Stolen fossils returned

This story cropped up on the BBC today and I thought it was worth mentioning. Basically a bunch of fossils from Argentina that had been illegally exported were confiscated in the US and sent back (after a ‘slight’ delay).

However, what the story fails to mention is that just repatriating such finds is only the start of the story. Some poor museum now has to sort through the material and try and work out what came from where and when. If there were significant dinosaur fossils in there it is likely that some are chimeras or dodgy fakes. While anything can be used to a limited degree for scientific research, when you do not know the providence of a fossil it greatly limits what you can say about it. You can’t be sure it’s not a mixture of several individuals or even several different species and you do not know where it is from (in time or space). Once a fossil passes out of a scientist it is very hard if not impossible to know its history and that makes it hard to use for research. We should give thanks that this material has been recovered, but how much of it will turn out to be of genuine value is another thing entirely.

It is also worth mentioning just how rare an event this is. While of course these things do not always make the news, I honestly can’t remember the last time it was reported (in the media or professional circles) that a significant amount of fossils had been recovered from an illegal source. Restrictions on fossil dealing are very tight in a number of countries with important fossil beds (including China, Brazil, Argentina and Germany) and yet pieces are often available direct from fossil dealing websites. Despite the obvious origin of some specimens, listed as ‘origin unknown’ or the mere fact that they have already extracted them from the country make them difficult to have seized or sellers banned. This material is lost to science in general as it disappears into private collections or if it is ‘returned’ to public hands it often has to be paid for and again, exact providence is unknown.

In short, it is good that this material is returned, but far better that it was never taken. Laws need to be stepped up and pressure applied to illegal collectors and dealers. There is only one of any fossil and even just taking it from the parent country and reduce it to a fraction of its scientific value.

1 Response to “Stolen fossils returned”

  1. 1 Lost to Science « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 26/11/2009 at 8:55 am
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