Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Collecting fossils: Free for all or just the pros?

This is obviously an opinion piece and my feelings on it make no difference to the legality of collecting fossils in various places. If you are in doubt about what you can and cannot collect, please do check the local laws or speak to a palaeontologist in your closest museum about it.

Quite simply, I probably would not be a palaeontologist if I had not been able to collect fossils when I was a child. I found my first fossils on the Jurassic Coast in the UK (aged about 4 or 5) where anybody can collect fossils from the foreshore (there are laws about certain sites and hammering into cliffs/rocks is not allowed nor is it safe). In a very Victorian way, I loved collecting things growing up. I had rocks/minerals, coins, stamps but most prized were my fossils (yes, I am a nerd). Over the years and various travels around the world I collected fossils and back home they reminded me of travels as well. It must be said that none of my collection are rare or important. It is made up of mostly ammonites, belemnites, crinoids, some plant fossils, some trilobites and some shark teeth.

Me, somewhat embarrassingly, way back in my youth about to go diving in the Cooper River for fossil shark teeth.
The haul on my first trip covering teeth, vertebrae, tusks, whale ear bones etc. All eroded out of the sediment by the river, and have lost their geological provenance. 
Pretty much the same things you find in the fossil starter boxes you get for children, except in my case I had found most of them. The exceptions are the various fossil fish from the Green River formation of the USA, and some of my first Megalodon teeth that I had were bought in fossil shops and off of eBay. Both the collecting, trading and the buying are things that are worth discussing as both are subject to various laws (and again please check your local legislation if you are not sure, and I do not claim to be a lawyer or know all of the current laws).

In general, collecting on private land is not possible unless you have permission from the land owners. There may be an added layer of complication in some places that fossils count as minerals, so you need mineral rights to collect, so you can purchase the rights to that without owning the rest of the land. If for some reason the owner of the land denies you access to the land you may end up unable to access your rights resulting in a legal battle.

Out in the public realm, I will refer a lot to places I have been to or have knowledge of. One of them is the Jurassic Coast, made famous by Mary Anning who was collecting fossils there back in the 1800s. The Jurassic Coast (and the UK public land in general) deals with fossil collecting by allowing everyone to collect, but this is because the rate of erosion is so high that if fossils are not collected they are rapidly lost to the sea forever. It should be said that because of this there are a great number of professional collectors who collect, prepare, and sell the fossils for money. There remains an unwritten rule that the fossils of particular importance are offered to back to public collections (e.g. the Weymouth Bay pliosaur and the David Sole specimens of Scelidosaurus).

The Weymouth Bay pliosaur. Figure from Foffa et al., 2014 Functional anatomy and feeding biomechanics of a giant Upper Jurassic pliosaur (Reptilia: Sauroptergyia) from Weymouth Bay, Dorset, UK. Journal of Anatomy 225, 209-219.
Inevitably some fossils will end up being sold to private collections and/or leave the country which is where the issues come from, particularly if they are important for science (discussed below). In the USA you are (or at least of my last checking) able to collect invertebrate fossils on most public land, but any vertebrate material requires a licence to collect it; a famous example is "Big Al" a very complete Allosaurus which was found just on public land (the crew had thought they were on private land they were allowed to collect on). In Canada, the rules vary from province to province with Alberta having the strictest in that you can only surface collect (no digging) in crown lands that are not provincial/national parks or protected areas (no collecting there), and even then all fossils are still owned by the state and cannot leave the province without permission from the the government.

I personally think everyone should be allowed to collect (with some clear caveats below). It is particularly important in this day and age where we are struggling with the rise of anti-intellectualism, an increasing lack of enthusiasm for the outdoors, and a surprising lack of awareness of palaeontology (despite the Jurassic Park effects). Fossils make a lot more sense when in context and you can see how the layers exist and how different fossils appear in each layer, with fossils that increasingly resemble modern forms as you get closer and closer to the surface. You also get to wander around lots of great places from beaches, to hills, and badlands as well as seeing all manner of nature and wildlife. Additionally, like the Jurassic Coast and many badlands of North America, fossils on the surface have a lifespan of anywhere from hours to a couple of years. If people aren't actively searching and collecting many things may simple erode away and will never be found (or found in a state useless to science).

Some small pieces of well preserved, but exploded, dinosaur bone. We know there was probably a complete dinosaur bone here once, but beyond that these bone fragements are seldom of use.
I will put this with a big caveat though (I appreciate this is where a lot of palaeontologists will have been previously been screaming loudly at me). Sometimes very important fossils will end up in hands of people who don't know how important they are, fossils may be poorly prepared and end up damaged, fossils lose their geological context and perhaps most importantly someone may surface collect something small which was part of a far bigger thing that is just underground and we may never find the rest because of it.

What do I suggest we should do? Well, anyone with no formal training in fossil hunting wanting to go find fossils (anywhere they are allowed to) should first find someone with experience. There are an abundance of sources for amateurs (e.g. UKFossils) where you can get locale information, fossils you are looking for etc. etc.. I would suggest that people look for local clubs or sites. On the Jurassic Coast at Charmouth there are daily guided trips to the beach from the Heritage Centre with people who know what they are looking for who help. At a bare minimum, everyone should get into the habit of carrying a GPS, camera (or camera phone), and some collection bags/containers and some paper for notes. When a fossil is found, GPS the site, write down a detailed note (date, time, GPS coordinates) and put it near the fossil (assuming the fossil isn't enormous) and take a photo. If the site is going to be tricky to refind (even with GPS coordinates), take some photos of surrounding features that help triangulate the location later. Then collect the fossil and put it in a specimen holder/container. If you don't have a field book keeping track of your finds, do so when you get home. These methods are almost exactly the same as what palaeontologists do. I tend to have a GPS on my phone and screen shot the location, take a photo of the fossil with a scale and then collect it (if it is worth collecting whilst prospecting). That way I have all of the data to hand for recording later. If you have an unusual/rare fossil find, ideally leave it in situ (unless a real risk it might be destroyed before coming back, and only collect within the law) and take lots of photos and GPS locations, to show an expert in a museum. If you have collected a fossil of importance, it is far easier for you and a professional to relocate the site if there is something more exciting to be found in future. Do remember that the many new species are found by amateurs, and it is only with their help that these fossils come to light!

Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, Mongolia and I'm sure many more have severe limitation on export of fossils, and Germany's new laws (from what I understand) limit the value of fossils you can own as a private collector. The Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology, of which I am a member, does not condone the commercial sale or trading of vertebrate fossils unless it keep them within or brings them into public domain (see their ethics statement here). Therefore my youthful buying as part of my collection would have brought me directly into violation of one of the societies of which I am a member. I must say I haven't purchased any vertebrate fossils in the last decade or so, and many of the fossils I have collected have been distributed to young friends and family who are interested in fossils.

The fossil trade does raise interesting issues though, and something that is increasingly worth talking about. There are well documented cases of famous celebrities owning a dinosaur (or part thereof) such as Nicholas Cage owning a Tarbosaurus bataar skull that he voluntarily returned to Mongolia having been informed of its illegality. It is not uncommon to see famous auction houses offering up fossils (of all types, not just vertebrates), and even the largest T. rex ever found, SUE, was purchased by the Field Museum in Chicago (with the support of various individuals and companies including Walt Disney and McDonalds) for $7.6 million from an auction and remains the most ever spent on a dinosaur. Sophie the Stegosaurus at the Natural History Museum, London was purchased from a private dealer too. The commercial industry responsible for the trade of fossils has led to massive issues with poaching of fossils (e.g. Mongolia, although it is working hard with authorities across the globe to get its fossils back), and even fake fossils (e.g. Morocco). More importantly many of these fossils will be sold to private collectors at a vastly inflated price and will never be studied by scientists and their information lost to the public. In private conversations with many people who carry out field work, they have suggested that for the price paid for various fossils (e.g. the €177k spent on a Triceratops skull earlier this year) could fund the finding of far more specimens that would end up in public collections (with field seasons costing anywhere $10k-100k a year depending on exotic locales and size of crews) as evidenced by the Museum of the Rockies vast collection of not just Triceratops (I believe they have about 100 now), but many dinosaurs including about half of the known T. rex specimens.

What should we do? I have no good answer here. The trade of fossils has always existed, from the snakestones of Dorset (carved ammonites that look like snakes which were sold to Christian pilgrims near Whitby) to the famous Mary Anning selling fossils on the Jurassic Coast to generate a living (and likely give rise to the She Sells Sea Shells tongue twister) to eBay (only picked because it is the place I purchased fossils from many years ago).
Ammonites carved to look like snakes from the Whitby Museum website. http://www.whitbymuseum.org.uk/hpmimages/snakehead.jpg
Commercial traders are responsible for discovering and bringing many fossils into the public light, but regularly the commercial industry is responsible for crimes (particularly the export/trade in illegal fossils, poaching of fossils or destruction of specimens to get the claws and teeth which are smaller, more collectable and far easier to trade). With the rise of GPS location tracking, and a drive to more open publication practices, fossils (and their locales) that were once safely out of the eye of commercial traders (or even opportunistic locals) are no longer safe.

Buying fossils only fuels the trade, and as such the commercial trade of fossils should be approached with caution if you are a private collector, and only for bringing fossils into the public holdings if you are an academic (see SVP ethics above). I searched eBay (UK) for fossils tonight in the collectables<rocks/fossils/minerals<fossils section and found 38,098 items for sale (as of 23:30BST, 27/03/2017). The most expensive is a Triceratops skull (£660,501.98 + £40,000 postage), with 3 items over £100,000 and the first 200 all over £1600. That is just eBay UK and gives you an idea for the magnitude of the fossil trade. It is a great resource for people looking to add to their collection, but really do consider if the item is worth that much (and fakes aren't uncommon on eBay) or if you would do better to go and spend your money finding something yourself (e.g. £100 for a nice ammonite would allow you to go from London to the Jurassic Coast and stay overnight, giving you at least 2 days of collecting time and who knows what you might find). If you are a millionaire reading this and looking to get a dinosaur/other large fossil for your own collection (unlikely, I appreciate), really consider why you want it and whether would it be better to sponsor some digs, have your name permanently attached to those specimens (and regularly new species are named after people/companies who fund the expeditions), and those specimens to appear to the wider public as a whole.

This has been a long discussion on my points of view on the issues of finding and trading fossils. I will say I love my fossil collection, but I do cherish those that I found above those I have bought or been given (which will have been purchased somewhere). With time, experiences finding fossils, and my career in palaeontology it has become easy for me to turn away from the purchase of fossils. I would hope that people considering buying fossils might go out and search for their own (please do get in touch if you are struggling to find contacts in your area and I will happily help to the best of my abilities to help get you in touch with someone). If anything happens to me, I hope my collection would be donated to a university or museum that might be able to use them to educate the public rather than be sold off (not that it is worth much anyway). If you have anything to add please do comment and let me know if you agree/disagree with what I have said. I would love to hear from people around the world, particularly those in locations where fossil collecting is illegal to see how it affected your enthusiasm about palaeontology.


  1. Thoughtfully written and very informative. And I couldn't agree more!

  2. If private collecting is outlawed, it will be a stab in the heart of paleontology. Many of the great finds over the course of history were found by private collectors and armatures. It would be more wise if new rules are introduced to facilitate access to private collections and studying the material at hand. This way, science and the world will at the very least know about the impo specimens in these collections in private hands rather than dismissing them altogether and not having a chance to bring them to light.

  3. Kenneth Carpenter, Ph.D.16 June 2018 at 18:28

    I agree and have argued so with my colleagues in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Some, I am afraid, have become rather elitist. SVP could take a clue from the Paleontological Society which gives the Strimple Award annually to an amateur who has contributed to the field. Based on the Society's definition of "amateur", I am afraid that many in SVP are in fact amateurs (so climb down from your high horse).