You might want to rethink those dinosaur skulls you have tucked under the Christmas tree.
Earlier this week, actor Nicholas Cage announced he would be returning the $276,000 Tyrannosaurus bataar (a relative of the T-Rex) skull he purchased back in 2007. Cage recently learned the skull had originally been smuggled out of Mongolia and voluntarily offered to have it sent back to the country.
Turns out, if Cage knew anything about dinosaur fossils, he should have guessed it was stolen in the first place. Mongolia—the only place in the world where Tyrannosaurus bataar fossils are found, other than a few fragments in China—has prohibited the sale and export of rare native antiquities since 1961. Basically, if a Tyrannosaurus bataar skull is for sale at all, it's already illegal.
"As these investigations are taking place and more stories are coming to light, we're starting to see that in private collections and even in museums, these commercially-traded specimen have a bit of a shady past associated with them," said Lisa Buckley, a vertebrate paleontologist and the curator of the Peace Region Paleontology Research Centre. "That's not something you'd want to be associated with, as a person or as an institution."
And although there is some debate, in general paleontologists are against the private sale of fossils because it removes the specimen from the pool of research, stripping the world of all the potential knowledge gained by studying that artifact, and also supports a black market of sloppily-excavated, smuggled fossils like the one stolen from Mongolia.
"Selling a fossil, not just dinosaurs but any fossil, removes data from the scientific record," explained Stuart Sumida, a vertebrate paleontologist at California State University San Bernardino. "Scientists don't want to keep it to ourselves. We want to tell the world about them but we can't do it if they're in private hands."
So what are the Nicolas Cages of the world to do if they want a showy centerpiece for their dining room table and are partial to Mesozoic predators? Sumida and Buckley had a few suggestions:
1) Buy a commercially traded fossil and donate it to a museum or research institution
Though supporting the commercial trade is can still be a shady transaction, an interested buyer who had a quarter-million dollars lying around could purchase fossils and then pass them on to an institution that can properly study and preserve it, Buckley suggested. This can lead to new discoveries about the species, thanks to a generous patron. Plus, if he wanted, Cage would most likely get a nifty plaque letting everyone know what a patron of science and history he was.
"You can get a lot more dinosaur bang for your buck by actually donating to a museum than you can by simply buying one fossil," Buckley said.
2) Buy (or ask for) a cast of a dinosaur fossil
If the dining room table is still looking bare after donating your dino fossil to the local natural history museum, you might want to ask the museum if they'd be so kind as to make you a cast of the skull so you can have a keepsake of your own. Sumida told me this is actually pretty common. You can also buy these casts from research institutions if you don't want to shell out for an original fossil, and the revenue still supports scientific study. He pointed to the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton nicknamed Sue, which was put up for public auction in 1997 after a lengthy legal battle. With the help of numerous corporate donors, the Field Museum of Natural History won the specimen for a whopping $8.4 million. The museum wanted to thank its donors for the help footing the bill, so it came up with a way to share Sue.
"There are a number of casts of Sue's skeleton that were donated by the museum in thanks," Sumida said. "There is a cast of it at Disney World in Florida because Disney donated a significant amount of money—the speculation is upwards of $1 million."
Helping a museum or university secure a specimen not only preserves the fossil's data in the scientific record, but also will likely grant you a pretty fantastic gift. And you don't have to worry if about spilling coffee on this skull—there's only one fossil, but they can always make another cast.
3) Fund a dig
If you're still not satisfied with merely donating a fossil or owning a cast, there are other ways you can stroke your ego while contributing to the preservation of natural history. Excavations are expensive and most universities would be thrilled to have one privately funded by the likes of Nicolas Cage. These carefully structured and controlled digs could mean the discovery of new information about a species, or maybe even a new species entirely, Buckley said.
"New species are often named after huge supporters of expeditions," Buckley said. "And museum wings are often named after influential and important donors. So you don't have to own something to have a positive impact."
In my opinion, having a dinosaur named after you sounds way cooler than an illegally smuggled skull deteriorating in your living room.
So next time Nicolas Cage or any other wealthy dino enthusiast has a few hundred thousand to drop, might I suggest one of these options? There are plenty of ways to indulge your Jurassic Park fantasies without harming science in the process.