Dinosaur Digger Unearths `Fossilgate'

Biology Grad Student Sparks Canadian Controversy

Not much happens in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, population 1800. Until last summer, that is, when two American paleontologists decided to poke around.

What they dug up was an impressive collection of "the world's tiniest dinosaurs," but one member of the Canadian Parliament has charged that their handling of the saber-toothed crocodiles, fish and footprints was more than a tiny bit illegal. He claims the scientists--a Columbia University professor and a Harvard graduate student--brought their find back to Cambridge in violation of Canadian legislation.

The Parliament member, John Nunziata, has introduced the matter in the House of Commons. He dubbed it "Fossilgate."

Neil H. Shubin, a fourth-year Harvard graduate student in biology, and Paul E. Olsen, a geology professor at Columbia University, had spent a relatively unproductive summer digging at the Nova Scotia site until a misadventure left them trapped by high tide near a cliff on the shore of the Bay of Fundy.

Sealed off by the water, the two began to examine the cliff and ended up bringing three tons of rock brought back to Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology in pickup trucks, a van and a station wagon.

But Harvard's appropriation of what turned out to be valuable fossils piqued a few Canadians, including Nunziata, who investigated the matter in response to a Toronto-area constituent's call.

"After a bit of digging, we found that the fossils had been shipped to Harvard without the proper legislation," Nunziata said.

"I raised the issue tongue in cheek; the government's not going to fall because of it," he said. "Still, rules are serious things."

The specimens were first taken to the Nova Scotia Museum. Grantham, who said he embodies "the entire geological staff" of the museum, did not apply for a permit required to export "cultural" material. He said he had not known one was required.

Parrsboro's Mayor Stanford L. Blenkhorn also displayed little anxiety. "I do not think there was controversy," he said. "The only thing that we were concerned about was whether once they finished studying [the fossils] we will get them back. We had a few public meetings concerning the find."

Grantham said he was "mad as hell" that Nunziata brought the issue before the Canadian House of Commons. "Nunzita called it 'Fossilgate,' but it was just the way science works," he said.

The legislator belongs to the Canadian liberal opposition party, nicknamed the "Rat Pack" because they "go around sniffing out various things embarrasing for the government," Grantham said.

"The opposition party took it very seriously. No one else did," said Shubin, a Currier House tutor.

Grantham said the fossils had to be studied in the U.S. because Canada lacks the facilites needed to uncover the minature fossils.

The "Fossilgate" controversy is rapidly nearing extinction, because Grantham received the permit before Nunziata raised the issue in Parliament. Harvard and the Nova Scotia Museum are currently deciding the final home of the fossils, Shubin said.