Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones

Fossils are amazing, so of course you want to own one. Not so much. Owning a piece of geologic history seems awesome, but the fossil trade is ethically dubious and can substantially harm science. Selling fossils into private ownership means they're lost to research forever.

Above: Sue the Tyrannosaurus was recovered from the auction block for the staggering price of $8.4 million. Image credit: Getty Images/Tim Boyle

Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones

When I transitioned from physics to geophysics, I gleefully embraced wearing beautiful, unusual rocks as my professional right, and started building a collection of geology-themed earrings and pendants. One winter at the largest geoscience convention in North America, I picked up a pair of trilobite earrings from the trade hall. I love them and wear them frequently, but did I inadvertently steal from our limited fossil heritage?

Not my trilobite earrings, but very close. Image credit: Gilbert & Skeggs

Fossils are a Limited Resource

Fossils require special circumstances to form. Not everything that dies is preserved in a fossil; most creatures aren't. We only have so many fossils to rebuild our understanding of the past. When those fossils disappear into private ownership, we no longer have scientific access to those specimens. Maybe an individual will grant access out of the goodness of their hearts (or the curiosity of their minds), but that isn't guaranteed.

Not every single fossil is scientifically significant — limestone, dolomite, chalk, and coal are all rocks made entirely from fossils, but are common enough that we use them commercially. But the most interesting fossils, the ones that collectors would love to stash away for their personal bragging-rights and eye-candy, are also the ones with the most scientific value, reconstructing our understanding of the planet's past before we had scientists scampering around everywhere recording it.

Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones

Carefully dissecting dinosaur eggs from Mongolia. Image credit: Getty Images

Why do we care about the past? Because it can tell us about the future. Because it can help us understand how creatures have changed from then to now. Because realizing that chickens are a not-so-distant relative of the tyrannosaurus is both hilarious and awe-inspiring. Because this planet is our home, and we are curious creatures.

So, where's the line between a common fossil that's just fine to use commercially and one that has scientific value that should be added to the public trust? The end-cases are easy: a complete, perfect skeleton of charismatic megafauna has clear value in both aesthetics and science, while marble is just fine to go ahead and use for tile floors and fancy counters. But what about a fossil squid with intact ink-sack? An entire graveyard of ammonites? Coral in unusual places? Extremely toothy fish? The burnt traces of what used to be a dinosaur? Footprints? And what if we don't realize the scientific importance until much later, after the fossil has already been declared insufficiently interesting and released to private hands?

A Complicated History

Fossils have a long history of a mix of private and public ownership. When Mary Anning was scouring the beaches on the Dorset coast, she was selling those fossils to feed her family. The Sternbergs spent decades digging dinosaurs out of the Alberta badlands. Jack Horner made a name for himself as a fossil-finder (and possibly a Tyrannosaurus-defamer). Without private fossil-hunters pragmatically hunting for a new find to sell, more fossils would be left undiscovered.

At the same time, academic palaeontologists also put in long hours in the field. Field season is a prized time for geoscientists, an escape from the office to prowl amongst real rocks in their natural environment. A pickaxe and shovel is a key piece of personal gear, completing the geologist's hammer and the geophysicist's multimeters. Without palaeontologists excitedly breaking out of their (academic) institutions to coo over every tooth and footprint they uncover, more fossils would be left undiscovered.

Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones

A hobby palaeontologist uncovered a Plesiosaurus skeleton near Germany. Image credit: Jens Schoenlau/Bongarts/Getty Images

Fossils are rare and hidden. It isn't easy or guaranteed that every expedition will uncover a magnificent new find that will advance our understanding, and without both private and public groups searching for fossils, a lot more traces of the past would be left hidden in rock and sand unknown to anyone but burrowing critters. Historically, many scientists and museums enlisted the aid of commercial collectors to find fossils for them, but that day died when fossils developed a separate, non-scientific market and prices skyrocketed.

The Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology set out code of ethics that specifically states scientifically significant vertebrate fossils should only be sold into public trust. Awesome, but that has a few problems: This leaves any scientifically significant non-vertebrates as up-for-grabs to anyone; and it's a voluntary guideline for people who join the society. More than that, it isn't followed very consistently once a fossil has already been treated unethically, and is pretty much hopeless in countries with minimal control over their natural or scientific resources. Worse, even if it were an actual law that was enforced perfectly, who is deciding which fossils are scientifically significant? Effectively, it's better than nothing, but not by much.

The Hazards of Private Ownership

For non-specialist consumers (like me!), the trade of selling fossils is far too complicated to sort out. Was the fossil collected using a proper permit? Is it legal to export and sell fossils from the country of origin? Does the shop know how their commercial suppliers collect fossils? Has a scientist (or, preferably, several palaeontologists from competing subfields) checked out the fossil to assess its scientific value? International regulation and enforcement of ethical commercial sales would reduce a lot of the conflict, if only we came up with a way to do it.

Worse, the fossil trade is learning from the extremely ugly ivory and rhino horn trade. A well-funded private demand fuels unregulated and frequently illegal exploitation of a non-renewable resource. With fossils the animals are already extinct, which lessons the brutal, bloody impact compared to poaching, but in both instances those dedicated to conservation just cannot compete financially with the black market.

Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones

The most complete dinosaur skeleton uncovered in the UK receives the care and attention it deserves. Ghetty Images/Matt Cardy

Why is it a big deal if a scientifically interesting fossil does make it into private ownership? Someone who collects fossils for fun is probably a private owner that is a curious soul who wants to provide easy access to researchers, right? That doesn't actually help.

Maybe the original owner is a die-hard citizen scientist, eager to support researchers entering their home to study that theropod skeleton that was snatched up at auction. But what happens to that fossil when the owner dies? Nothing says that the fossil must revert to public ownership, bequeathed to a museum, or that the new owners need to grant that same access to future scientists.

Scientists are big on reproducibility, and that means paperwork and archives. Without the guarantee that the fossil will be available for other researchers indefinitely in the future, a fossil can't be named, described, and entered into the academic literature.

Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones

Every child deserves to be inspired by a massive specimen of tooth and bone towering over them. Image credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A privately-owned fossil is like privately-owned art, a collectable lost from public view for the pleasure of a special few. While I understand that is exactly the appeal of being rich and privileged, it seems deeply unfair to hide something created by our planet away from public access. This happens a lot in geology — the biggest, rarest, and most coveted gems are rarely on display — but at least the Hope Diamond or Crown Jewels are spectacular examples of well-understood minerals and lack unique, provocative scientific value. The same can't be said for a dinosaur skull, or a swarm of footprints documenting behavioural changes. This is the problem with treating a fossil as a collectable commodity: a fossil has both aesthetic and scientific value. When a beautiful fossil that has high scientific value is purchased by a collector for their personal enjoyment, that scientific utility is lost to the entire planet.

Does printing 3D replicas change the conversation? Can we find a compromise where 3D scans of a fossil are enough to enter it into the scientific record, even as the original specimens are lost from public access? Could we live in a world where a fossil was privately owned but stored at a public institution, and a collector have a certified replica for personal display? The technology is expanding in leaps and bounds, so that some day soon it will be entirely feasible for anyone with access to a 3D printer to download and print their own replica fossil. Lose, break, or trade a replica? No big deal, just print another one. In some ways, this is the perfect solution to the geek-chic dilemma: you get a cool fossil made by an equally cool technology, without negatively impacting scientific research. The day someone starts marketing 3D printed jewellery replicas of fossils, I will gleefully hand over my cash.

Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones

Sue is the toothy face on the conflict between the scientific and luxury fossil market, public access and private ownership. Image credit: AP Photos

When fossils are illegally collected and exported, we have little recourse to snatch them back into the public domain. Sue the Tyrannosaurus is the toothy public face on the debate, an astonishingly well-preserved complete skeleton that went up for auction after a complicated custody battle. The Field Museum in Chicago had to garner corporate sponsors to win the auction and keep her available to researchers. Rarely, with enough public pressure, a fossil that was illegally collected and exported might even be returned, like the Florida fossil dealer returning the Tarbosaurus bataar to Mongolia. But depending on good will, luck, and money is an unreliable way to protect our fossil heritage, and ensure that scientific understanding is not cripple by private greed.

Where do we go from here?

The debate often degenerates into, "All buying is evil!" verses "Fuck off, I can buy what I want!" It's ridiculous, and a middle ground has to exist.

Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones

A pair of dinosaurs marketed as "The Duelling Dinosaurs" are on the auction block for a staggering pricetag. Image credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

I don't know what that middle ground is, but it has to start somewhere. Here are the ideas I've encountered that seem most rational, alone or combined:

  1. Regulation and documentation: Consumers try to avoid buying blood diamonds, demanding paperwork to back up claims of ethical consumption, so why not do the same thing with fossils, requiring proof that they were collected appropriately? I don't want a poached fossil, but without some system to regulate sales, I have no way to tell which fossils I can ethically purchase and which ones I can't.
  2. Review for scientific value: Getting scientists to come to a consensus on anything is tough, but building review boards to pass some sort of judgement, even if it is flawed, would be better than the nothing that currently exists.
  3. Public purchase at scientific valuation: Fossil hunting is a job, so it isn't fair to just seize fossils into the public trust if they're scientifically valuable (and attempting to do so would guarantee an active black market for the most interesting fossils...). Instead, it would be fair to purchase those fossils, but at a regulated rate, not the ridiculous inflated auction prices that show up when these fossils are treated as collectable art.
  4. Register fossils in private archives: I was instantly infatuated by the idea of a fossil registry when I first read about it, where the borderline-fossils of debatable scientific value or fossils already in private collection can be registered for future tracking. This could be a form of private archives, carefully documented fossils for researchers to reference.
  5. Remove fossils from the luxury market: Now I've realized how the complex mess of unregulated fossil sales are harming science, my adored trilobite earrings feel like ethically dubious jewellery. While hunting for fossils doesn't threaten living creatures with extinction like buying ivory or coral, it does threaten our understanding of the past. If more people understood that, owning fossils would move from geek-chic to the more ambiguous moral ground purchasing fossils in an unregulated climate deserves.
  6. Regulate private ownership: While many private owners are responsible and work out agreements with specialists independently, nothing in the law protects fossils. Nothing compels a private fossil owner from using their Tarbosaurus skull as a drink holder, or buying scientifically irreplaceable fossils to destroy them for fun. Nothing brings a fossil back into the public domain after the death of an owner, or tracks where it goes once it disappears into private ownership. I don't know what the rules should be, but for the sake of our prehistoric history, I wish we had at least a few to protect our fossils.

When this debate flares up in paleontological communities, someone from Europe always pipes up that their academic-commercial fossil partnership is all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. I would really love to hear how that works, and how much of it is because Europe has a smaller fossil record, providing fewer specimens to squabble over than the relatively extensive North American or Chinese record.

For more reading, check out John Long's "The Dinosaur Dealers" for an assessment how rock shops and fossil shows can knowingly or unknowingly support illegal fossil dealers, and this piece by Shimada et al. on the current state of the debate within the palaeontology community.

Palaeontologists artiofab and Lisa Buckley are not only regularly immersed in the debate, but have been extremely generous with their time and resources to help me understand it. You can read more about the debate in their own words in this discussion thread about mysterious fossil footprints.