All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 2001

Jurassic Mart: Digging with the Invisible Hand

J. Bishop Grewell and Matthew Brown are associates of PERC in Bozeman, Montana.

International acclaim greeted the Chicago Field Museum’s unveiling of the Tyrannosaurus rex Sue last May. The best-preserved and most complete skeleton of a T. rex ever found, Sue offers an opportunity to learn more about where the planet has been and where it might be going. Unfortunately, unless the rules of the game are changed, more scientific discoveries like Sue will be destroyed before they are found.

Currently, the Bureau of Land Management, claiming the authority of the 1976 Federal Land Policy Management Act, requires that anyone wishing to dig for fossils on federally controlled land must apply for a permit from the Bureau. Furthermore, permits are limited to professional paleontologists. With almost 50 percent of the western United States in the public trust, there is a lot of land to cover and not enough permitted paleontologists to do it. According to Science magazine, “The thousands of amateur dinosaur fossil hunters greatly outnumber the 50 or so academic professional dinosaur paleontologists working in the United States.” The National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates found only 107 paleontology doctorates awarded from 1987 to 1991, an average of 21.4 a year. That is hardly enough professionals to scour the vast area of public lands in the United States for fossils, which is why only a tiny fraction of possible discoveries are actually made. Unfortunately, in paleontology, delayed discovery ultimately means no discovery.

Erosion helps the field of paleontology each year by bringing fossils to the surface. Once the fossils reach the surface, though, erosion no longer works to paleontology’s benefit. Its corrosive agents, wind and water, begin to whittle away at the newly unearthed relics. Dinosaur bone or other unearthed fossilized remains must either be collected by a fossil hunter or they will be destroyed by the liberating elements. Outpacing erosion, therefore, is the main challenge to protecting fossils and their scientific, educational, and aesthetic value. According to the Paleontological Society’s Code of Fossil Collecting, “to leave fossils uncollected assures their degradation and ultimate loss to the scientific and educational world through natural processes of weathering and erosion.” This is where the government makes matters worse. By limiting the number of people allowed to collect fossils on public lands, the government ensures that many fossils will never be collected and many scientific discoveries will never be made.

On private lands, it is another story. Anyone can set up an agreement with a landowner to collect fossils on private land because fossils on the land belong to the landowner. It is the potential for personal ownership and profit that drives the collection of fossils on private lands. Amateur collectors and private fossil hunters scavenge to find valuable pieces in order to keep them or to sell them to other collectors and museums. Adam Smith’s powerful invisible hand saves many a private-land fossil from erosion’s crushing grasp. Storrs Olson of the Smithsonian Institution points out that “A lot of this material would never be dug up if it were not for the commercial incentive.” Eric Buffetaut, director of the Laboratory of Vertebrate and Human Paleontology at the University of Paris VI, also notes the importance of amateur collectors in fighting erosion. Buffetaut states that amateurs often find recently exposed fossils in cliffs or sites uncovered by floods, which would otherwise be destroyed by erosion.

The way to protect fossils from weathering effects is to increase their chance of being found. Allowing private companies and amateurs to share in the bounty with professional paleontologists achieves this goal. Public lands should be opened up for fossil collection to all, not just professional paleontologists.

Creating Financial Incentives

Allowing fossils found on federal land to be bought and sold will create a financial incentive that will increase the number of people making important discoveries. Paleontologists generally work for universities and museums, both of which are traditionally strapped for cash. The private sector can provide the additional financial resources to assure that new equipment, new techniques, and the best-trained personnel are brought into the field.

Fossils have a second foe in addition to the eolian and hydraulic forces of nature. Improper removal decreases the fossils’ scientific value. The context in which a fossil is found provides important clues regarding the nature of prehistoric time. According to David W. Krause of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, a former president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), “Every fossil has a story to tell and if one isn’t collected right, it loses its context, its story, and essentially becomes an art object.” Most professional paleontologists who are against opening up public lands to private fossil hunters express this view in conjunction with a fear of the fossils’ being lost to a private collector.

Another member of the SVP, paleontologist Michael Woodburne of the University of California, Riverside, makes it clear that the SVP does not want to cut out amateurs from the collection process. He says it wants to “educate people that a lot of fossils get destroyed by amateurs” and the members of the SVP “want to increase the ability of amateur participation in securing fossils.” The best way to increase the ability of amateurs is training, and that requires financing. At the very least, compensation is required to pay for the professional paleontologists’ time. One source for funding such an education project is the sector that can profit most from such education: the private fossil hunters. By increasing their knowledge of the product, private hunters can increase its value to their final purchaser whether a museum, university, or private collector.

The paleontologists can also gain from this process. First, they receive money for their efforts, which equates to more equipment and labor for their own digs. Second, the paleontologists benefit from better documentation and dig techniques by private hunters, thereby increasing the knowledge of the scientific record. Third, better interaction between paleontologists and private fossil hunters improves the odds that private fossil hunters will give scientifically interesting, but commercially worthless pieces to the paleontologists in return for paleontological advice from the professionals.

Still, it is not clear that the professionals are necessarily any better in the field than the amateurs and the private collectors. Marion Zenker of the Black Hills Institute points out that professional paleontologists often make mistakes because they are usually highly specialized rather than generalists. Zenker says, “One of the major assets of having commercial and amateur paleontologists in the field doing reconnaissance and collecting is that many more of them are generalists and are much more apt to recognize fossils across a broad range of specialties—from invertebrates to vertebrates as well as from a small gastropod to a crinoid to a mammal jaw to a dinosaur rib bone.” As an example, she cites the discovery of the world’s second largest and most complete mounted T. rex skeleton, which is on display at the institute. The skeleton was originally misidentified by a professional collector as “only Triceratops” and subsequently left in the field. It was not until the find was shown to the institute that the true value was recognized.

Out for Money

Richard Stucky of the Denver Museum of Natural History, vice president of the SVP, argues that private hunters are only out for money, which leads to a variety of damage in their collection processes. He says of a scientifically valuable, but monetarily worthless piece, “A dealer would probably ignore it, or might destroy it, looking for commercially valuable bones.” The best way to counter such actions is to provide dealers with something in return for preserving commercially non-viable, but scientifically valuable finds. Gains from trade combat poor dig techniques. Paleontologists increase the value of specimens for fossil hunters by improving the hunters’ knowledge of their product as well as how to extract it with the value intact. Fossil hunters provide the labor and capital for finding scientifically, as well as commercially, valuable specimens and sharing their discoveries with the professional scientists. Michael Triebold of Triebold Paleontology insists that he gives away approximately 80 percent of the pieces he finds to museums because they aren’t valuable commercially. As for the relationship between collectors and paleontologists, Triebold believes, “They use our eyes and ears and time in the field, and we use their time and experience in the lab and classroom to educate ourselves.”

Many professional paleontologists look down on private firms’ digging for dinosaurs. They claim that the profit motive would lead to quick, poor-quality expeditions that only retrieve pieces valued by the market, not those that could make important scientific contributions. That way of thinking is behind the times.

A number of joint ventures among museums, universities, and businesses are ensuring that valuable scientific discoveries are made in paleontology. The Chicago Field Museum’s acquisition of Sue was made possible by financial support from McDonald’s, Disney World, and other groups. Because it was discovered on private property in South Dakota, the fossil could be sold at auction. Despite the great uproar from scientists who didn’t want it put up for sale, the auction of Sue showed that valuable scientific discoveries can be distributed through the market. Even if Sue had been purchased by a private collector, that collector would have had a strong financial incentive to allow scientists to study the fossil, since its value would only increase with each important discovery.

Paleontologist Robert Bakker, curator of the Tate Museum in Casper, Wyoming, admits, “There is a class system. We guys with PhDs think that we have a God-given right to dictate where and how specimens are collected. That is narrow minded, and not in the public interest.” Greg Retallack, a teacher of paleontology at the University of Oregon notes, “Most professional paleontologists owe at least part of their success to amateurs.” Among the debts owed to amateurs?

  • Amateur fossil hunters discovered 21 of the world’s thirty T. rex skeletons. Only one was found by a degreed paleontologist. One more was found by a paleontology student.
  • All six existing skeletons of the most ancient bird fossil Archaeopteryx were found by quarrymen in southern Germany.
  • A Kenyan farmer discovered the site of the fossil ape Kenyapithecus.
  • The American Museum of Natural History in New York began its dinosaur collection with contributions from wealthy adventurers who sought them just for fun.
  • Most of the major fossil repositories in English museums, including the famed London Museum of Natural History, owe their impressive collections to the work of a single English family, the Annings, that took up fossil hunting to support themselves in the early 1800s.

Dinosaurs have captured man’s imagination ever since they were first discovered and thought to be the remains of dragons and magical monsters. Rather than limiting the discovery of these magnificent beasts of yore, paleontologists should encourage private groups to become involved in the process. While it would mean more competition for professional paleontologists, more importantly it would mean an increase in scientific discoveries and a greater understanding of the planet’s past.

Taking cues from the structure and muscle-attachment markings of Sue’s jaw, sculptor Brian Cooley was able to reconstruct what many of Sue’s victims saw in their last moments before death. Cooley used educated speculation to add the details that bring Sue to life, placing large air sacs in front of her eyes and completing her formidable countenance with a pebbly green hide. (Field Museum)