Fossil wars

Looting, smuggling and the enormous criminal underworld in palaeontology

2nd October 2018

*This article was originally posted on 20 March 2018 — we’re republishing it in our “Best of The Overtake” as part of our first birthday celebrations!*

On Tuesday 3 June 2014, Eric Prokopi — a private fossil collector — was sentenced to three months in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges that he smuggled a tarbosaurus bataar skeleton into the US. The specimen was of major significance and later sold at auction for £620,000 in New York, before eventually being sent back to the Mongolian government.

Our view of how dinosaur fossils come to be unearthed and moved around the world is shaped by the carefully excavated, studied and preserved specimens we see on TV and in museums. In fact, it’s easy to assume that digging up t-rex skeletons requires some kind of licence and that everything that’s found is catalogued and stored in labs or on display in public.

But the reality of the fossil trade is very different.

Most new finds are made by collectors and not by academic institutions

Dinosaur fans with no training or expertise are digging up fossils all over the world and selling them to private individuals. In fact, most dinosaur skeletons these days are in private collections and many have never been seen by a scientist. Is that a bad thing?

Mary Anning
A painting of Mary Anning, a British fossil hunter who discovered many Jurassic finds in the UK in the 18th and 19th Century, by B. J. Donne

“Most new finds are made by collectors and not by academic institutions who do not have the money to fund excavations. It is the professionals who are putting the money and time into excavation and I support them wholeheartedly,” says Dr John Nudds, senior lecturer in palaeontology at the University of Manchester.

Another example of a well-known fossil which was originally found by private collectors is the four-legged snake (tetrapodphis amplectus­­). It was found decades ago, in the Crato Formation in north-eastern Brazil, but was studied in detail back in 2012 and is thought to be the missing evolutionary link between modern lizards and snakes.

A juvenile tyrannosaurus rex skeleton was also found by expert Kim Hollrah and dinosaur enthusiast Ronald Frithiol in South Dakota back in the 1990s. There was a big court case surrounding the legality of the find as Harding County believed that Hollrah and Frithiol illegally removed the skeleton from their land.

And then there’s Mary Anning. She was an English fossil collector and dealer, who sold her discoveries on purely for profit. Yet her finds were some of the most significant ever. Anning is responsible for the first complete ichthyosaur found and for the discovery of other highly notable fossils, including a complete long-necked plesiosaurus and a pterodactylus.

A complete ichthyosaur skeleton

Although all these cases may not have been what we’d think of as the “conventional” method of discovering fossils, without the persistence of enthusiasts and collectors many historic finds may never have been made known to the public, simply due to cost. But money isn’t the only barrier.

Because many fossil-rich countries have strict restrictions surrounding fossil hunting and exports.

Pterodactylus at the Natural History Museum Vienne

The fossil-rich country of Mongolia has very strict rules. All fossils belong to the state and are not allowed to be exported from the country. Similar restrictions are in place in Morocco, China and Germany.

In the USA, the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t allow commercial collection on public lands, but does allow it for personal use.

In Brazil, it is illegal to dig for fossils if you are not connected with a national or state research institution, and even then fossil hunters need authorisation from the government.

In countries where unauthorised fossil hunting is not allowed and the fountain of knowledge is virtually untapped, illegal diggers make sure these finds are discovered and smugglers mean they can be seen by the wider world.

I do not agree with countries banning the exports of fossils. They are international scientific property and should be freely available for all to study

In the UK, the rules are much more relaxed. Fossils can be traded and they can be dug up, if done so responsibly. This means no over-collecting, no poor use of power tools or heavy machinery, and no digging in Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which are conservation areas.

The UK government’s view seems to be that responsible fossil collecting — whoever it is done by — helps add to discoveries, save fossils which might otherwise be lost (from eroding cliffs, for example), and add to our scientific understanding.

Dr Nudds believes that there would be no black market at all for fossils if all countries allowed free trade as we do in the UK.

He adds: “I do not agree with countries banning the exports of fossils. They are international scientific property and should be freely available for all to study. Mongolia, in particular, should spend its time and energy on collecting their fossils rather than leaving them out in the desert to perish.”

Of course, though there are harmless and positive instances of illegal fossil dealing, there are plenty of examples of the much more nefarious kind.

One issue is looting. Professor Mike Benton, head of school of biological sciences at the University of Bristol, experienced first-hand the impacts of looters at excavation sites.

“Years ago, we visited some sites in Scotland, which were famous for early fossil fishes,” he says.

“These sites are of special scientific interest, yet two of them had been looted by German collectors using power tools.”

Fish fossils

At a glance, it’s easy to assume private collectors were the bad guys. I had an image of gangs dressed in balaclavas breaking onto excavation sites under the cover of darkness and smuggling academic finds into binbags. Now, I realise that this isn’t quite the case after all and, in fact, the restrictions surrounding fossils might be what is ruining palaeontology and turning collectors into criminals.

This aside though, the main problem with looters and other inexperienced, or plain greedy, collectors is the loss of contextual data. When a fossil is discovered, not only is the physical specimen important but the context in which it is found, too. The geological layer of the earth where it lies, the position of the fossil and whether others were found nearby, all help to build a better picture of the land before time.

While illegal fossil hunting and trading is problematic, for many palaeontologists, the fault lies with many countries’ strict protectionist laws.

In practice, these laws seem to directly contradict other, more important laws and grander principles, around shared scientific interest, and their effect is little more than further holding back our understanding of the world millions of years ago.

2nd October 2018