Fossil collecting – a delicate balance act

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.

29 Responses to “Fossil collecting – a delicate balance act”


  1. 1 Lab Lemming 02/04/2012 at 1:14 pm

    How many fossils are lost in the gigatons of coal that we burn every year?

  2. 3 daleamon 02/04/2012 at 1:16 pm

    I’m in a very different discipline, but it is not unusual for folks interested in spacecraft to also be interested in many other things, especially deep time and dinosaurs.

    The problem here seems to be that you cannot publish data based on a private holding. That strikes me (a very hardcore libertarian) as absurd. If you treat collectors as partners and helpers, they will most likely treat you the same. If you try to criminalize them, try to make what they are doing suspicious, the collecting will not slow down and might even increase due to the extra-adventurousness of it; instead of careful excavations for fossils that have extra data, you will have late night slash and burn organized crime.

    Make these people part of the scientific effort. Make it an important value added that the T-Rex in their hallway has all the data attached to it. Make them feel that a speciman without the data scientists need is of lesser value. That will drive the market towards the direction you want. You will get more specimans, more money spent on digging them up the right way, more specimens to work with and everyone wins.

    Freedom is a good thing. Freedom leads to openness and people helping each other. The other road is a disaster… making pot illegal and throwing half the country in jail really worked well, didn’t it? ;-)

    • 4 David Hone 02/04/2012 at 1:25 pm

      Well that’s a lovely idea in theory and I don’t really disagree, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of this stuff is classified as criminal by the country of origin (in terms of collection or exportation etc.) and there’s a great limit to what we can do about that. I don’t think it’d necessarily help much anyway to be honest, there are lots of good, positive collectors out there who while having expansive private collections, do hand over material *because* they value it and the science behind it. But there are people who just want something on their walls because it is rare and valuable and looks nice, and I don’t think they can be easily reached.

      “The problem here seems to be that you cannot publish data based on a private holding. That strikes me (a very hardcore libertarian) as absurd”

      It’s purely an issue of practicality really. The point of science is replication and any given fossil must be accessible to be re-examined, retested etc. That’s a given for a public museum, but not for a private collection. There is nothing to stop an owner refusing access to a researcher, or giving away or selling his material, or just locking it in a vault. In which case anything said about that specimen can’t be corroborated and that renders anything said about it questionable.

  3. 5 daleamon 02/04/2012 at 2:29 pm

    True, a collection might disappear for years, even decades. But it will resurface, whether due to a change of heart or at Sotheby’s or an heir. How does this differ from public museums? If there were any valuable specimens in Cambodia in the mid-seventies, I dare say you could not have reached them. Or the entirety of China during the Cultural Revolution when a scientist who even talked to you would be killed for it; or in Myanmar during its more closed off times. I can name place after place where access to artifacts and data in the literature had to wait years and decades even. So I don’t really take that concern seriously or else journals would refuse to publish based on specimens held in Chinese museums because they might not be reachable for the checking and replication of results. (Actually a possible concern as some China watcher have a rather dour view of what may happen in the power transition in the Chinese Communist Party).

    It just means that some replication of results requires a bit of patience. The items in question have been around 65MY or more. A few decades one way or the other means nothing to them and their secrets.

    • 6 David Hone 02/04/2012 at 2:53 pm

      “But it will resurface, whether due to a change of heart or at Sotheby’s or an heir.”

      Well not necessarily. We are aware of stuff that has been in collections for many, many decades and there is no guarantee that things will *ever* resurface. And in the meantime, it’s hardly very useful.

      While I agree there have been plenty of issues in the past due to wars / political problems etc. these are of a different nature. You can’t legislate for things like that, they can happen anywhere (just as can a natural disaster) and are at least very unlikely in some places (I can’t see the AMNH shutting down, being destroyed or having political problems any time soon). But stuff that has no guarantees attached to it (i.e. private ownership) we can account for, by not using it.

      Things go wrong and stuff can be lost or inaccessible, but we can minimise the likelyhood of that being an issue. When you add the other (potential) issues of legality, lack of prominence data etc. it only compounds it.

      • 7 hypnotosov 02/04/2012 at 5:10 pm

        And there are of course specimens that have gone missing from private collections, like the infamous Archeaopteryx fossil that was allegedly buried with it’s owner (regarded of whether that is true, the owner is long dead and the fossil nowhere to be found).
        This could happen in a museum of course, but it.s far more likely in private collections which rarely have dedicated curators.

  4. 8 zombiezurfer 02/04/2012 at 3:25 pm

    Actually, the number of Tyrannosaurs is not fixed. They could (theoretically) evolve again, but they could also be recreated using genetic engineering. Not in the classic Jurassic Park sense, but to undertake that project would require hundred if not thousands of fossils for the DNA fragment content. I already have the plan to recreate dinosaurs like that by testing the DNA on Turkey embryos. It does require a decent amount of coordination with chemicals, and the first step besides getting the “fossil DNA” is to map the turkey genome for whatever genes are left in it that also existed in the dinosaur in question.

    Would boost fossil sales, I expect, not only from the requirement of obtaining the DNA, but likely from any sort of competition.
    Now if I only had $15000 to buy that Spino jaw and finger…

    • 9 David Hone 02/04/2012 at 3:29 pm

      Well that is phenomenally theoretical. But even if you did create something through genetic engineering or genetic recovery, there’s no guarantee you’d have the ‘same’ thing as the animal in the fossil record. It would be unlikely to be the same, and you’d still be lacking behavioural and other data. So nice idea, but let’s be honest, effectively irrelevant.

      • 10 zombiezurfer 02/04/2012 at 10:58 pm

        Well, to apply that idea of same, everything is an individual, but for my purposes, same means what most people interpret a species as.

        But as to irrelevance, I disagree. While possessing little return outside the realms of biology, paleontology, entertainment, and domestic value (pets, farm animals, etc.) at the very least, but despite that range of service, it would undoubtedly be lucrative and educational.

  5. 11 daleamon 02/04/2012 at 5:00 pm

    I think the important point is that you can not beat the market. You can outlaw, it you can delay it, but in the longer run it will flatten you. All the might of the Soviet army could not defeat it. All the might of the US government has succeeded only in making drug salesmen into Lords with billion dollar bank accounts of laundered money. So you have to come to a modus vivendi. There is an awful lot more funding for the science available out there by engaging and making the private sector part of the game instead of outsiders. Although somewhat different, look at the model of Astronomy where professional astronomers and top amateurs even co-author papers in top notch journals. You weaken your own field by not fully engaging that inherent interest. If there were major amateur organizations in paleontology equivalent to say, the The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, or the Association of Variable Star Observers, their members would learn to work to something close to your own standards as part of their cameraderie and their own pride in what they are doing, and the standards by which they kept their collections. You could create a self-reinforcing partnership in which every one is a winner.

    • 12 David Hone 02/04/2012 at 6:08 pm

      Well there is really quite a lot of just that kind of collaboration (including papers – just look at Raptorex). We do encourage it and amateurs in the strict sense and collectors / dealers do get involved. The issue is that amateur astronomers can’t run off with the galaxies and stars they find, or suddenly make millions selling them. And as I noted, based on my own experiences, there are only so many people you can reach, no matter how good you are – some people just want the money, or just want the fossil.

  6. 13 steve cohen 02/04/2012 at 5:09 pm

    “I can’t see the AMNH shutting down, being destroyed or having political problems any time soon.”

    Supposedly one of the main reasons AMNH sold its second t.rex to Carnegie Mellon in 1943 was the fear that if the Germans bombed NYC unique fossils would be lost forever.

    • 14 David Hone 02/04/2012 at 6:04 pm

      Well that was 1943….

    • 15 Schenck 04/04/2012 at 2:15 pm

      The AMNH has also jacked up their security procedures for fear of terrorist attacks; attacks motivated by it being a cultural landmark and also because it promotes evolution and science. There have been attacks on artwork at art museums, it’s not unreasonable to expect that someone could demolish a display specimen.

      But really there’s a tremendous difference between the risks an AMNH specimen is exposed to and that of a private dealer who may not know how to preserve the material at all.

  7. 17 daleamon 02/04/2012 at 5:18 pm

    Minor correction. You mean the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. As a former undergrad and grad and one time researcher at CMU, I can categorically state I never ran into a T-Rex in the hallways. Robots, yes; an historic large refracting telescope in a Doherty Hall sub-basement yes; an entry to an old mining technology teaching coalmine used for (at the time) storing any radionucleotides left over from Physics Department work, yes. But T-Rex? Nope. Nary a claw mark on the cut or a scratch on the floor of Skibo. ;-)

  8. 18 Heinrich Mallison 02/04/2012 at 6:19 pm

    daleamon, the key point here is guaranteed long-term survival and accessability. And, to be honest, the much-vaunted free market has never lived up to any of the promises made about it. I keeps doing ugly things, and the the free market proponents are often the first to yell for governments to step in and ameliorate the problems.

    There are certain issues that simply do not belong in any hands by those of the government – or are you in favor of private armies? Some things just need tough regulations, and scientific specimens are one of these.

    Now, you seem to believe that fossils are never truly lost – that’s plain wrong. There are people in this world who will smash fossils because they do not fit their religion. There are people who will smash fossils so that other heirs will not get them. There are people who do not recognize the value of fossils and toss them into landfills – this may have happened to a specimen of Archaeopteryx (though other reasons why it continues to be lost are more likely).

    All this said, I know of several private museums and collectors who are perfect partners for science. The AMNH is one – yes, it is a private institutions, although people tend to forget that fact. In other places, the fossils are owned by foundations, so financial troubles or heritage disputes can’t touch them. But such partnerships may need a strong controlling hand – or do you trust 100% of people 199% of the time? As good and great as a current owner may be, you never know who may buy or inherit stuff from him/her.

  9. 19 daleamon 02/04/2012 at 8:54 pm

    Heinrich: I’m not going to delve deep into that area because it is probably not appropriate. Let us just say that there are very large numbers of us out here who have absolute zero faith and zero belief in the ability of the State to do *anything* right. As to private armies… no. Killing people and breaking things is the one and only place where the state has evolved to be the best institution for the job. For anything else? No so much.

    So lets just say that you and I heartily disagree at a very deep philosophical level and get back to pterosaurs and bones and collections?

    • 20 Heinrich Mallison 02/04/2012 at 10:06 pm

      There are a tremendous number of people “there” (in the US) believing they live in a Christian country. There are a tremendous number of people “there” (in the US) believing the communist-Nazi-soliacist-Nigerian Obama sets gas prices.

      Let’s just say that most beliefs and convictions held by many people in the US are rather ridiculous to the rest of the world.

      I bet you hate seat-belts, too?

  10. 21 daleamon 02/04/2012 at 9:02 pm

    I’ll toss in an example. I have only one fossil myself, crinoids perhaps although the sandstone block is in storage and not near to hand. I chipped it out of a sandstone quarry 40 years ago in Pennsylvania from the back of the property of some elderly relatives. The are is now totally gone, buried under landfill for a shopping center. Even if one assumed I had a new species of never before seen Pennsylvanian era crinoid, would the world be better off if I had left it there?

    • 22 David Hone 02/04/2012 at 9:18 pm

      No of course it wouldn’t. But then until you give it over to a museum to check no one would ever know. And when you go, unless you will it to a museum, whoever takes over your stuff from your will might just chuck it out anyway so it makes no real difference until the scientific world knows about it.

      But we’re still more or less going round in circles here – just because you (and other people) might be good enough to hand you stuff over one day, and someday maybe some other will go to museums doesn’t mean that a) we should assume that’ll happen to all of them eventually, so what the hell, let’s publish on whatever we like, or b) people aren’t going to stash and steal (right or wrong, countries have laws that are being violated by dealers / owners) scientifically important material.

      Anything that comes out of the ground that might, just one day, come into being available for scientific research is, on balance, better than it being left to be eroded. Sure. But as things stand (i.e. being pragmatic in terms of how journals, museums and laws currently operate) it’s not right that a) people do break said laws and b) are active in doing so and encouraging it to happen. We can encourage better laws, and encourage people not to hold onto stuff and donate collections and money to researchers. BUT right now people are wrecking specimens by smashing skulls to get the teeth out or cutting the hands off to see separately, and discouraging that is a very good thing indeed. It would be better if scientists were left to excavate them, but they can’t excavate stuff that’s been battered and destroyed.

  11. 23 Zhen 03/04/2012 at 1:04 am

    This is just from the point of a poor slob, but I’ve always wondered why people collect fossils and want to keep them private. I mean, if you want fossils, chances are, you have an interest in paleontology. Wouldn’t that person want paleontologists to study their specimen? I know some do. If they have no interest, why bother? Fossils aren’t exactly a status symbol of the rich and famous.

    But again, this is just from the mind of a poor slob.

    • 24 David Hone 03/04/2012 at 7:51 am

      “Fossils aren’t exactly a status symbol of the rich and famous.”

      Well in China at least they are exactly that which is a large part of the problem.

  12. 25 Tracie Bennitt 03/04/2012 at 7:02 pm

    Hmmmm… maybe I shouldn’t mention the sad state of some museum fossil collections or the fossils I’ve seen in the trash behind facilities….hmmmmm That’s a good use of our fossil resources in public hands, huh?

    • 26 Tracie Bennitt 03/04/2012 at 7:05 pm

      and as far as a fossil shortage….we haven’t even tapped the surface of what’s buried in this earth. Man has been finding fossils for thousands of years and will continue to find them long after we’re gone.

  13. 27 Jahn Hornung 08/04/2012 at 4:36 pm

    In Germany the federal states have rather different laws regarding the private search for fossils. Rhineland-Palatinate in the southwest has one of the most rigorous laws, practically forbitting any digging for fossils by private persons. Years ago I heard the absurd story (first-hand!) that there was a scientific dig by a university team in Early Permian lake deposits that unearthed hundreds of fishes common in these beds. As the fishes were not the target of the research, there was plenty of them in public collections, and there was “neither the space nor the time to professionally store them” it was deliberately (and legally!) decided to destroy them and dump them back into the dig. Why? Because leaving them there, easily reachable for private collectors, would have resulted in pouring them into the private market.
    Well, one should add that these Permian fossils are extremely precious especially since there should theoretically no longer be supply from private sources. They are still traded on fossil fairs (of course(!) labeled as old finds from the time before the law was released). They are still excavated illegally – often with some effort, as the strata are hardly exposed and often earth-moving equipment must be used – with or without the consent of the land-owners.
    The behaviour in treating the fishes reminds me the way poached and confiscated ivory or rhino horn is destroyed in Africa. With the marked difference that the fishes were brought to light by people generally interested in preservation of the fossil heritage instead of making cash of it. But the result is the same.

    • 28 David Hone 08/04/2012 at 9:11 pm

      That does sound bad, though I have heard similar stories before. I worked in Munich for two years and my understanding from my colleagues was that the laws in Bavaria were rather different to other states. That is fine, but it does make things still more awkward and confusing which so much variation, especially for anything that has come out of Germany.

  14. 29 daleamon 09/04/2012 at 11:55 am

    I am speechless. We destroyed the fossils to save the fossils. We destroyed the village to save the village. This is what the State does best: break things. The wanton destruction of the fossils in the name of the State is just… criminal. No better than the worst thief entering someone elses property with a bull dozer, pulling a few interesting items and destroying the rest. It’s just, just… I haven’t got the words for how disgusting I find this. I would have to get very impolite to even approach the anger that wells up inside me at the thought of what these… people… did.

    If I have time this might be grist for another anti-government posting on Samizdata.


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