So much is lost when fossil treasures go private

I don’t remember exactly which dinosaurs I saw when I first visited Chicago’s Field Museum as a child, but I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing the gigantic skeletons striding forth out of the past. Since then, I’ve seen many other fossilized dinos at many other museums, and the thrill remains the same.

This issue’s cover story investigates the soaring popularity of museum-quality dinosaur fossils as collectibles, with highbrow auction houses like Christie’s selling off Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons as if they’re pieces of art. As earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling reports, Stan the T. rex, a skeleton discovered on private land in South Dakota, sold for an eye-popping $31.8 million in 2020, and a T. rex skull went for $6.1 million last December.

Stan disappeared after it was auctioned off. Last year, it was revealed that the United Arab Emirates is the owner and intends to place Stan in a new natural history museum. The fossil trade is nothing new, but most museums can’t compete at these price points. And though many countries regulate fossil sales, loopholes abound.

With each fossil that disappears from public view, science — and the public — loses. Scientists fear that new finds could go straight to private owners without being properly studied. With so few T. rex fossils unearthed, each specimen holds tremendous scientific value.

Fortunately for us dinophiles, museums do have T. rex skeletons on display and in their collections. The Field Museum houses Sue, whose $8.36 million purchase in 1997 was underwritten by corporations and academic institutions. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., is home to a T. rex discovered in Montana in 1988. Because the fossil was found on federal land, it avoided the auction block and now chomps on an unlucky Triceratops in the museum’s recently renovated fossil hall.

In this issue, we also explore another source of frustration in science: Our limited understanding of depression. The often-debilitating disorder affects millions of people worldwide. But despite decades of effort, scientists still can’t describe how it works or what causes it. The familiar “chemical imbalance” theory doesn’t fully capture what’s going on in the brain, let alone the influence of external factors like gender, race and culture. How an individual experiences depression also depends on where they live and how they experience the world around them.

Researchers are seeking not only a better grasp on what’s happening inside the brain, but also how internal and external factors interact. One barrier to moving the science forward is that different researchers rely on different definitions of depression and different methods of assessing whether a person is depressed. As neuroscience and senior writer Laura Sanders notes, it’s like trying to figure out the science of temperature without a thermometer.

It’s an extraordinary challenge, and one that researchers may not solve in their lifetimes. But I’m grateful that they’re trying to discover the roots of a malady that plagues so many.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.