Dinosaur Isle Collections and a Bit About Fossil Collecting

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Dinosaur Isle is the museum on the Isle of Wight. They have a handful of crocodyliform species. Diplocynodon hantoniensis, like what I saw in London, is the resident alligatoroid. They also have some scraps of Bernissartia, which is going to be the outgroup in my phylogenetic analysis. I’ll be seeing the holotype when I head to Brussels next. Their Diplocynodon is pretty scrappy material. They have a few good-looking jaws, but no good sections of skulls. The thing I was really excited to see is a croc that was only recently described from there, Koumpiodontosuchus. It falls out as the sister of Bernissartia, so I was interested to see what else I could learn from it.

At the front of its snout, you can see a pair of lower teeth sticking up into a notch in its snout. And at the back of its snout, it has an overbite. Gators loose the notch, crocs lose the overbite.

At the front of its snout, you can see a pair of lower teeth sticking up into a notch in its snout. And at the back of its snout, it has an overbite. Gators loose the notch; crocs lose the overbite.

In most respects, Koumpiodontosuchus is like Bernissartia. There are only a handful of characters in my current matrix that they differ in. It’s good to note which characters are more stable among various taxa in that part of the tree and which are more variable. I was also able to code some characters off of Koumpiodontosuchus that aren’t recorded from Bernissartia. I ended up spending two of my two and a half working days on it (I finished early here as well)!

The unfortunate thing about the specimen is that it’s been preserved with its jaws in tight articulation. And it’s unstable enough that the preparator decided it would be better to leave matrix on in some places to keep it from falling apart. The braincase is one of the parts I didn’t get to code. And it’s phylogenetically very informative.

But—there’s a CT scanner in a nearby town on Great Britain. I’m putting together information for the museum to see if it would be worth scanning. Because scanning is expensive when someone else owns the scanner.

They have a nice little museum here. It’s small, obviously, given its location. But they do some really good PR work. The lab where I was examining the fossils is also where prep work and public interaction are done. They have a window looking out onto the exhibit floor that can slide open so visitors can talk to staff. And a whole bunch of specimens for them to look at and pick up right there. The guy in charge of me was really good at interacting with visitors. And some of them asked good questions.

Laws in the US make it hard to collect vertebrate fossils (in order to make it hard for them to disappear into private collections owned by people who don’t want anyone studying them). Not so much in the UK. Sometimes private collectors will let researchers examine fossils for a set period of time. And sometimes people even donate the fossils they’ve found.

The Bernissartia specimen I was using as comparison to Koumpiodontosuchus was actually one of those loans. Because it’s not accessioned in an accredited museum, very few scientific journals would accept a publication including data from it. Part of the palate was really the only good view on it. Hopefully some of the accessioned Bernissartia in Belgium is as pretty as that segment.

There’s a whole big debate on whether or not private fossil collecting is a good or bad thing for science. The answer seems to be somewhere in the middle. Not getting to study a scientifically valuable specimen is always heartbreaking. As is seeing collectors who either don’t know or don’t care about good collecting or preparation techniques ruining otherwise excellent specimens. But private collecting means more eyes out there looking for things. It also means sparking interest in potential future researchers, staff, volunteers, patrons, donators, political allies, you name it. So keeping the path open for private collecting, while putting some failsafes in for specimens that can inform our understanding of the past, seems to be the best option. It creates a mutually beneficial dialogue with the public and means scientists don’t run as much risk of coming off as a bunch of Gollums hoarding their preciouses. Exactly what those failsafes are, how to implement them without creating bitterness on either side, and where you draw the line between “scientifically valuable” and “not valuable enough to worry about” is what’s so hard to figure out, though.

Dinosaur Isle runs “fossils walks”, where they take groups of people out to promising sites on the island, point out which rocks are likely to have which fossils, explain how to look for them them, and ID anything people find. People get to keep what they find unless the specimen is a foot long or bigger. The agreement is that, if it’s that big, the museum can decide if they want it or not. If something smaller looks valuable, the museum can ask to borrow it or have it donated, but the finder is under no obligation to do so. There are some frequent fossilers on the island who are notorious for keeping scientifically valuable specimens to themselves, but on the whole it seems like they’ve set up a good relationship with the public, who are mostly willing to let them borrow things if needed.

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