There are few careers more romanticised than archeology and studying fossils. Going to museums and looking at the towering skeletons of the dinosaurs is enough to fill anyone with wonder and curiosity of a time in which these colossal animals dominated the planet. This natural curiosity, however, has arguably gone too far, causing people to try to find, buy and sell their own fossils. Just looking for fossils on eBay dredges up thousands of results, way too many to be able to monitor where they came from and to assess whether the sale is legal. This collecting and selling of exotic fossils can be extremely detrimental to science and the knowledge of our evolutionary history.
According to United States property statues, if a fossil is taken with permission from privately owned land it can be bought and sold. So, essentially, if a fossil is unearth on your property then finders keepers. Nowadays the price range of fossils being sold suit any budget, with dinosaur teeth being priced around $400 and botanical fossils being sold for around $50. These fossils are not of top concern because they are relatively abundant. It is the illegally obtained, museum-grade fossils disappearing into personal collections that are troubling scientists.
The fossils that are being sold illegally to private buyers could be essential pieces of the scientific record. Scientists need to be able to compare each specimen with previously excavated fossils. Only through this analysis and comparison can the evolutionary history be fully understood. For example, what if the famous Tiktaalik fossil had never been studied and discovered by scientists? This specimen was a major discovery in the evolutionary steps of the pivotal transition between water-dwelling to land-dwelling species during the Devonian period. It showed that many of the traits we associate with tetrapods (or a four-footed organism), such as ribs and a neck, evolved first in fish. Without this discovery, we would not have the same understanding of our evolutionary history as we do today. There have been many fossils deemed to be the “missing link,” showing traits between two different groups of species and shedding light on their evolution. The question is, how many of these crucial fossils has science lost to the display cases of the rich and famous?
Another problem with commercial excavators is the lack of context for these specimens. Chairman and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Mark Norell, believes that these excavators, “don’t care about the site where the fossil sits, how it’s oriented in the earth, what can be found around it to give us clues to what the world was like when that fossil animal died” . Their drive for acquiring the specimen out of the ground and getting paid leads to a loss of scientific evidence not only in the fossil, but in the site that it was found.
So who should own fossils? Private excavator Ron Frithiof believes that fossils that go unearthed on public lands due to their prevalence would be cherished by collectors. He believes that people should be allowed to collect them instead of letting the fossils degrade in the elements. This logic makes sense, but there is nearly 500 million acres of public land held in the United States, which is too much to be able to regulate every excavation. To allow people to unearth and sell fossils would be too dangerous because the chance of losing crucial specimens would be and are currently far too high. Selling off the common fossils would only add fire to the illegal sale of specimens of even greater worth. Fossils should be owned by museums. No dinosaur enthusiast should have any more ownership over the remains of our evolutionary history than anyone else. Everyone has the right to the knowledge that these fossils provide because it is not just bones, but the history of our world that is being unearthed.
Samantha Pierce is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.