Are dinosaur fossils a national resource for research and education, or do they belong to those who own the land they are found on -or who buy them from the owners? Part of the problem is the desirability of dinosaur fossils, which fuels a black market in stolen or smuggled fossils. There are those who believe that fossils should be treated as sacred relics, for scientific reasons: after all, the connection between a fossil and the place its found in is an important scientific tool. Others, like commercial paleontologist Japheth Boyce, say it doesn’t matter because there are plenty of fossils, and there will always be more found.
To illustrate the overabundance of fossils in our midst, Boyce points to the bounty of Hadrosaur and Triceratops dinosaur fossils that remain unexcavated at just two sites in the western United States. “Duck-billed dinosaurs,” Boyce says of one type of Hadrosaur, “were basically the deer or buffalo of the Late Cretaceous—they were prey animals for just about everything. There’s a mass-mortality site at a privately owned quarry near Faith, South Dakota, about 100 miles north of Rapid City. The duck-bills there were probably migrating and got caught in a flooding river or plains-delta area. There are perhaps 3,000 Hadrosaurs in that one quarry. In central Montana, along the Missouri River, there’s a quarry of Triceratops, the dinosaur with three horns on its face. That one Triceratops quarry contains about 300 specimens. There aren’t 300 museums in the world that want a Triceratops.”
On the other side of the argument is Kenshu Shimada, a professor of paleobiology at DePaul University in Chicago, and the co-author of a recent screed describing fossils as “nonrenewable natural resources” that should be “conserved in perpetuity.” For Shimada and his co-authors, “the battle against heightened commercialization of fossils” is “the greatest challenge to paleontology of the 21st century.”
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” Shimada elaborates when I ask him over the phone about all those unwanted fossilized Triceratops skeletons. “The reason why there are so few museums that can take the specimens,” he says, “is because the job market for paleontologists is shrinking, as is the funding to collect and house fossils in museums. It’s not that they don’t want to take them—they don’t have the resources.”
The controversy was heightened when Nicolas Cage won an auction for a Tarbosaurus bataar skull that had been illegally smuggled out of Mongolia. Read more about the controversy and the fossil trade in general at Collectors Weekly.
(Image credit: Heritage Auctions)