Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fossil Commercialism and the Threat to Paleontology - Who Will Accept the Challenge?

I wonder if, in my lifetime, I'll see a resolution to the issue of the commercial fossil trade.

Hello, Dear Readers!

This post is going to be part summary, part rant. This is not the first time I have commented on the commercial fossil trade (see posts here, here, here, here, and here), and it will likely not be my last. Deep down I still believe there is a magical combination of words that will finally enlighten those who support the commercialization of fossils and they will get it. They will finally get why treating the only record we have of our planet's history like organic Pokemon cards does nothing to promote science education and knowledge. They will finally understand there is more to fossils than their current market (illegal or otherwise) value. I need to believe that people truly want to understand that our irreplaceable heritage is worth protecting.

I'm not the only one who believes this. Please read this thorough commentary published recently in Palaeontologica Electronica:

Shimada, Kenshu, Currie, Philip J., Scott, Eric, and Sumida, Stuart S. 2014. The greatest challenge to 21st century paleontology: When commercialization of fossils threatens the science. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 17, Issue 1; 1E: 4 p;palaeo-electronica.org/content/2014/691-great-threat-in-21st-century

The article was shared on the vertpaleo listserver less than 24 hours ago, and already the predictable sniping is underway:

For so many reasons.
Some researchers have brought up useful points, especially those in Europe who have good working relationships with their commercial collectors (I would be very interested to read a detailed commentary from my European colleagues on their experiences with commercial fossil collectors). However, the bulk of the comments follow the theme of the one above. This theme of commentary that is absolutely NOT helpful.

Here's the amusing part. The article was shared by the editor of Palaeontologica Electronic on PaleoNet. In anticipation of the name-calling, pseudoreasoning, and general unprofessional behavior of some of the commercial fossil trade supporters on various public forums, he wrote this (I'll write it out below, as the link doesn't seem to display the entire contents, and this link is difficult on the eyes):

"NOTE: I am not looking for brief "comments" on Shimada et al. Instead, I want detailed and well thought out statements that will contribute to a dialog on these critical topics. Please do not be hesitant to clearly stake out a position. I do, however, reserve the right to reject any contribution that I regard as impolite."

To all those who support the current state of fossil commercialism: here is your opportunity to convince us that the commercial fossil trade is beneficial. Many paleontologists have rationally and logically stated their concerns with the current commercialized system. Present a cohesive argument that details why the benefits of the current commercialized system outweigh the damage to fossil heritage resources.

I'll offer some friendly advice. Avoid the appeals to emotion and tradition. Don't paint yourselves as the downtrodden, demonized victims of the academic elite. No one will take that argument seriously because it offers neither factual content nor practical solutions. Frame your argument in terms of the fossils themselves rather than personal issues. How does the current system of commercialism benefit fossils? What is your evidence? Can you honestly see any problems with the current system, and if so, what are they? What practical changes can you envision that will allow for a greater collaboration between commercialism and conservation (I offer some suggestions here)?

In short: go productive or stay home.

Challenge accepted?



  1. In my opinion, the general public and civilians (non-historians/scientists) should not be allowed to have access to buying legitimate fossils. If anything, replicas are the way to go. No fossil should waste away because some rich little playboy thought it looked cool.

    1. Replicas are a great option, and there are companies that make fantastic replicas! If someone is merely looking for the visual beauty of a fossil, a replica is a) based on the "real" fossil, b) more affordable, and c) (and this is the big one for me) replaceable. Unfortunately there is a cultural mindset among a subset of the general public that purchasing a fossil is no different than purchasing an old car. A perfect example is a quote from a potential fossil buyer in Paige Williams's New Yorker piece (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/01/28/130128fa_fact_williams), where the person refers to buying fossils as "extreme antiquing."

      What we need now is a large public awareness campaign to shift the public opinion away from this idea of treating heritage items as extreme antiques or decorative foyer pieces. Does anyone know of public personalities who are also fossil/natural history museum fans (and by that I mean those who are not just interested in hanging a Tarbosaurus skull over their fireplace)?

  2. The problem starts with the assumption that fossils are "rare". Some species/taxonomic groups are very rare. On the other hand, I am an academic paleontologist who works with a brachiopod called Rafinesquina. I estimate that beneath the building that houses the Creation Museum in Kentucky there are 17 billion specimens of this brachiopod. That is conservative. To criminalize the sale of "fossils" is to criminalize the use of limestones for making cement, for use as crushed stone. The problem I have as a paleontologist is not that some collector squirrels away the only specimen . . .it is that I have not the time to look through the billions of brachiopods to find the rare stuff hidden in there. This is where both avocational and "commercial" collectors come in. I maintain friendships and working relationships with many of them. I would not be able to do this if the entire paleontological community turned against them. My research would suffer greatly. This is not about dinosaurs of course . . . .

    1. There are three issues that need to be addressed before I respond to the theme of your comment. First, there are several options between a fossil sale free-for-all and the complete criminalization of fossil sales. The issue I have with the term "criminalization" is that it is a loaded term: it lumps both the currently legal activities and the illegal smuggling/sale activities together. That being said, there is little doubt that the high-profile price tags attached to vertebrate fossil auction items do nothing to discourage illegal smuggling. I often find that the statement of "You're criminalizing commercial collectors!" is one used to invoke an emotional response rather than a rational one.

      Second, it is erroneous to extend the argument to the extreme end that reducing or eliminating commercial activity of fossils will make it illegal to sell limestone. While falling under the technical definition of "fossil", it is recognized that materials such as limestone, coal, etc. are a different category of fossil. I'll use British Columbia as an example. Here is a quote from the Fossil Management Framework website: "In 2005, the Mineral Definition Modification Regulation (BC Reg. 5/2005) under the Mineral Tenure Act, excluded fossils from the definition of “mineral” under the Act. The Mineral Definition Modification Regulation provides that the term “mineral” does not include fossils and that fossils do not include limestone, dolomite, coal, petroleum or natural gas. The regulation does not affect existing mining operations, but prevents rights to fossils from being acquired by new mineral claims."

      Third, one of the common misperceptions is with avocational/amateur collectors being lumped in with the commercial activities. As (legal ) avocational collectors and enthusiasts (in my experience) already have close working relationships with paleontologists and local museums, they are not the group that is largely contributing to the issue of unregulated sale and ownership. Where avocational collectors run into issues under the current system is the issue over whether scientifically important specimens can be published on in their collections, and the continuity of their collections.

      The working relationship you describe sounds akin to the relationships between researchers and collectors in Europe. I would love to hear from my European colleagues about the dynamics of these relationships. The issue that I have with the current commercial system is the complete lack of oversight when it comes to assessing whether the fossils going for sale are scientifically valuable, and the lack of a way to ensure that museums/repositories are not completely outpriced by wealthy "extreme antiquers". What I would prefer to see is a system set up where (a) commercial collectors would register to both collect and sell vertebrate fossils, (b) an advisory body of paleontologists would assess fossils before they go for sale, and (c) a method for compensating the commercial collector for specimens that are determined to be scientifically valuable. As a hypothetical example, rather than a museum paying $6 - $9 million dollars for the Dueling Dinosaurs, they would pay the costs incurred by the collector for collection and preparation plus a percentage of the costs as a means of profit. That is just one idea. [Ranty Note: I would really prefer to see the idea of fossils being treated as "extreme antiques" become as unfashionable as wearing dead birds on our heads. Fossils are heritage items, not toys or decorations. End Ranty Note.]

      I am hoping that some of the European vertebrate paleontologists will submit an article to Palaeontologia Electronica detailing how they have made their system of researchers and commercial collector collaboration work. This is valuable insight that needs to be published.