Museum's fossils may be tainted, report says

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle is scrambling to figure out exactly where many of its 45,000 fossils came from and whether they were dug up illegally.

A team of outside experts that examined the museum's collection concluded last week that the excavation site of many specimens was so poorly described in museum records that the bones and fossils have little scientific value. The team also questioned whether the museum had the proper permits to collect fossils from federal, state and tribal lands.

The museum is part of the University of Washington. David Hodge, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked for the review after receiving complaints about the field practices of the Burke's former vertebrate paleontology curator.

John Rensberger, who built up the museum's collection over 35 years, retired in 2004. In 2002, he and a group of students were caught collecting fossils without a permit on the Hanford Reach National Monument in Eastern Washington.

Rensberger, who is still a professor emeritus at the university, defended the bulk of his field work, which he says was legal and scientifically sound.

"We kept excellent records of all the specimens we collected," he said.

More than 80 percent of the museum's collection was excavated before federal permits were required, Rensberger said.

But the new report, written by three respected paleontologists, said permitting was commonplace by the 1980s. Of dozens of field expeditions Rensberger led in Wyoming, Montana and Oregon since 1980, the investigation found permits for only four.

Even more troubling to paleontologists is the fuzzy information on where fossils were collected.

Jack Horner, one of America's most famed dinosaur hunters and T. rex experts, said many specimens in the Burke's collection were useless for his research, which aims to trace the way the giant reptiles evolved over time. In order to figure that out, he has to know precisely in which stratigraphic layers bones were discovered, and the age of those layers.

A triceratops skull he examined in Seattle was simply labeled with the general geologic formation and county in which it was discovered, said Horner, of Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies.

"The most important thing about dinosaurs is the age of the rocks they come out of."

Horner also said he had checked with the Bureau of Land Management in Montana several times when he heard Rensberger was working in a fertile dinosaur ground called the Hell Creek formation, on BLM land. "He never had a permit, so nobody knew where he was," Horner said.

Bruce Crowley, who prepares fossils at the Burke Museum, was among the first to blow the whistle on what he saw as unethical behavior. In the early 2000s, he accompanied Rensberger on an expedition but became uneasy when the paleontologist wouldn't tell him where they were going.

When the destination was revealed as Hell Creek, Crowley asked to see Rensberger's permit. When Rensberger refused, Crowley caught the next bus back to Seattle — and filed a report with university administrators.

For its investigation, the team of paleontologists examined a small fraction of the museum's collection but uncovered several serious labeling problems. The coordinates for one fossil primate corresponded to the middle of a highway. In other cases, locations were off by one to two miles.

"It's almost like saying, 'I collected this fossil in the University District,' " said Julie Stein, who took over as museum director four months ago.

The report suggests Rensberger might have deliberately mislabeled fossils to keep his favorite sites secret from other paleontologists.

"... Recording and reporting locality data apparently was conducted with a disregard for completeness and accuracy, either through carelessness or deliberate falsification," the conclusions say. "Many specimens in the Burke are beautifully preserved and skillfully prepared, but their significance to modern paleontology may have been drastically and perhaps irretrievably reduced."

Rensberger dismissed the criticism as "absolutely ridiculous."

Last Thursday, Stein sent a contingent of campus police officers to Rensberger's house, with a letter requesting all of his field notes. He turned over 10 notebooks, which seem to include more detail on where the fossils were discovered, Stein said.

The museum is hiring several graduate students to catalog the entire fossil collection and use the notebooks and other source of information to better pinpoint locations.

"We are going to fix this," Stein said.

The museum also will contact all the federal agencies and tribes that own land where fossils were collected. Some fossils may be returned, but Stein said she hopes federal agencies will agree to let the museum keep bones taken from their lands, even without a permit.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or