News this Week

Science  24 Jan 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6169, pp. 354

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Barcelona, Spain
    Director Leaves Research Center in State of Uncertainty
    2 - Bristol Bay, Alaska
    Planned Mine Would Put Salmon at Risk
    3 - Darmstadt, Germany
    European Comet-Chaser Emerges From Hibernation

    Barcelona, Spain

    Director Leaves Research Center in State of Uncertainty

    A pioneering Spanish stem cell center is surrounded by questions in the wake of its leader's departure. Developmental biologist Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte last week stepped down as the director of the Center of Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona (CMRB), which he helped create almost a decade ago with support from the Catalan and Spanish governments. Izpisúa Belmonte was personally involved in most of the research projects at the center while also a professor at the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California.

    Press reports, including one in the Spanish newspaper El País that broke the story, suggest that he may try to take many on going projects with him and that this could reduce CMRB to an empty shell. Andreu Mas-Colell, minister of economy and knowledge of the government of Catalonia, confirms that there are concerns over patents and that government lawyers will look into the issues. Izpisúa Belmonte did not respond to requests for comment, but many expect him to take up research at the Salk Institute full-time.

    Bristol Bay, Alaska

    Planned Mine Would Put Salmon at Risk

    Wetlands near Bristol Bay


    A massive proposed copper and gold mine in Alaska would damage the world's biggest sockeye salmon fishery, worth $480 million a year, according to a 15 January assessment released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It estimates that the planned Pebble Mine would destroy up to 150 kilometers of salmon streams and 2165 hectares of wetlands and lakes in the Bristol Bay watershed.

    Further impacts could include changes to streamflow, leaking mine waste, and toxic pipeline failures. Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) CEO John Shively said in a statement that EPA's evaluation was rushed and "very flawed," in part because it didn't consider advanced engineering and mining practices.

    A bigger setback for the mine is that Anglo American, a half-owner, withdrew from the project in September, implying the financial risk was too high. In December, another major partner, Rio Tinto, announced that it is also considering pulling out. PLP has spent $600 million on studies to plan for the mine, but has not yet applied for key permits.

    Darmstadt, Germany

    European Comet-Chaser Emerges From Hibernation

    Rosetta and Philae

    CREDIT: © ESA–J. HUART, 2013

    The European spacecraft Rosetta has roused from a 957-day nap and is preparing to close in on its target: the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Rosetta had been put into hibernation as sunlight became too dim to sustain its solar-powered systems, but on 20 January it successfully signaled to the European Space Agency (ESA) control center in Germany. "This was one alarm clock not to hit snooze on," said Fred Jansen, ESA's Rosetta mission manager, in a statement.

    The unprecedented mission will ride along with the comet for more than 18 months during its close approach to the sun. Samples from the comet's surface and atmosphere could offer insight into the formation of planets and suggest whether comets could have supplied Earth with water. Scientific observations will begin in May, and Rosetta will dispatch its lander, Philae, onto the comet's surface in November.

  2. Newsmakers

    'Nobel of the Geosciences' Goes to Mountain Man



    The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences last week awarded the 2014 Crafoord Prize in Geosciences—and about $620,000 in prize money—to geophysicist Peter Molnar, 70, of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Trained as a seismologist, Molnar has worked with everyone from geologists to atmospheric scientists and says he has used "any technology I can get my hands on" to understand what happens when continents collide and how the resulting high places affect climate downwind.

    The academy unveils one Crafoord prize per year, in astronomy and mathematics, biosciences, polyarthritis, or geosciences. This year's honoree says he never misses a chance to venture into the high, cold places of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, even if he's only carrying rock samples for his teammates. "I enjoy so much of what I do," he says. "We've come a long, long way the last 40 years, but then damn wrenches get thrown" into the developing picture of how colliding continents behave. He sees no end to the fun.

    Psychologists Nab First National Academy Prize




    The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) inaugural Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences goes to pioneers in neural network modeling and the developing brain. Stanford University psychologist James McClelland is known for his role in describing "parallel distributed processing," a model for how cognition arises from an interconnected network of neurons. His co-recipient, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University, has focused on infants and children to reveal how the young brain represents concepts such as numbers and spatial relationships. McClelland and Spelke will each receive $200,000 for their "significant contributions to our understanding of how the brain works," said NAS President Ralph J. Cicerone in an announcement of the new biannual prize last week.

    Three Q's

    Kindred spirits.

    Terwilliger and Rodman.


    The improbable pioneer of basketball diplomacy has an equally eccentric scientist in his entourage. Joseph Terwilliger, 48, a statistical geneticist at Columbia University (and sometime tuba player, Lincoln impersonator, and competitive hot dog eater), won a meeting with Dennis Rodman as a prize in a charity auction last April. Because Terwilliger speaks Korean and has connections in Pyongyang, Rodman's camp enlisted him to help coordinate the Hall of Famer's next visit. Terwilliger shared his recent experiences with Science.

    Q:Last July, you spent 3 weeks teaching at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. What was that like?

    J.T.:I viewed my role there as one of showing the positive side of the American people to a population who has heard mostly negative stereotypes about us. [Students said they] needed to think twice about their opinions of American people as a result of our interactions. They said the very same thing about their experiences viewing Dennis Rodman's visit to their country in February of 2013.

    Q:Has traveling with Rodman changed your life?

    J.T.:No, I have kept a very low profile. Sure, my photo is all over the place, but most people just ask "Who is the crazy looking bearded guy with Dennis?" I was just there to assist him, to help with translation.

    Q:Do you see an opportunity to engage the North Koreans through science diplomacy?

    J.T.:I hope to have more opportunities to interact with the North Koreans on a scientific level—in fact that was a large part of my motivation to get involved with Rodman's efforts as a way to build contacts, connections, and trust, so something positive could happen down the road. Extended interview at

  3. Random Sample

    Young Editors Ask Neuroscientists: 'Why Should I Care?'


    While sitting on a scientific review panel, University of California, Berkeley, neuroscientist Robert Knight once "got so profoundly bored" that he brainstormed ways to enliven the process. What if kids were in charge of reviewing journal articles, he wondered? Although it took a few years, Knight has now convinced the open-access publisher, Frontiers (part of Nature Publishing Group) to launch an online research journal called Frontiers for Young Minds which is not only geared toward kids, but edited by them. A team of nearly 50 grown-up neuroscientists volunteer to write about topics ranging from how we see color to why we sleep, and editors ages 8 to 18—assisted by mentors, often graduate students—wield the red pens.

    More than a dozen articles have already been published and, Knight says, "not one scientist has complained about something the kids wanted to fix." That's in spite of some pretty tough criticism. "I can see that it shows something about how the brain works," wrote one uncompromising young editor, "but it is not obvious how this knowledge will help with anything." So far, most editors are the children of scientists, but Knight says that the journal will launch efforts to attract a broader range of students, including kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in April. He plans to create Spanish and Chinese versions of the journal, and Frontiers may also launch parallel projects for different scientific disciplines. "My wife can tell when I'm working on the journal because I'm happy," Knight says.


    Join us on Thursday, 30 January, at 3 p.m. EST for a live chat with experts on giving patients and research participants access to their raw personal data.


    Chinese researcher Chen Yingxu was sentenced to 10 years in prison on 7 January after an audit uncovered that he had embezzled about $1.55 million from a massive water-quality research grant (Science, 9 August 2013, p. 598). Chen's lawyer has blasted the sentence as too harsh, claiming that his client had returned the money before the audit occurred.

  4. The Epigenetics Heretic

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Michael Skinner's claim that chemicals can cause changes to gene expression that persist across multiple generations of animals has stirred excitement—and outrage.


    Michael Skinner is gleefully listing the disciplines that he's ruffled with his contention that, without altering the sequence of DNA, certain chemicals can cause harmful health effects that pass down generations. Toxicologists are so outraged that they have tried to block his funding, he says. Geneticists resist having their decades-old understanding of inheritance overturned. Then there are the evolutionary biologists, who have "the biggest knee-jerk reaction of all."

    Skepticism is to be expected, Skinner acknowledges: "This is probably going to be the biggest paradigm shift in science in recent history," he declares.

    Skinner is a polarizing figure in an already contentious area of biology—transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, or the notion that nonmutational changes to an individual's DNA, such as chemical coatings that alter a gene's activity, can persist in their great-grandchildren and beyond. When he entered the fray 9 years ago, controversy was already emerging over more modest claims that environmental factors in childhood, such as stress or poor nutrition, could induce epigenetic changes that last into adulthood or into the next generation. Then Skinner's reproductive biology lab at Washington State University (WSU), Pullman, expanded the debate with a study in Science (3 June 2005, p. 1466). They reported that injecting pregnant rats with a common pesticide caused sperm abnormalities that persisted in the animals' male progeny for at least four generations—without any changes to the DNA sequence itself. Skinner, whose experiments have also implicated other common chemicals, even suggests that such changes may become a permanent part of our genetic inheritance.

    To some scientists, Skinner is a pioneer who has uncovered a new and exciting potential driver of evolution, as well as a troubling route by which one generation's exposure to chemicals could contribute to diseases such as obesity and infertility in their descendants. "He's demonstrating that this occurs for a wide variety of chemicals. This was a big shockeroo" for industry, says psychobiologist David Crews of the University of Texas (UT), Austin.

    But skeptics—and there are many—point out that Skinner's original experiments have not been replicated, despite several attempts. They find unconvincing his evidence that specific epigenetic changes to DNA are transferred through the germ line. "People will find it hard to believe until there are defined mechanisms," says reproductive biologist Cheryl Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri, Columbia.

    Some are also put off by Skinner's uncompromising personality, which has contributed to upheaval within his university. "He's sometimes a little cavalier in the way he presents," says reproductive biologist John McCarrey, an old friend and sometime collaborator at UT San Antonio. "I think he feels like, 'I've shown these things and people aren't listening.'"

    Man in black

    Skinner seems to relish the role of maverick. He wears a suede Stetson and a long black coat during a recent interview in a downtown yogurt shop in Washington, D.C. He is in town to receive an "American Ingenuity" honor from Smithsonian magazine, awarded to 10 people who "are having a revolutionary effect" on their fields. A related profile in the magazine is the latest in a stream of favorable media articles recorded on Skinner's online curriculum vitae and lab website.

    Skinner, whose family has deep roots in the Pacific Northwest, grew up on a ranch and started college on a wrestling scholarship. After earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry, he built a solid reputation as a reproductive biologist, studying the molecular biology of testes and ovary development and founding a center for reproductive biology at WSU with more than 100 faculty members.

    His research took a turn around 2000 when a postdoc in his lab, Andrea Cupp, studied the insecticide methoxychlor, a so-called endocrine disruptor because it has hormonelike effects in the body. Cupp wondered whether the chemical would interfere with the formation of ovaries or testes in a pregnant rat's offspring if injected during a crucial window in fetal development. That did not happen, but as adults the male offspring had lower sperm counts and less motile sperm. By accident, Cupp bred these male offspring with the daughters of other pregnant rats that had been injected with the chemical. To her surprise, their male offspring—grandsons of the methoxychlor-treated pregnant rats—had the same sperm defects.

    "I didn't believe her," Skinner says, because methoxychlor was not known to cause mutations that could account for the heritable effect. So he had Cupp repeat the experiment "about 15 times"—with the same result. Skinner's team saw the pattern again with another endocrine disruptor, the fungicide vinclozolin. Startlingly, the effects also showed up in subsequent generations of interbred rats, the so-called F3 and F4 generations.

    The sperm problems were passed down to 90% of male offspring each generation, which suggested that some unexpected mutation could not be responsible. Mutations should be random and increasingly rare in each subsequent generation, Skinner says. Instead, Skinner's team identified a possible fingerprint of epigenetic changes in the rats' testes: methyl groups added to some genes, which could suppress their transcription into protein.

    Although such methyl tags are known to pass down generations in plants and some other organisms, biologists didn't think this happened very often in mammals. That's because in the formation of sperm and eggs and in early embryos, cells go through a reprogramming stage believed to wipe away most methylation marks, except on a few genes crucial to early development. But the results from Skinner's team suggested that methylation marks on additional genes escape this reprogramming, even in generations that had no direct exposure to the toxin. (Skinner defines transgenerational effects as those in at least the F3 generation, the great-grandchildren of the original animal. That is because treating a pregnant animal may also expose her embryos and the germ cells in those embryos to the toxin—see graphic.)

    In their original study, Skinner's group did not hold back on the implications. "The ability of an environmental factor (for example, endocrine disruptor) to reprogram the germ line and to promote a transgenerational disease state has significant implications for evolutionary biology and disease etiology," they wrote.

    The resulting Science paper became the most cited paper in reproductive biology for 2005; by now, it has more than 1200 citations, according to Google Scholar. But it also drew skepticism at toxicology meetings. Questions about the paper did lead to a lengthy clarification in 2010 explaining that key data from the original study were not published in that paper but elsewhere. (Skinner says the data were omitted because of Science's space constraints.)

    More concerning to some, in three published papers, the latest last year, two labs at companies that make vinclozolin or a similar fungicide tried to replicate the vinclozolin rat experiment but found no effects beyond the first-generation offspring. An Environmental Protection Agency research group has reported similar results at meetings. "Doubt in the scientific community likely arises as a result of these conflicting reports," Rosenfeld says.

    Skinner says these studies were negative because they "didn't even come close" to following his protocol. In some cases, the researchers fed rats the chemical instead of injecting it, as he did. Or they used an inbred strain of rats instead of the outbred animals Skinner had studied. Toxicologists have long known that strains differ widely in their sensitivity to chemicals, he notes.

    Some scientists attacked his work from behind the scenes, Skinner says. "I've had people try to get my [National Institutes of Health] grants revoked," he says. Others blocked further funding, he complains. He says that he has struggled recently to support his lab. "My funding has dramatically declined because we're pushing the envelope," he says.

    Bumps in the road

    Meanwhile, problems arose within Skinner's university. In 2008, he stepped down as director of WSU's Center for Reproductive Biology and later moved to another school within WSU because of what he labels "political battles" over a campus reorganization involving his center. Michael Griswold, dean of WSU's College of Sciences at the time, says he removed Skinner because the center needed a change in leadership after 12 years. Skinner also had "some disagreements" with members of his original school, Griswold adds.

    Another shadow appeared on Skinner's professional record in 2010. Federal officials found that a Taiwanese postdoc in his lab had fabricated data in a 2006 Endocrinology paper. Skinner's group had retracted the paper in 2009 because they could not find some of the underlying data. "I thought we had all the checks and balances in place, but clearly we didn't," Skinner says.

    Yet Skinner has pressed ahead with his research. With Crews and his wife Andrea Gore, also at UT Austin, he reported in 2007 that when a female rat was caged with two different males—the F3 male offspring of vinclozolin-treated pregnant rats and a control animal—the female shunned the male descended from a treated rat. The sperm abnormalities Skinner's team had documented did not affect reproductive success, but this behavioral change could bias reproduction, suggesting that such multigenerational effects could play a role in evolution, Crews says.

    Since then, Skinner has examined other chemicals, largely funded by a specific allocation—an earmark—within a Department of Defense (DOD) spending bill. His local congresswoman, Representative Cathy Rodgers (R–WA), and others earmarked $3.7 million over 4 years to support his search for transgenerational effects from chemicals that soldiers might encounter. These studies, published over the past 2 years, showed that the insecticides DDT and permethrin, jet fuel, plastic additives known as phthalates and bisphenol A, and dioxin can all trigger transgenerational health effects in rats such as obesity and ovarian disease. Each resulted in a different pattern of methylation marks in the DNA of sperm, Skinner says. The DOD funding ended in 2011 when House Republicans banned earmarks.

    Toxic legacy.

    In a controversial finding, exposing a pregnant rat to a toxin had health effects for three generations. The first two were directly exposed in utero, but "transgenerational" epigenetic changes may be at work in the third generation.


    Although his papers dominate the literature, Skinner notes that a handful of groups have also reported similar effects. For example, Emilie Rissman's lab at the University of Virginia reported in 2012 that exposing pregnant mice to bisphenol A can cause changes in social behaviors and in behavior-related hormones, such as vasopressin, in their F4 offspring. Several labs have suggested that diet and stress can also cause epigenetically controlled health effects that pass through to the F3 generation. The weight of evidence has convinced some. "I've gone from skeptic to provisional believer," says toxicologist Kim Boekelheide of Brown University.

    Lingering doubts

    Some of the remaining skeptics speculate (often off the record) about factors other than epigenetic changes that could explain the effects Skinner's lab has observed. For example, some kind of change in how the F1 generation behaves or in the wombs of the chemical-exposed animals might alter the offspring's health in a way that in turn influences the health of their descendants, says reproductive endocrinologist Richard Sharpe of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

    Skinner's claim that he has identified permanent methylation changes in key genes, capable of resisting the normal erasure process in germ cells, has not won over the doubters. "I find the methylation differences unsatisfying," says epigenetics researcher Oliver Rando of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. He and others say methylation patterns vary widely among Skinner's animals, so it's hard to find a clear signal in the noise.

    Skinner agrees that more data would help allay the controversy. If he can win funding, he wants to demonstrate that the specific methylation marks in a developing F3 or F4 generation male embryo match the methylation patterns in the adult animal's sperm, which would support his claim that these marks are protected from the usual erasure process.

    But he dismisses an approach that many have suggested could solidify his claims—that he artificially add methyl tags to specific genes to see if he can reproduce the effects he observes from exposures to pesticides and other chemicals. That's impractical, he says, because his data suggest that "hundreds or thousands of epigenetic sites" are involved, and some affected genes may compensate for others. It is yet another example of the gulf between his views and those of geneticists, he says: They are "reductionists," while "I am a systems biologist."

    To those who don't flatly dismiss Skinner's findings, he has raised a tantalizing glimpse of a new phenomenon, one that should be explored further. Transgenerational epigenetics "is either going to be blown away or it's really going to be confirmed and expanded on and that's what I find exciting" says epigenetics researcher Wolf Reik of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, U.K.

    Skinner doesn't expect answers anytime soon. "I suspect that for the rest of my career, there will be skeptics," he says.

  5. Selling America's Fossil Record

    1. Heather Pringle

    Paleontologists fear that a growing commercial fossil industry is swallowing up U.S. fossils and the data they hold.

    On the block.

    A New York auction house displays fossils for sale, including ancient shark teeth mounted in a reconstructed jaw.


    Last November, in a marketing effort worthy of Mad Men, dinosaurs stood poised to take over Madison Avenue, courtesy of the New York auction house Bonhams. In a Manhattan atrium, giant mounted skeletons of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex loomed over artfully arranged greenery, while a specimen of two individuals known as the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs—still partly encased in plaster field jackets—rested on black platforms. The venue looked just like a museum gallery, right down to explanatory placards. But the specimens were the property of commercial fossil hunters, dealers, and others looking to make a sale.

    Nearly 20% of the specimens, ranging from a large Eocene turtle from Wyoming to an Oligocene false saber-toothed cat from South Dakota, were rare and carried auction estimates between $100,000 and $2 million. The star was the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs, thought by some to contain both a new species of ceratopsid and a small tyrannosaur, and was projected to go for as much as $9 million, a potential world record. Some thought the specimen might settle a scientific debate over whether a proposed small species, Nanotyrannus lancensis, is in fact just a juvenile T. rex. Thomas Lindgren, a co-director of Bonhams' natural history department, told Science that his role in organizing this auction was "probably the pinnacle" of his career.

    But as curious New Yorkers wandered through the preview, many paleontologists fumed. To them, the specimens represent key data on the origins and evolution of species and on past environmental change. Few, if any, museums can pay the multimillion-dollar asking prices, leaving the market wide open to wealthy private collectors, says paleontologist Thomas Carr of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. "From what I've seen online, some of the specimens are scientifically significant, and it makes my blood boil that they are up for grabs," he says.

    When auction day rolled around, most of the rare skeletons, including the Dueling Dinosaurs, failed to sell. The final bids were lower than the owners' minimum prices, suggesting a softening market for fossils. That was welcome news for paleontologists who oppose putting price tags of any kind on scientifically important specimens. But the high-profile auction exposed a growing schism in American paleontology, between those who sell fossils as merchandise and those who regard them as scientific data.

    Commercial collectors say there are plenty of specimens to go around and that university-based paleontologists have access to fossils on millions of acres of U.S. public land, where private collectors usually can't get excavation permits. "If they don't like the free enterprise system, don't participate in it, but don't demonize those that do," argued Mike Triebold, president of Triebold Paleontology Inc. in Woodland Park, Colorado, in an e-mail interview.

    But paleontologists say that most fossil vertebrates and some plants and invertebrates are rare and deserve scientific study, wherever they are found. "If you find an Egyptian tomb, do you put the contents in a museum, or do you sell them?" asks paleontologist Catherine Forster of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). "At one time people sold Egyptian mummies to tourists, and I see the same thing happening now to fossils."

    As a result, valuable information is vanishing, say many paleontologists. "A lot of bridges have been burned between the commercial collectors and the academic world," says paleontologist Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, who studies ancient mammals from New Mexico. "A lot of my colleagues have had enough."

    The good old days

    Commercial collectors once worked hand in hand with academic paleontologists. In the early 19th century, for example, British fossil dealer Mary Anning discussed the anatomy of fossil fishes with famed Swiss biologist Louis Agassiz and discovered key ichthyosaur and plesiosaur specimens that helped clinch the idea that some species had gone extinct.

    Later, as museums and educational institutes started amassing large fossil collections, they dispatched private collectors into the field. One famous American fossil hunter, Charles Sternberg, hunted specimens in western North America for nearly a dozen museums and universities between the 1870s and the 1920s. In 1921 alone, Sternberg collected 113 fossil specimens, including one complete dinosaur, for Uppsala University in Sweden. He got paid $2500, according to a 1992 paper put out by the New Mexico Geological Society.

    Now, these collegial relations have soured in many quarters, creating an angry atmosphere that some compare to the bitingly partisan relations between political parties in the U.S. Congress. Over the past 20 years, the number of commercial companies involved in the fossil trade in the United States has doubled, from about 75 companies and individuals to about 150 today, estimates paleontologist Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc. in Hill City, South Dakota; in 1977 Larson helped found the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences (AAPS), an organization of commercial collectors, dealers, and paleontologists.

    Under U.S. law, amateur and professional fossil hunters can collect specimens on private land—with the landowner's permission—and sell them to whomever they choose. In exchange for an exclusive license to collect, fossil hunters may offer a percentage of sale proceeds to landowners, often ranchers in the western United States. A sample license published online by AAPS specifies a 10% cut for the landowner. That's a tempting incentive in dinosaur-rich regions like Garfield County, Montana, where the median household income between 2007 and 2011 was $37,500, 29% less than the U.S. median. "Many ranchers need opportunities to make money off their resources, and dinosaur fossils are just one more resource that they can potentially get money from," says paleontologist Gregory Liggett of the Bureau of Land Management in Billings, Montana.

    Ready to sell.

    Montana collector Clayton Phipps hoped his specimen with two dinosaurs would fetch $7 million or more at auction—a price too high for most museums.


    These private licenses can be serious obstacles to research, some paleontologists say. Unlike commercial collectors, academic paleontologists have no sales proceeds to divvy up with landowners. "With this overheated market [for fossils], landowners are barring paleontologists from working on their land, because now all they are seeing is dollar signs," says Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. For example, paleontologists from one New Mexico museum say they spent several seasons excavating important semiaquatic reptiles from Triassic rocks on a private ranch, when they were suddenly denied access to the land: A commercial fossil hunter had swooped in and purchased an exclusive collecting right.

    Early fossil hunters sold their impressive finds largely to museums, but today many collectors seek private buyers. Near Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming, for example, collectors work the Green River Formation, layers of fine-grained lake sediments dating to some 50 million years ago, to find beautiful fossils of Eocene fish, turtles, and other species. The website of one company, GeoDécor, (accessed at on 6 December 2013), where Lindgren is chief executive officer, sheds light on how the fossils are marketed. After workers quarry fossil specimens by hand, conservators in a GeoDécor laboratory prepare fossil-strewn slabs as tiles or wall murals to be sold as decorations. The GeoDécor website shows these specimens in upscale living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms.

    Buyers need not be fossil enthusiasts. "We have targeted people who like nature, people who are into hunting and fishing and boating," says Greg Laco, president of the Logan, Utah-based Green River Stone Company, which specializes in selling Green River fish tiles and murals. "We have kind of broadened that market."

    Forster deplores the interior design trend, saying consumers may end up ripping out the fossils and throwing them away when they remodel their homes. "It's just a complete waste," she says. "I wish people would see them as beautiful pieces of data rather than something they need to possess."

    In search of the dawn horse

    Many Green River fish species are well known, so not every fish specimen from the formation is scientifically important. But sometimes collectors find more than fish. In the early 2000s, for example, Jim Tynsky of Tynsky's Fossil Fish Inc. in Kemmerer, Wyoming, collected a beautifully preserved small horse from the Green River Formation. He allowed researchers from the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, to photograph and make four casts of the specimen, and paleontologist Aaron Wood of the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville tentatively identified it as Protorohippus venticolus from a photograph. This specimen, the most complete skeleton of a dawn horse ever discovered, is of "great scientific importance," Sues says. The Equidae, or true horses, first appeared in North America about 55 million years ago, and "the earliest horses are primarily represented by jaws and teeth," he explains. "Even partial skeletons are of great interest because they provide insights on locomotion and other aspects of biology."

    Fossil riches.

    Two geological formations in the western United States (see map) have produced spectacular fossils, from rarities like Sue and a dawn horse to common specimens like Knightia.


    The original specimen is still in private hands, where it cannot be readily studied by scientists. "I approached several museums about [buying] it," Tynsky says, "but never came to an agreement about pricing." In December, the specimen was listed online for sale by Touchstone Gallery of Cedar Crest, New Mexico. According to a gallery representative, the asking price is now $2.25 million.

    Triebold says that the high prices of large fossil vertebrates are warranted. To excavate and prepare an average elephant-sized dinosaur skeleton, for example, can take between 15,000 and 20,000 hours. "A million dollar price tag on a dinosaur doesn't mean you have made a million dollars," writes Triebold in an e-mail. "You might even have lost some money if you aren't careful."

    Paleontologist Jack Horner at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, counters that he and his colleagues collected nearly a dozen T. rex and 100 Triceratops specimens at a total cost of $2 million during their recent Hell Creek Project. Based on this fieldwork, he and his students have published 47 peer-reviewed papers since 1999, including three in Science (25 March 2005, p. 1952; 13 April 2007, p. 277; and 3 June 2005, p. 1456), as well as one edited volume and eight dissertation theses.

    Museums do often buy from commercial collectors, if they can find the funds. SVP's ethical code censures the "barter, sale or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils," but makes an exception for accredited museums that will conserve and study specimens. In November, for example, the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen used funds from a private foundation to buy a complete skeleton of Diplodocus longus at an auction in Sussex, U.K. Excavated in Wyoming, the specimen sold for $789,205.

    But the high prices are driving many museums out of the market. Carr, a senior scientific adviser for the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, and others think that the trend toward multimillion-dollar price tags began in 1997, when the Field Museum outbid other buyers at an auction for a nearly complete T. Rex specimen—the dinosaur called Sue, now displayed in the museum (Science, 19 September 1997, p. 1767). By combining forces with corporate donors, the museum paid $8,362,500 for the specimen, a world record. After this, Carr says, many collectors upped prices, convinced that museums would find a way to raise the money.

    Sue's sale price became a benchmark, agrees vertebrate paleontologist Peter Makovicky of the Field Museum. Although "no one has ever hit that benchmark again, a lot of people dream about it," he says. He calls the trend toward higher prices "a bit unfortunate," but says the situation isn't much different from the art market, for example when art sold at exceptionally high prices during the 1990s.

    But the financial crisis of 2008 badly dented public funding for museums and also made it harder to raise private money. Today, many American museums are struggling: the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh announced in December that it is losing as much as $2 million a year, and the Smithsonian Institution faced a $65 million budget cut last year. The San Diego Natural History Museum in California even planned to sell fossils to raise money to buy other natural history specimens. Al though museum CEO Michael Hager told Science that the museum is "in great financial shape," it put up several lots of fossils, including some specimens included in published papers, for the recent Bonhams auction. After SVP protested the move and other public institutions offered to take on the fossils, the museum withdrew the lots.


    Slabs with 50-million-year-old fossil fish decorate kitchens and bedrooms.


    Finances aren't the only barrier to museums buying at commercial auctions. Horner argues that many commercial collectors leave behind vital contextual information, such as stratigraphic data and sedimentary clues to how animals were preserved after death. This makes the specimens less scientifically valuable. "There is a variety of data that they might collect, but every bit they do is overhead, so there is no possible way that they are going to get as much as we do," Horner says.

    Professional collectors dismiss these criticisms. They say they have far more experience collecting specimens, and so do a better job, than paleontologists who spend most of their time teaching or working in museums. And some commercial collectors publish scientific papers on their finds.

    Horner notes, however, that commercial collectors of dinosaurs tend to invest an inordinate amount of time and resources on reconstructing specimens—something that he and his colleagues at the Museum of the Rockies do not do. The Triceratops skeleton consigned to Bonhams in November, for example, was only about 65% original bone. According to the auction catalog, preparators used casts of missing bones to complete the skeleton. Such restoration may improve a specimen's appearance, but can impede research, Horner says. When museums purchase such specimens, "the scientists who get it have to scrape on it to see what's plaster and what isn't," he says.

    The public-private divide

    Both commercial and research paleontologists say they are dissatisfied with the current system. Commercial collectors complain bitterly about the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, passed in 2009, which restricts collection of scientifically important fossil specimens on federal land to qualified researchers with a permit. Permit holders must deposit all collected fossils in a museum or other approved repository—no sales allowed. According to 1995 National Wilderness Institute data, federal lands make up 26% of the U.S. land mass, but the figure varies widely by state. Nearly 81% of the state of Nevada is public land, for example; in Texas, it is just 1.4%.

    Triebold, a past president of AAPS, thinks Congress should have instituted a system that gives commercial collectors permits to operate on federal land in exchange for royalties on sales. Instead, he writes in an e-mail, "the public lands of the U.S. have officially become the private sandbox for only those institutional collectors who are 'qualified.'"

    In contrast, Carr and other academic paleontologists would like to see protection taken further, to private land. Many other governments have already taken this step. In the Canadian province of Alberta, which has rich fossil beds, all specimens, whether found on public or private land, belong to the government. Excavation requires a permit, generally issued only to qualified paleontologists. The legislation, passed in 1978, has "curtailed the excavation by untrained individuals resulting in damage and scientific loss of specimens," says Dan Spivak of the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Canada.

    But property rights are considered sacrosanct in much of the American West, and similar legislation would almost certainly not pass in the United States. So Carr recently suggested in his blog a different tactic: to apply the "eminent domain" clause in the U.S. Constitution to important dinosaur fossils. This clause permits federal and state governments to seize land for public use such as building a highway, provided that landowners are compensated. "If the federal government could be convinced that [scientifically important] fossils fall under the definition of 'land,' … then possibly they could be seized and the people who collected the specimens could be compensated for the expense of collection, salaries, and whatever monetary value you place on fossils," Carr says.

    The idea already has sparked a strong backlash from collectors. "Telling a third-generation rancher that he doesn't or shouldn't own the dinosaur that was collected on his property or what he should do with it, would be a conversation that would almost certainly enlighten the scientist on the ways of America in a big way," Triebold says. "You don't mess with private property rights in ranchland."

    Given the war of words and fraying tempers, some paleontologists advocate stepping back and working to rebuild the old cooperative relationships with commercial collectors. Rather than asking the government to seize fossils from collectors, Forster says, "I would rather see academic paleontologists work with commercial collectors to parse significant from nonsignificant [fossils], and work to keep them in the public domain" by providing advice and contacts with potential museum buyers. To Forster, finding such a solution is urgent. "We are losing vast amounts of information about our collective history," she says. "It's disappearing for no particularly good reason, and it's not coming back. Gone is gone."