Fossil collecting – a delicate balance act

By Dave Hone

Outside of buying a token ammonite from a museum gift shop or a seaside fossil shop one might not think there was a huge amount of trade in the buying and selling of the remains of ancient animals. In fact it is a big business and people can, and do, buy specimens worth millions of you denomination of choice. This has all manner of mixed implications for researchers trying to study a dwindling resource.

While obviously animals like pandas and blue whales are critically engendered and may become extinct, with careful protection and good husbandry and a bit of time, you can get (theoretically at least) an infinite number of them – they will breed. On the other hand, the number of Tyrannosaurus specimens that there have been or will ever be is fixed. Only fossils remain and every one that is lost through erosion, built over by a road, destroyed by mistake or whisked off into a private collection will never be seen again. In theory at least those in a private collection may come back one day but often without the critical data of exactly where it was collected from.

Scientists make a policy of only studying specimens held in public (generally state owned and run) museums. There are some exceptions, but in general if it’s not there, you can’t work on it, or at least journals won’t let you publish on it. That naturally gives us a lot to work with, but good, even great, specimens are in private collections and private museums. True, these do sometimes hand over their material to other museums (which is nice) but as there’s no guarantee they ever will, so we stick to what we have and what we can get for ourselves.

And therein lies the problem. Digging up fossils is both expensive and time consuming. Researchers can only ever do so much, and with willing buyers out there, and many more dealers and collectors looking for fossils than the researchers then we tend not to find the best stuff, and we can’t afford to (and in many cases morally shouldn’t) buy them. In short, research is losing out massively to collectors.

The problem though is a very complex one. Good fossil dealers (and they are out there) are quite happy to hand over, or sell at a discount, or at least give first refusal to museums for good and important specimens. Generous owners do donate their collections or individuals specimens to museums. Many people will develop an interest in palaeontology and fossils they might not have had otherwise from the purchase or gift of some small trilobite or sharks’ tooth and I don’t think any palaeontologist would begrudge them it. The problem lies in where this kind of dealing should stop.

Selling on an ammonite of a species represented by thousands or even millions of specimens? Sure, go for it. How about some new and incredible species of dinosaur, preserved with a dead mammal in it’s stomach, a set of eggs in it’s body and preserved with skin and feathers? Absolutely not. What about a dinosaur foot though? Or half a skull? Or a single caudal? Or a broken tooth? Every specimen can add some information, even if it’s just to pool data and build a bigger database, but there is understandably a huge grey area in the middle, and one that is only compounded by confusing laws and regulations that vary between countires and even regions of countries.

It can be legal to collect and own fossils, and to give them to people, but not trade or sell them or export them. It may be legal to collect fossils only in certain places but then legal to export or sell them. It may be illegal to import fossils, but once in the country legal to sell them. It may be illegal to buy, sell or own fossils of ‘scientific importance’ without approval (though try defining that). Fossils may be dealt with as historical artefacts, or as art, or as zoological specimens, or even geological ones. Laws might be different for research as for private ownership. Given the international dealing of material (in the UK I have seen material from Morocco, Egypt, Germany, Brazil, the U.S.A, Mongolia and China for sale and we are hardly a big hub for this kind of thing) that makes for a big and complex mess.

Moreover, I have been to places where as a professional academic my group was required to obtain half a dozen different permits to dig and excavate material and had to pass all manner of spot checks and legal hoops to jump through to dig in an areas renowned for the levels of local illegal excavations. We get checked on as approved researchers, employed by said country to excavate, while over the hill people are walking off with rare and important specimens worth a fortune. Fossil dealers are common in some countries even when it’s expressly forbidden (I’ve been told of one famous dealership that sits on the street opposite the ministry who banned fossil trading). In short, even when the law is in place, it’s rarely or improperly enforced. Indeed it may not be possible to enforce as proving the provenance of a fossil can be very hard. Even when it can be narrowed down, geological formations do not follow national boundaries and it may be impossible to prove that a given specimen came from the U.S.A. and not Canada or Mongolia but not China and so on.

In short, it’s a nightmare. The laws vary from state to state, and often unclear or not enforced. Even when they are, it can be impossible to enforce or require huge amounts of expert time and effort to work out what something is or where it may have come from. Many countries most at risk obviously have more pressing concerns for their budgets and what they do have might well go towards tying to stop trade in more emotive problems like cultural artefacts or protected living species rather than what can be seen as chunks of rock. You certainly don’t want a blanket ban – people should be allowed to own fossils and that entails collectors and dealers, but at the same time important sites and specimens do need protection.

Where does this leave us? In a mess frankly, but one thing is for certain, the lack of clear national and international regulations and the lack of enforcement means that valuable specimens are being lost to science. And if gone, very few will ever come back.

You can catch up with Dave Hones Archosaur Musings here
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0 Responses to Fossil collecting – a delicate balance act

  1. A problem indeed, for many reasons.

    A fossil collector, either commercial or a naive amateur, is unlikely to properly examine the detailed geological context of the find, and its relationship to others. The commercial collector won’t be interested, and the naive amateur is unlikely to have the necessary knowledge or equipment. This problem is now more serious than ever, when so much can be learnt by tomography of the matrix rock, before cleaning down to the actual fossil. Think of dinosaur feathers.

    Then there is also distortion of the market. I read recently that a magnificent Tyrranosaur skull had been sold to a private collector for a sum greater than the combined annual salary of all the palaeontologists qualified to appraise it.

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