidence, the timing of Marsh’s discovery of fossil birds with teeth was actually very important to the growing acceptance of the existence of evolution. As for the letter itself, the fact that Darwin was a prodigious correspondent who wrote tens of thousands of letters in his lifetime does not diminish the value of any individual letter. There are lots of gold nuggets in the world but this does not mean you shouldn’t be excited about owning one yourself.

2) In quoting a joking comment from a fellow British paleontologist about an apparent Darwin “personality cult” among American evolutionary biologists, I may have given the impression that we “cynical Brits” aren’t as excited about the Darwin Bicentenary as our American cousins. Not so, points out Carl Zimmer, who reminds me that Britain is in the midst of a massive “Darwin 200” celebration, involving heavy press coverage, books, exhibitions, lecture series, and a wealth of other public activities to celebrate the birth of a genuine British genius. Also, I was reminded by others, Darwin’s birthday provides an annual rallying point for scientists in a country where a surprising number of people still do not accept the existence of evolution and where it’s teaching in public schools is repeatedly challenged.

3) In commenting, shortly before midnight on February 11, that I was “off to bed” rather than staying up to drink a toast to Darwin, I may have given the impression that I was a curmudgeon and a “Darwin-hater.” Not so, say I. I happened to be at a Darwin Birthday Party last night, one which I attend every year and greatly enjoy. I will, however, confess to being more of a Wallace man myself. This is mostly because much of my early research was done on the evolution and biogeography of mammals from New Guinea and the Moluccas, which was Wallace’s old stamping ground. I think the Malay Archipelago is a great book, which too few people read (it has a picture of a cuscus in it, which should make anyone want to rush out and buy a copy), and I would highly recommend anyone who’s enjoyed the Origin of Species to try Wallace’s work as well. But you can be a fan of Wallace and still appreciate the genius of Darwin, as I do.

I’ll also expand on a response that I gave to a commentator on the post to prove that I am as moved by all of this Bicentennial activity as any of you. Some years ago, I was an assistant curator in the Zoological Collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The Museum housed the collections of Thomas Bell (1792-1880), a British naturalist who was given the responsibility of describing the specimens collected by Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle; Darwin’s Crustacea, which Bell never got around to publishing, ended up in the collections in Oxford. I remember sitting in the collections looking at a drawer of dried crabs, each of which had tied to one leg a small metal tag with an embossed field number on it. The realization that Darwin had tied these tags on, perhaps while sitting in his cabin on the Beagle, surrounded by the notes and observations that eventually formed the foundation of his later theories, was really quite moving. Even for a Brit.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

When Facebook Becomes Work

Up to now I, like most people, have seen Facebook primarily as an entertaining way to waste my own time and that of my friends and colleagues. However, since moving to Yale my Facebook ambitions have expanded dramatically. It’s no longer enough to waste the time of my friends and family. Now I want to waste your time as well! One of the joys of working for a smaller museum is that you tend to get tapped to do a variety of things beyond the confines of your regular job. So a casual conversation with our Director about my enthusiasm for the potential of Web 2.0 to broaden our means of outreach morphed into joining a small committee headed by YPM’s Director of External Relations, charged with setting up a Facebook page for the Museum.

If you don’t have a Facebook account, or if your use to date has mostly revolved around sending virtual beer to your friends and playing Scrabulous and Wordscraper, then you may not have noticed that Facebook has become a significant outreach mechanism for a number of organizations. It’s not just Barack Obama who's taking advantage of its attractive 40-something demographic these days. Many major museums have now set up Facebook pages (and Twitter, and MySpace pages). The quality is somewhat variable, as is the time and effort invested (a particular favorite of mine is the Natural History Museum in London, which offers its 15,500 “fans” an album containing 4 photographs and a list of its opening times – its mini feed reads “no recent activity”). Museums like AMNH, MoMA, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have dynamic, exciting pages, packed with video and photographic contact, feeds from Flickr accounts and YouTube channels, and RSS feeds to staff and curator blogs. Not only do they feed content to you, but they allow (and encourage) you to talk back – review exhibits, post your own pictures and videos of your visit, complain about things that bug you, or get involved in discussions about topical issues.

What struck me most forcibly as I looked at the various museum pages on Facebook is that we’re seeing the beginning of the end for the traditional museum webpage. The fact is that the Facebook page for AMNH (to take just one example) is much more fun than the Museum’s webpage; it updates more frequently, tells you when it changes, and lets you participate – plus it still delivers all the practical information you want (opening times, directions, etc) and puts this information front-and-center on the page, rather than burying it on an “about us” page somewhere behind the homepage, as most conventional websites do. From my own perspective as a collection manager, Facebook offers a new portal by which the public can access the material in our care. A good example of this is the Met’s “Artwork of the Day” feature on its Facebook page. This is an RSS feed linked to the Museum’s on-line catalog, which changes every day. Click through it, though, and you’ll find yourself in the publically-searchable database; Facebook has acted as a hook to draw you into an exploration the wider collection.

The Peabody’s Facebook page is still a few weeks away from launch – we have a fair amount of content to pull together plus some thorny issues about what to include; for example, would we post a curator’s videos of mating ducks, shot as part of a research project? The general feeling was “yes,” even though the man himself described them as being “like porn” (presumably porn for ducks, although I’m sure there are probably at least some hard-core Anatiphiles out there). For some reason, I’ve ended up as the proud administrator of YPM’s “not-for-profit” YouTube channel, so I guess the duck porn issue may land in my lap eventually – I can’t wait. But the bigger question is, where do we go from here? Peabody’s main website will probably need an overhaul in the next year or two, but will we replace it with a one-way information delivery system, or with something more dynamic? And given the already high quality of our on-line collection data, how can we harness the emerging technologies to improve our user’s experience of the collections? I'm halfway through an NSF grant to develop web-based resources as part of the Paleontology Portal project - you can see the first of our two web "modules" here. When we launched this module last year, I was really quite pleased with it - now I wonder if we should have made it more interactive. The fact is that we just weren't thinking this way in early 2005, when we wrote the grant.

It’s nice to get to think about things like as part of your job, but it’s also rather disorientating – as one of my fellow committee members remarked “damn, I remember when Facebook used to be fun.” Now I find myself logging in to mess around with “RSS-Connect” on the YPM page instead of challenging my friends to Wordscraper matches, or getting frustrated because “YouTube Box” has stopped working. When I visited the App page for YouTube Box during the downtime I found a host of panicky messages from users on the Wall, including one from a woman who had been unable to upload a video during a demonstration for her CEO. Plainly this was all getting much too serious. So I spent this morning in a more traditional collection managerial activity; out at West Campus, hammering pallet racks with a big rubber mallet.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Future is Already Here

A couple of weeks back I was blogging about the future of museums when I talked about the potential to download digital packets of data that would enable you to generate 3d copies of specimens. Yesterday, I found myself having a meeting to discuss the practical implications of this with one of our research affiliates, Leon Claessens. Leon has funding from NSF that will enable him to make laser surface scans of a variety of bird taxa and make these scan data available via the web - yesterday, we were talking about scanning the skeletons of dodos. The discussion that we had with two of our curators was very encouraging, in the sense that there seems to be a broad acceptance that rather than trying to tie up the use of these data with licensing agreements, we should be pushing towards the broadest possible accessibility for users. As one of our colleagues pointed out, the amount of money generated from marketing resin models of dodo bones would hardly cover the costs of drafting the agreements to restrict their use, let along the salaries of the lawyers needed to enforce them. Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with this, including perhaps many of our colleagues at Yale. I'm sure this won't be the last time I'm writing on this....

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

'Dear Professor Marsh'

One of the challenges that I faced today was helping our Deputy Director come up with a one- paragraph explanation of what the Peabody's prized Darwin letter means to the Peabody, said explanation to be read out at the forthcoming "Darwin Birthday Party" being hosted by YPM. The letter, to YPM paleontologist O.C. Marsh, is about 3 lines long and says something like "Dear Professor Marsh, love your fossils (esp. the birds with teeth), they are the most important evidence for evolution I've seen in 20 years, Sincerely C. Darwin." The problem is that 1) it seems that Darwin sent out scores of similar letters to just about every prominant biologist and paleontologist of the day, saying pretty much the same thing (i.e. "this is the most important evidence for evolution...", and 2) many of these (including the YPM one, we think) were actually drafted by Emma Darwin, although he did sign them all.

Try as I might, I just couldn't get myself excited by it. It's not like I could say "this letter is vitally important because it is proof that Darwin actually existed and wrote letters." Saying "this letter is vitally important because it shows that Marsh's discoveries were critical to the development of Darwin's theory" is untrue because most of these took place after the publication of the Origin of Species (plus we know that Darwin was a bit of an old softy and told everyone that their discoveries were the most important). And the most honest answer, which is "this letter is vitally important because it's the only Darwin letter that YPM possesses" seemed to me to lack the necessary gravitas. It's not like these letters are rare. The Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge has over 9,000 of them, with copies of another 6,000-plus that are held in private collections, and estimates that new ones are still turning up at the rate of around 60 a year.

It being the 200th annivesary of the old boy's birth, you can't spit without hitting some exhibition, book, birthday party, etc. I feared that I was the lone Scrooge at the evolutionary equivalent of Christmas Day. Then my friend and fellow anglo-expatriate, Brown University paleontologist Christine Janis, posted the following on the vrtpaleo listserve, which I think sums up the situation perfectly:

"Darwin worship" seems to be to be a peculiarly American thing. I know of many US evolutionary biologists who proudly claim to have been to Down House (even one who made an entire lecture of his 6 pack of lectures in intro Biology a slide show of his visit) ---- I don't know of a single British one who has. (Please don't respond and say you're a Brit who's been to Down House, I'm talking about my own sample size, which I assume means*something*)

Anyway it's 11.38 EST on February 11th, 2009. Somewhere, I'm sure, there are evolutionary biologists poised to raise a glass to Chuck at the stroke of midnight. Not me - I'm off to bed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

He Blinded Me With Science

(Normally I try to confine myself to blogging about museum issues and steer clear of the P-word. But while I was standing at the station this morning, the following came into my head and stuck there. So this is me, getting it out)

When you’re a kid, you have a boundless enthusiasm for the natural world and an endlessly enquiring mind. What happens if I mix those two liquids together? What’s that funny smell? Why can’t I breathe? OK, maybe childhood experiments with domestic cleaning solvents are not the best example. But the fact remains that kids love to mess with stuff to see what happens, or to look under rocks to see what lives there, or to bash away at cliff faces in the hope of discovering fossils. Then in later life we take that enthusiasm and kill it with Science.

It’s a shattering moment for any young mind when you realize that science is really quite boring. Oh the results are interesting, to be sure. But the process by which you get those results? The creation of a hypothesis, the design of an experiment, the enormous series of controls, the horrific number of replicates, the mind-numbing tedium of statistical analysis. Then the careful crafting of a publication, written to remove any sense of emotion or excitement from the discovery – not hard, actually, because by the end of the experimental process most of that has already gone.

Then there’s peer review, which may result (horror of horror) in your having to go back and re-do all some or all of the experimentation at the behest of some dude who hates your guts because you’re competing with him for grant funding and so is more than happy to put your nads through the mangle. At the end of all that you may have a publication, which only five people will actually bother to read in its entirety (one of whom will be your mother). Unless you’re really lucky and it gets picked up by a professional science writer, who will turn it into an elegantly crafted, witty, and informative article for the New York Times and get plaudits for “really conveying the excitement of scientific research.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. This sort of rigorous, serious, exhaustive experimental research is the bedrock of science. The guy or girl that discovers the cure for cancer will do it this way, not to mention the person who finally builds the personal jet pack that the world has been waiting 50 years for. But for people, like me, science sometimes seems just too much like hard work.

Some years ago, I was sitting in a planning meeting for Oxford Science Week with a group of people that included Richard Dawkins. The organizers were busy trying to outdo each other with “wacky” ideas that convince “kids” that science was fun. Finally someone asked Dawkins what he thought. And he said, rather dismissively, that he thought it was a very bad thing to try and sell science as being fun, because it was actually very hard, more like learning to play the violin, and only people that really wanted to do it should be encouraged to do so. Which was an odd statement coming from a man who had just been made Oxford’s first Professor of the Public Understanding of Science and, frankly, put a bit of a dampener on the evening.

However, this was one of the very few instances where I agreed with Dawkins (who over the last 20 years has gone a bit odd and turned into the atheist’s equivalent of Jerry Falwell). I never had any desire to learn the violin and after discovering what was involved in being a scientist I didn’t have much desire to do that either. And yet here I am, a scientist (in name at least). So, is there a way for people to do science without actually having to – you know – do science? Well, friends, I’m here today to tell you that there is, and it’s called vertebrate paleontology.

By now any vertebrate paleontologists reading this blog (and there are some of you out there, I know) will have started huffing and puffing indignantly. In contrast to the UK, where we get all this unpleasantness out of the way as quickly as possible, the average US graduate student has to sit through an interminable number of courses on molecular biology, genetics, chemistry, geology (and probably astrophysics as well, for all I know) before they’re allowed to go and look at a fossil. Some of them – Lord help us – actually study the philosophy of science, which sounds a million miles away from the lab bench, but breeds a tendency for them to get all Karl Popper on your ass if they think you’re going soft on the scientific method. As a result, they acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of science that enables them to converse knowledgably on protein folding and cell membranes and oxidation and a whole bunch of other white-coat stuff. But guys, take a deep breath and let’s consider how we actually do science in VP.

This question was actually posed to me by my good friend Andy Miranker, who works on protein folding. Andy’s stuff actually has some practical applications to a bunch of nasty illnesses, including Alzheimer’s and Creutzfeldt - Jakob disease. Sitting in the pub one night, Andy asked me what paleontologists do, and after I’d given him an inspirational talk about illuminating the mysteries of life through the study of Deep Time he stopped me and said “no, I mean what do you actually do?” So I told him. I explained that we find fossils; we look at them; we describe them in excruciating detail, sometimes making drawings or photographs to help our readers to understand; we compare them to other organisms, both living and extinct; and based on the perceived similarities or differences, we make a number of sweeping and largely untestable hypotheses about how these organisms are related, how they may have evolved, and how they lived.

At the end of my exposition, Andy was unusually silent – actually, he was silent, which is a very unusual state for him. Initially I thought that I had wowed him with my rhetorical gifts, but then I realized that we had wandered so far from his scientific frame of reference that he was, in a very real sense, lost for words. Although we are both, notionally, “scientists,” we occupy completely different worlds. Andy’s field moves so fast that he rarely reads a journal article that’s more than 2 years old. My field moves so slowly that we still cite papers written in the 19th Century. Like a balding supermodel, Andy doesn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000, which is about what it costs him to open the door of his lab in the morning. By contrast, equipped with little more than a notebook, pencil, and round-trip train ticket to New York, I can perform time travel.

Consider these attractive facts about VP. I rarely have to worry about replicates, because the chances of any animal fossilizing are so infinitesimally small that I’m lucky if I have a sample size of one. I can’t measure things, because fossils are so distorted by the various geological forces acting on them that it becomes impossible to compare the same dimension in two individuals (assuming you actually have two – see above). That means no dreary statistical analyses. Provided that I stick to things that are more than 50,000 years old and have no living descendants (oreodonts and protoceratids are a couple of favorites from my past research) no-one can pressure me to include molecular analyses in my research. But if I find myself a compliant molecular biologist, I can collaborate with them and trumpet the benefits of a combined molecular and morphological study without actually having to do the molecular biology myself (most AMNH curators have adopted this cunning strategy).

There are some potential pitfalls for the science-averse paleontologist. Invertebrate paleontology is out, because the sheer number of specimens lends itself to statistical analysis. So is working on all those cool ground sloths, mammoths, and sabertooth cats, which tend to have a lot of DNA and other pesky biological macromolecules hanging about their desiccated carcasses. And never allow yourself to be tempted into biomechanics. It may seem pretty rad to figure out how fast T. rex could run or how much it would hurt to get bitten by a sabertooth cat, but the reality is you getting lost in a hell of vectors, levers, fulcrums, and turning moments. I discovered this during an ill-fated undergraduate project on the locomotion of pareiasaurs. Even if I had managed to figure out how fast they could move it would have been wickedly boring, because it’s obvious from one look at their skeleton that these were the Fat Alberts of the Permian.

Now don’t get me wrong. If I’ve given the impression that VP is easy, then nothing could be further from the truth. The sort of work that I do concentrates on the bottom of the skull in mammals, an area known as the basicranium. Structurally it’s horrifically complex – its ten separate bones (18 if you count left and right, 20 if you believe in the existence of entotympanics) make up not only the bottom and sides of the braincase, but also the ear region and the articulation of the jaw; an enormous number of the body’s major nerves and blood vessels pass over, around, or through it. One of my first experiences as a graduate student was spending two months trying to understand Mike Archer’s seminal 1976 paper on the basicranium and blood circulation of dasyurid marsupials. I had a bunch of marsupial skulls borrowed from the Oxford collection and I was reduced to plucking my own hairs (I actually had some back then) and feeding them into nerve and blood foramina in the skulls to see where they came out. Which was often not at all where I would have expected. Now imagine trying to interpret all of that in an animal with no living relative that has been squashed flat like road kill, which is what many fossils look like. So I guess that means that doing VP may be a little bit like playing the violin after all.

There you have it. Vertebrate paleontology. Easy - no. Boring – never.

Monday, February 9, 2009

More on AMNH Layoffs

The New York Times has published a piece on AMNH volunteers' reactions to the laying off of the head of the volunteer office, Bev Heimberg. I'm not going to comment on the Museum's statements in respect of this case, which are much as one might expect from AMNH. All I can say, after 10 years of working with Bev, is that she had an unrivalled ability to provide the collections with the right volunteers. Collection managers are demanding customers with very particular requirements and she had an unfailing instinct for matching the right person with the right job. Given that staff cuts will be increasing the demand for well-trained volunteers across the museum, the decision to lay off the most experienced member of the volunteer office is baffling.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ghost Town

On Wednesday, I jumped in the car and took what will soon become an all too familiar 7 mile drive along I-95 to YPM’s West Campus facility. With me was Marilyn Fox, the Peabody’s vertebrate paleontology preparator. She and I had decided that we would make the effort to schedule one of this trips at least once a week for the next couple of months as we get to grips with the move of a significant chunk of our collections and fossil preparation activities to West Campus.

First, a little background. Yale’s West Campus started life as the Bayer HealthCare complex, a 136 acre research and manufacturing “campus” owned by Bayer Healthcare AG that straddled the boundary between the towns of West Haven and Orange (strictly speaking, you could say it started life as a pig farm, because that was what was on the site when it was first purchased by Miles Laboratories in 1965). By the beginning of the 21st Century it had become Bayer’s largest site in the USA and the corporate headquarters for North America. While its research labs did groundbreaking biomedical research, the manufacturing plant was soothing the troubled gastric tract of America by the production of billions of Alka-Seltzer tablets, and frantically churning out Cipro tablets in response to the 2001 Anthrax scare.

Then in 2006, as part of a corporate restructuring, Bayer announced that it was closing the HealthCare complex. In 2007, Yale announced the acquisition of the site for the knockdown price of $109 million. For this, they got 17 buildings (built between 1968 and 2002); 550,000 square feet of lab space; 275,000 square feet of offices; and 600,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse facilities. To put this in perspective, the lab space buildings alone would have cost around $385 million to build from scratch. Add in everything else and the market value of the property is around 5 or 6 times what Yale actually paid for it. To call it a bargain is an understatement (for more detail on the acquisition and Yale’s plans for the site, read Marc Wortman’s excellent article in the Spring 2008 edition of Yale Medicine)

Understandably, most of Yale’s PR to date has focused on the opportunities for expanding the University’s biomedical research programs. However, it was clear from the outset that the manufacturing and warehouse facilities might provide opportunities to alleviate space issues for the various libraries and museums at the central New Haven site. As I discussed in an earlier posting, collections have a seemingly limitless appetite for space. And these are not just any old warehouse buildings that we are talking about. The manufacture and storage of pharmaceuticals demands precise and rigorous environmental control – much better control, in fact, than most museums are capable of maintaining.

The Peabody’s need for space is especially acute because two ongoing projects – the renovation of the basement of the Klein Geological Laboratory and the demolition of 175 Whitney Avenue to make way for a new School of Management building – have displaced a large fraction of the YPM collections, including anthropology, historical scientific instruments, vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology, vertebrate and invertebrate zoology, entomology, and the Museum’s archives. These collections and some of their staff need to be temporarily housed somewhere else, although “temporarily” is likely to be at least 3-5 years, or possibly longer. Yale’s acquisition of West Campus has provided a timely solution to this problem. I’ll leave discussions of the pros and cons of offsite storage for a later blog, but for now, let me give you a sense of the somewhat eerie experience of visiting the YPM facility at West Campus.

After driving through an innocuous mix of strip malls and industrial buildings that straggles alongside I-95 in West Haven, you arrive at a heavily armored set of gates. A very discrete sign announces that you have arrived at Yale West Campus. There is a guardhouse, complete with smoked glass windows; it’s not inhabited, but throughout your time at West Campus your presence and activities are being monitored on a set of enormous plasma screens in the main security control room. Waving your ID badge in front of a sensor causes the gate to slide slowly open. The old manufacturing building is directly ahead, a massive grey concrete and steel monolith, most of which is windowless. It is surrounded by parking lots for several hundred cars, but today there are no more than five or six parked there. Yale is gradually moving staff out to West Campus, but at the moment there are unlikely to be more than a hundred people across the whole complex.

Entry to the YPM facilities is via a completely anonymous lobby. There is a small table, a telephone, a TV (turned off), and a couple of chairs, but nothing to identify it as a museum facility. Across the lobby a pair of glass doors, accessed via another card reader, gives access to a vast labyrinth of almost identical corridors. The layout conforms to some long-lost set of Bayer operational guidelines. Corridors run parallel to each other – some have locked doors, others do not. Sometimes the doors open automatically when you swipe your card; in other cases, you have to open them by hand. In some areas, the doors will not open if you are wearing gloves – sensors respond to bare skin and unlock the doors on contact.

Opening off the corridors are rooms of varying sizes. In some cases the function is clear – offices, conference rooms, or a kitchen. Others are baffling – what was the purpose of the room known as “the arrival hall,” a football field-sized space whose nether reaches disappear into darkness? Or the chutes that descend from the ceiling in another room? VP’s work area consists of rooms sealed by the infamous “Star Trek” doors – toughened blue vinyl seals that fly apart with an explosive “whoosh” when activated (they fly closed equally quickly and it can be a little tricky to locate the “open” switch, as our facilities manager discovered the other day). The rooms themselves have toughened plastic windows, double-glazed and flush with the walls. If you have an overactive imagination, like me, it’s easy to envisage some white-coated minion pounding ineffectually on them before being overcome by the lethal virus/gas/nano-bot that is filling the room. We haven’t yet figured out what Bayer was doing with these rooms and perhaps (given the whole Cipro/anthrax thing) it’s better that we don’t.

To a collection manager who spent the last 10 years working around the logistics of a central Manhattan location, there are things about the West Campus facility that are jaw dropping. At AMNH, we couldn’t get an 18-wheel truck anywhere near our sole loading dock (which opened into the mailroom). When we had big deliveries, we had to unload in the street. At the West Campus building there are 8 loading docks, each of which can take an 18-wheeler, plus one dock whose sole purpose is trash disposal. Want a walk-in freezer for pest control? West Campus has one that could hold a whole 18-wheeler, plus a freezer truck parked at one of the docks for the duration of the move. Not ready to install those new cabinets, or not sure what to do with the enormous delivery of specimen trays or Ethafoam you ordered? Why not stash them in the Peabody’s warehouse facility? With floor-to-ceiling, 20 foot pallet racking there’s plenty of space. And Bayer kindly left all of their material handling equipment, so we now have a fleet of forklifts, powered and hand-operated pallet jacks, and other toys at our disposal. It’s like a crazy IKEA for collection managers.

The building is huge and YPM occupies only a small portion of it; although the remaining space has all been allocated to other Yale libraries, archives, and museums much of it has yet to be claimed. Walk away from the inhabited portions and you rapidly find yourself in what feels like a post-apocalyptic world. Bayer’s staff literally walked off the job in 2007, leaving almost everything behind them. It’s almost as if they got pulled away in the Rapture (although fortunately they didn’t leave their clothes behind in people-shaped piles). There are certainly other people around – security guards, architects, custodial staff, estate management staff, and other museum people, but scattered across a building of this size the only evidence of them may be a distant figure crossing a long corridor or the faint sound of a door closing.

Hopefully the photographs on this page will give you some flavor of the West Campus experience. If you want to get a better feel for the move and what it’s actually like to work there, I highly recommend Beyond the Basement, an excellent blog by my colleague Shae Trewin. Shae is the collection manager for Historical Scientific Instruments and was one of the first YPM staff to move into West Campus – her various trials, tribulations, and triumphs will be familiar to all of us in a few months’ time. On Wednesday, Marilyn and I ceremonially rolled a couple of fossilized reptile trackways into their new storage location in West Campus. Many will follow.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

No Dry Heat Sauna for YPM

The New England Museum Association reports that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has introduced an amendment to prohibit any funds in the Obama administration's economic stimulus bill from going to museums. The language of the amendment, (Amendment No. 175, as filed) is, "None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas." So I guess I'm going to have to dig deep into my budget for the zero-gravity chair and plasma TV that I ordered for my new office. Thanks a bunch, Tom. Although re-reading the amendment, it looks like I may still be in the running for a traditional, Scandinavian-style sauna.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fruit of the Poison Tree

(Initially I wasn't going to blog on this subject, on the basis that a ton of other people probably would. Then when I was in the pub last night with my pal Carl Zimmer, he said that my impassioned and entirely one-sided ranting on this subject was ideal blog fare and that I should not deny myself. So if you don't like this, go over to Carl's blog and blame him)

For the last couple of days the Vertebrate Paleontology e-mail listserve (or “vrtpaleo” as it is commonly known) has been busy combusting with discussion of an unfortunate ankylosaurian dinosaur called “Minotaurasaurus.” The flare-up resulted after someone drew the list’s attention to an article in this week’s edition of Nature by Rex Dalton. For those of you who lack a subscription to Nature or who (like me) find it difficult to rouse themselves to actually read it, here’s the 10 cent version.

A few years back, a Californian neurobiologist called Vilayanur Ramachandran was tooling around the Tucson Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase with a buddy called Clifford Miles. Ramachandran is a keen amateur collector, while Miles runs a private paleontological outfit in Utah called Western Paleontological Laboratories, which makes its money selling fossils and casts of fossils to clients that include some major museums. Anyway, the two pals see a fine fossil skull of an ankylosaur, one of a group of armored dinosaurs that lived in North America and Asia during the Cretaceous era, some 80 million years ago. Now Miles, who knows a thing or two about ankylosaurs, immediately realizes that there’s something special about this skull, which sports a pair of big bony horns, and turning to Ramachandran utters the immortal line “you buy it, I’ll name it after you, handsome.” OK, I made up the “handsome” bit. But the skull is duly purchased and, as good as his word, Miles and his brother Clark describe it as a new genus and species, Minotaurasaurus (that would be because of the horns) ramachandrani (that would be for the $10,000 it cost to buy the skull). So far, so good.

So far so bad. So very, very bad. You see, when museums acquire a specimen, the first thing they do before handing over a single cent, or sometimes before even looking at it, is to ask the seller about provenance. Provenance is a useful term that encompasses all of the information defining a specimen. It includes the specific geographic point of origin as well is the background and history of ownership. And in the case of Minotaurasaurus, that information was almost completely lacking. According to Nature, it was bought from a fossil dealer called Hollis Butts, who’s based in Japan. Surprisingly, Butts was “unavailable for comment” when Nature came calling.

Now this is the point where Ramachandran and Miles should have politely said “thanks but no thanks” to the dealer and walked away. Quickly. During my time at AMNH, we would occasionally get mysterious one- or two-line emails from private email addresses, hinting at extraordinary fossils that might be available for us to buy – eggs, and embryos, and feathered dinosaurs. And we never responded. In most cases we deleted the emails immediately. If you work in a museum, or if you are a professional paleontologist, these fossils are toxic. They are the sort of things that can bring a mountain of bad press down on your institution, blight your career, put you in court, and even land you in jail. Quite simply, there’s a more than fair chance that these fossils are stolen. Countries like China and Mongolia have tough laws in place to stop their national heritage from leaving the country. Museums and researchers can borrow these specimens from Chinese and Mongolian institutions for study or display, but there is no way that a private individual can legally get export permits to remove a fossil like Minotaurasaurus from either of these countries.

Now no-one (except for the people that dug it up and, possibly, the elusive Mr. Butts) knows for sure where Minotaurasaurus comes from. The Miles brothers originally claimed the specimen was from the Barun Goyot Formation in Mongolia, but they’ve since retreated from this position and in their paper describing the specimen (Miles & Miles, 2009. Current Science, 96: 65-70) they merely hypothesize, based on the matrix surrounding the specimen, that the skull comes from the Gobi desert of China and Mongolia. Having seen a fair number of Gobi specimens in my time, and equipped with the color photo of Minotaurasaurus from the Miles’ paper, I too can make the highly scientific observation that it looks kinda like a Gobi specimen. If that’s so, then one way or another it’s illegal. Unfortunately without knowing which country it comes from, no-one’s going to be in a position to take Ramachandran up on his offer to repatriate the fossil to the appropriate nation, if someone shows him "evidence it was exported without permit.” Which is a convenient state of affairs for a man who might be $10,000 out of pocket if the provenance of the specimen was ever nailed down.

Back to the vrtpaleo listserve, where it took all of a few minutes for the discussion to break down into a good old-fashioned hair-pulling, face-slapping amateur-versus-professional bust-up. Some amateurs on the list see criticism of Ramachandran and Miles as typical snobbery on the part of professional paleontologists. Sure, the circumstances of the fossil’s acquisition were less than perfect, but hey - these selfless servants of science were just trying to get the information out to the community. Who knows – maybe further research will nail down the secret of Minotaurasaurus’ origins? To the professional paleontologist, this is more evidence that amateurs don’t understand good science. Without hard locality and stratigraphic data, the specimen is effectively worthless (which we know isn’t true – it’s “worth” $10,000, as Mr. Butts would happily attest if someone could track him down for a quote). Of course, the professionals add, there are many very careful and diligent amateurs out there, who occasionally make quite significant contributions to the field (BTW, I love it when this statement comes out, as it always does in such arguments. It’s a little like someone saying that some of their best friends are black/Jewish/gay/etc. No matter how sincerely it’s said, it never sounds entirely convincing). But this is what comes of letting people make money from selling fossils. Hah, the amateurs retort, this was a great teachable moment to explain the importance of associated data which has been lost because of academic arrogance. At which point several people write emails containing essays on why associated data are important.

Lost in all of the noise and scuffle is the most important point of all. Even if you could pinpoint the locality of this specimen to within an inch, and fix its age to the hour, this specimen should not have been bought, should not have been named, and should not have been published, because the lack of provenance strongly suggests that it has been illegally acquired. Despite Ramachandran’s attempt to argue otherwise, where cultural items of this sort are involved the onus is on the buyer to obtain proper evidence of provenance. Museums do this all time (or at least well-governed museums do) and it is a core feature of our professional codes of practice. We do not wait for a third party to emerge with evidence of wrongdoing. We exercise due diligence, and that means getting locality information, details of the collector, copies of collecting and export permits, invoices and bills of sale…. a complete paper trail for the specimen from the moment it comes out of the ground to the point where it reaches our door.

One of the respondents on vrtpaleo made a good analogy. Before he became a paleontologist, he was a cop. Cops need to be scrupulous about every item of evidence in a criminal case, because bad evidence can taint an entire investigation from the scene of the crime to the courtroom and beyond. The cops call it “The Fruit of the Poison Tree.” Minotaurasaurus is like the Fruit of the Poison Tree. This is the sort of fossil that no-one wants to be around. According to Nature the skull was cleaned at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, but the work was not done on DMNS premises because of concerns over the specimen’s origin. My former boss, Mark Norell, is quoted in Nature with a fierce denunciation of the decision to publish on the specimen, and his anger is hardly surprising given that he is acknowledged in the paper as having provided access to the AMNH collections for the purposes of the study. Mark has long-standing programs of collaborative research in both Mongolia and China and I’m sure he’s well aware of the potential damage that could be caused by being even distantly associated with this fossil.

Like another poison fruit, a biblical one this time, fossils like Minotaurasaurus are terrible temptations for the the unwary, with their promise of new knowledge. One of the most worrying things about the vrtpaleo debate is the speed at which the discussion moved away from the "ethical issues" as one respondent called them, to the issue of how much valuable information could be extracted from the fossil in the absence of associated stratigraphic and locality data. If this dialogue is anything to go by then despite the efforts of our profession to instill best practices and professional standards of conduct, collection managers and registrars will continue to have the all too common experience of facing down a curator desperate to acquire "cool stuff" and none too keen to delve deeply into its provenance. It is not a comfortable experience.

So for now, Minotaurasaurus sits on the edge of the High Mohave Desert in the unlikely surroundings of the Victor Valley Museum and Art Gallery of Apple Valley, California, alongside “Great Grandpa’s Workshop” and a display of mounted game “donated by Lenny Brewster.” Lonely and perhaps and little unloved, specimen number INBR21004 is part of the permanent corpus of paleontological knowledge now, a type specimen that will need to be considered by anyone who has an interest in ankylosaur evolution. But even if more locality and stratigraphic data is eventually unearthed, will anyone trust it?