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Keep Public Access to Dinosaurs' Treasures

"A New 'Golden Age' of Dinosaur Study" and "Canada Find Unearths Clues About Behavior of Tyrannosaurs" (Nov. 5), highlighted not only several interesting recent finds but also three trends that are creating dilemmas for paleontologists:

1. There is tremendous public interest in paleontology. 2. Fossils from all over the world are increasingly vulnerable to commercialization. 3. Commercialization has a negative impact on the science of paleontology.

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Most vertebrate paleontologists feel strongly that vertebrate fossils should remain in the public domain. The following explains the ethics statement of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), an international organization of 1700 professional and amateur paleontologists:

The SVP is committed to discovering, conserving, and protecting vertebrate fossils and to fostering the scientific, educational, and personal appreciation of them by amateur, student and professional paleontologists, as well as by the general public.

Vertebrate fossils bear valuable information about the past. We believe everyone should benefit from the ways fossils inform us about ancient life, landscapes, climates, and our own place in the history of life.

Many kinds of fossils, including those of most vertebrates, are rare. Many organisms are not readily preserved as fossils because they lack hard parts, and only rather unusual sedimentary environments preserve soft parts. Also, organisms can only be preserved where sediments accumulate at a fairly high rate. Most organic remains are not buried fast enough to contribute to the fossil record.

All of this means that the chances of any vertebrate becoming a fossil are very small. Furthermore, fossils of extinct groups are not renewable. More fossils will be discovered and collected, but from a finite supply.

We are committed to ensuring that vertebrate fossils are collected in a professional manner, which includes detailed recording of contextual data. The rocks in which fossils are found provide information about the environment of preservation and its climate, position in a historical sequence, and paleogeographic location. Fossil assemblages provide information about ecological interactions and communities, but a fossil collected without this information has lost much of its value. When contextual data are studied, we begin to understand how the animal lived.

Fossil vertebrate specimens should be prepared by, or under the supervision of, trained personnel. Significant specimens, along with contextual data, should be curated and catalogued in institutions charged with conserving fossil vertebrates for scientific study and education, such as accredited museums and educational institutions.

Our understanding of evolutionary processes and relationships comes primarily from comparing the skeletons of different animals. Only when specimens are properly curated in public institutions can researchers access these specimens. Often we find that original interpretations must be revised.

Paleontologists must ensure that information about vertebrate fossils and their accompanying data are shared with the scientific community and the interested public. We oppose the barter, sale, or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils, unless it brings them into a public trust. Commerce in fossils deprives the public and professionals of important specimens that are part of our natural heritage.

We are especially concerned that vertebrate fossils found on public lands remain in the public trust. The collection of fossils for sale and profit is contrary to the goals of science and education. We support legislation that protects fossils on public lands so that the public receives the greatest value from these unique natural resources - the information they offer us.

Catherine Badgley

Ann Arbor, Mich.

Secretary, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, University of Michigan

Ted Vlamis

Wichita, Kan.

amateur paleontologist

Your letters are welcome. All letters are subject to editing. Mail to "Readers Write," One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, fax to 617-450-2317, or e-mail to oped@csps.com

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