Info

When the federal government intervened, the rancher claimed that the government had unjustifiably taken the land from him. A family member reportedly said that selling the fossil would help to feed their family.

■ Officials of a natural history museum in Japan were proud to have gained from China a rare, Early Cretaceous bird fossil, Confuciusornis sanctus, only to be embarrassed later when they discovered that the fossil was probably smuggled illegally out of its country. China's 1989 law, prohibiting the unauthorized export and sale abroad of Chinese fossils, was also prompted in part by the widespread smuggling during the late 1980s of other fossils, including hundreds of Late Cretaceous dinosaur eggs (Chapter 8).

In these circumstances, the desire for economic gain and the quest for scientific knowledge became antagonistic. Private collectors and corporations competed for prize fossils while paleontologists associated either with museums or universities attempted to fulfill the ideals of scholarly study. However, as reprehensible as the theft or sale of fossils may seem to some people, in reality too few trained academic paleontologists are available to study all of the discovered fossils and find all of the undiscovered ones. This problem will not be solved soon because employment opportunities for academic paleontologists have decreased with diminished financial support for paleontology and geology. Consequently, despite the high public interest in paleontology, little economic incentive exists for people to pursue academic careers in paleontology, which results in a logical market response - fewer professional paleontologists.

Private collectors also make the point that, because there are not enough paleontologists, many fossils would weather and disappear long before they could ever be studied. In the eyes of many collectors, they are performing an important service by preserving fossils, whether they view them as "natural art" or as scientific curios. Most assuredly, some collectors, working as amateurs or for commercial gain, are careful to gather scientifically important information associated with legally found fossils and allow scientists to examine their specimens. One example of such cooperation took place in Alabama from 2000 to 2004, when amateur collectors worked together with professional paleontologists to collect, catalogue, and preserve 310-million-year-old fossil amphibian tracks from a site near Birmingham, Alabama. Furthermore, despite publicity given to illegal transactions, not all private collectors are vandals or thieves, with disreputable collectors very much in the minority. As dinosaur fossils have increased in market value, other players have been attracted to acquire them. Corporations have entered into the bidding for fossils so they can better their advertising, such as the aforementioned Sue. Interestingly, this specimen has been the source of several previously unknown and important insights on T. rex anatomy and behavior (Chapter 9). In these cases, the line between commercialism and science is obscured and people become understandably confused by the purposes and aims of paleontology.

To solve some of the problems associated with the collection of fossils, professional paleontologists, who must share some responsibility for public ignorance of fossils, could initiate more public outreach, perhaps through local schools, fossil-collecting clubs, or the Web. They could discuss proper collection procedures (especially what is legal or illegal) and openly discuss what is considered in their profession as right or wrong behavior. Sharp-eyed amateur collectors with well-honed search patterns have historically found some of the most important fossils (Chapter 3), at least partly because amateurs and paleontologists have cooperated with one another for a long time. In fact, paleontology and astronomy are the only two sciences in which amateurs make regular contributions with scientific importance. Paleontologists can help to continue this tradition by showing amateurs how to develop search patterns as they scan the Earth for vestiges of past life, how to record information about their finds, and how to prevent damaging fossils by the use of proper collecting methods. One of the outstanding fringe benefits of such apprenticeships is that today's amateur is potentially tomorrow's professional, as evidenced by some now-famous paleontologists who, long before they had degrees attached to their names, began their careers by wandering through fossil-laden areas (Chapter 3).

Most importantly, whether people are novices or experts at observing and identifying fossils, they can still go to rock exposures, 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. These private moments of enlightenment and feelings of connection with the ancient past can be more valuable than auctioned fossils, even if they do not always feed a family or help to promote a movie.

0 0

Post a comment