Emory Report

 November 10, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 12

First Person

Fossil sales say much about
ethics and future of paleontology

Paleontology, the study of ancient life as represented by fossils, is a commonly misunderstood science in the United States. In my experience it is typically confused with archaeology (the study of human artifacts) and anthropology (the study of human societies).

Nevertheless, the general public's inability to distinguish paleontology from other sciences apparently does not hamper its popularity, as evidenced by numerous news stories about fossil finds, fictionalized accounts of dinosaurs in movies (Jurassic Park and The Lost World), and paleontologically oriented books, documentaries, toys and even entertainment icons (i.e., Barney).

Unfortunately, a dilemma caused by this popularity is exemplified by several news items in recent years dealing with fossils:

  • Private fossil collectors in South Dakota uncovered one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever found, only to have it seized by FBI agents acting on behalf of U.S. government claims. The specimen, nicknamed "Sue," was in storage for several years, went to government control, then was finally placed on Sotheby's auction block and sold for $8.36 million. The purchaser was the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, backed by corporate sponsors McDonald's and Disney. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.)
  • Academic paleontologists working in western Australia in cooperation with aboriginal tribes found the only stegosaur footprints ever reported from the geologic record, only to have thieves come into the area and saw the footprints from the rock with power tools. The site was considered sacred ground by the aborigines, thus the paleontologists think they never may be given permission again to work in the region because of the desecration and mistrust caused by the theft. The footprints have not been recovered and presumably are in a private collection.
  • A large carnivorous dinosaur, possibly a Tyrannosaurus, was discovered by an academic paleontologist in Montana on federal land. While he and colleagues were away, a nearby rancher took family members and a backhoe and tried to excavate the fossil for himself before the federal government intervened. The rancher claimed the government had unjustifiably taken the land away from him, and a family member reportedly said selling the fossil would help feed their family.

In these scenarios, greed and science are adversaries as private collectors and corporations compete for "prize" fossils for profit versus scientists fulfilling the so-called higher ideals of scholarly study. However, as reprehensible as the theft or sale of fossils may seem to some people, in reality there are too few trained paleontologists to study all discovered fossils and to find all undiscovered ones.

Employment opportunities for academic paleontologists are decreasing with the diminished public support for paleontology and its sister science, geology. The closure of the Geology Department here at Emory in 1989 and the cutting of the U.S. Geological Survey's paleontological division in the past two years are symptomatic of the general lack of public support felt for paleontology, geological studies and, perhaps, most of the sciences.

Consequently, private collectors make the point that because there just aren't enough paleontologists, many fossils would weather to dust before they could ever be studied. Thus collectors are performing a service by preserving fossils, whether as "natural art" or scientific curios. Corporations have entered the bidding for fossils so they can better their advertising; Disney and McDonald's already have plans to capitalize on their purchase of "Sue."

Private collectors and the general public alike also are aware of a few academic paleontologists who profit from fossils. These individuals have become world famous through their discoveries, going on lecture tours, showing up in documentaries and making book deals.

Even politicians have entered the paleontological realm for public-relations purposes. Newt Gingrich, a paleontology enthusiast, participated in a dinosaur dig in Montana several months ago that was covered as a news story by major networks. (Ironically, Gingrich was part of the 1994 Congress that cut the budget for federal support of paleontology in the U.S. Geological Survey.) In these cases, the line between avarice and science is blurred, and people become understandably confused by the purposes and aims of paleontology.

In reality, the vast majority of paleontologists have extremely diverse interests, and very few of them study dinosaurs or become famous. Aside from limited job opportunities, the profession also is limited by assertions that it isn't a true science.

Paleontologists attempt to document the remains and traces of life during the past 3.8 billion years of its existence on Earth, making it one of the broadest scientific disciplines. This breadth of experience disputes the argument leveled by a few laboratory-trained biologists and other armchair naturalists that paleontologists are glorified "stamp collectors" or "historians"-an admonition I have heard more times than I like to admit.

Sadly, this lack of support by some fellow scientists reinforces the popular concept that paleontology mainly represents collecting-not actual scientific inquiry. Often I meet people who, upon finding out my profession, will say, "I'll bet you have a great fossil collection." When I tell them the few fossils I collect are for teaching purposes, they are a little puzzled and sometimes disappointed. I now normally describe research specimens and photograph them, then leave them where they lie for the next person to study or otherwise appreciate.

But I must admit the temptation to collect has increased for me, knowing that the next potential collector may be Ronald McDonald or The Mouse.

To solve some of these problems, paleontologists, who must share responsibility for public ignorance of fossils, should initiate more public outreach, perhaps through local schools and fossil-collecting clubs. Sharp-eyed amateur collectors historically have found some of the most important fossils. Paleontologists could show them what to look for when scanning the Earth for its vestiges of past life and how to record information about their finds.

Most importantly, whether a novice or expert at observing and identifying fossils, we should go to outcrops, look for fossils and experience the joy of discovering evidence of ancient life being seen by human eyes for the first time in the history of the Earth-our eyes! These private moments of enlightenment-and sharing them with others-can be more valuable than auctioned fossils, even if they don't always feed a family.

Anthony Martin is a senior lecturer of geosciences.

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