June 23, 2024

Lin the month it was announced that a newly discovered skeleton of the iconic dinosaur Stegosaurus at the auction, with an expected sale price of around $6m (£4.7m). In many countries (or parts of them) it is perfectly legal to dig up and buy or sell fossils – including exporting them. Most palaeontologists, however, regard them as scientific objects and as such worthy of protection, and would understandably prefer to see them not in private collectors, but in museums, where they would be protected and available for study.

Although public collections do buy fossils when they can afford them (the Dueling Dinosaurs monster recently went to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences after a charity fundraising campaign), most of them are simply unaffordable. Museums can’t spend millions on every dinosaur skull that comes up for auction, meaning that scientifically important fossils appear briefly on the auction house’s website and in the media and then disappear into a collector’s home, never to be seen again. And there are many that don’t even make it to public auction.

But does science have the right to claim a monopoly on such findings? Should countries or regions change their laws to reflect this? Surely private landowners have the rights to things found on their property?

No matter your opinions on private v public ownership, it is impossible to ignore the effect of the fossil trade, as it inevitably encourages illegal excavation and export from countries that have banned such sales. The media attention given to each new high-ticket skeleton offered for sale, and TV shows like Dino Hunters, which focus on the dollar value of each bone found, only added fuel to the fire. There are ethical private collectors who donate material to museums, or offer it at discounted prices and work with them – but there are many others who do not.

There have been many high-profile cases of samples being collected and transported illegally, and these are just a few found or repatriated. When single copies can go for millions, then it is inevitable that criminals will exploit weak borders. At present, we do not expect the average customs inspector to know about state, national, or international rock or fossil laws beyond their efforts against more common and urgent types of smuggling.

Computer generated Stegosaurus Photo: MR1805/Getty Images/iStockphoto

As a paleontologist, it is depressing to be on a dig and constantly find shattered bones where poachers have destroyed a skull to extract the valuable teeth, or to go to a trade fair and see rows of specimens from countries that a strict and direct ban on any excavations or exports. Even legally traded copies came under the microscope because they contain too few original bones (incomplete skeletons are often supplemented with replacement bones cast from other specimens), and I have seen some strange and perhaps exaggerated claims about fossils for sale.

The irony is that these claims are unverified and have not been studied by scientists, precisely because the material is in private hands and not available for research. This gives some a creative license to hold up the fossil and claim that it solves some scientific question or is the first record of some feature or condition, but this is done to raise the price and in a further irony makes it more unlikely that it is affordable for any museum.

Not every fossil is scientifically valuable. Many things like small ammonites and shark teeth, or small pieces of bone, are so numerous that scientists can access thousands if they have to. But thousands are of incredible value, and many disappear into private hands. Even if you are firmly behind the idea that this is all good and this is how markets work, it is surely difficult to condone the illegal trading in the property of other countries that is going on.

Even when material is confiscated and repatriated, it may be of very limited value. There is no information (or none reliable) about exactly where it came from and therefore how old it is, what other finds it came from, or how the specimen was treated before it reached a museum. Even the recovery of illegally traded fossils therefore does little for science.

It’s hard to see any of this stopping anytime soon. And it’s also hard not to be sad to see incredible fossils that could contribute to the world’s knowledge about this planet and its history advertised for their scientific value when they most likely end up in a Silicon Valley office.

Fossils are a finite resource of unknown magnitude. We may never unearth another Stegosaurus, or never find one nearly as large or complete as this one, and museums usually can’t find millions of dollars on short notice. Even if this one do ended up in a public collection, it would be unusual in that respect. It is not difficult to feel the frustration of a scientist who sees a prize paleontological find for sale.

  • Dr David Hone is a Reader in Zoology at Queen Mary, University of London, specializing in dinosaurs and pterosaurs

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