Thursday, October 30, 2014

How To Appreciate Fossils Without Ruining It For Science

[UPDATE 25-11-2015: The hadrosaur bone listed by ThinkGeek has been removed. At the time of the writing of this post on 30-10-2014 the issue was pending.]

[Big thanks to @BlackMudpuppy for both the post and title idea! Go check out his comic!]

I had so many posts planned before this particular topic. Tyrannosaur trackways. North America's earliest known bird footprints. You know, real science-y stuff that I have been directly working on since the start of the summer. Instead, my muse must be directed towards the ever contentious issue of the commercial fossil trade.

I wanted my next post on the commercial fossil trade to focus on the positive role that a fossil shop in France played in reuniting the skull and feet of Deinocheirus (which had been illegally removed, or poached, from Mongolia) with the rest of the specimen. Happy ending stories can and do happen, but unfortunately they are outweighed by the stories of greed and lack of forethought.

ThinkGeek, a popular online store that boasts an impressive array of geek-targeted wares (from home decor to cubicle toys) recently posted a product: people can buy real dinosaur bone. Go see for yourself. This is one of the few times I recommend reading the comments section. I'll wait here with my tea.

As you read in the comments section, a few paleontologists and fossil enthusiasts have voiced their concerns over the ethics of treating fossils, an irreplaceable, non-renewable (in our lifetime) natural history heritage resource, as a "product". In response to a comment left by paleontologist Jim Kirkland, a ThinkGeek representative stated this:

There are issues glaring out at us from this paragraph:
1. Who exactly verified these fossils? Contrary to what this statement would have you believe, there is no third party oversight body or committee that verifies fossils for legal or ethical issues before sale. No paleontologist has come forth to state that they checked over these fossils and that they are OK to sell. There is also no way to know if the dealer/supplier is conducting their work legally or ethically. Unfortunately, ThinkGeek to date has not supplied the information on their dealer, which does not allow the fossil consumer to decide if they are making an ethical purchase.
2. If they are so weathered and out of context, how do they know this is hadrosaur bone? If there are identifying features on these bones that allow us to know they are hadrosaurid, that's science. That material is important to some researcher somewhere. There are a couple of scenarios: that the material is just being guessed at as hadrosaur based on size, or that there is associated material that is complete enough to identify as belonging to a hadrosaur. If the latter is the case, what is the fate of that more complete material?
3. Appeals to emotion as logic. What we see here is a marketing ploy: the way to appreciation and inspiration is direct ownership. There is the appeal to emotion hidden not so subtly in here as well of "Won't someone please think of the children?" These are the tired tactics of commercial fossil supporters, and that is the main point I want this post to address.

Now that the background reading is out of the way, let's focus on ethical fossil love.

How to Ethically Love Fossils

You are a fossil enthusiast, and you want to develop a closer and deeper connection with the life of the past. You also want to make sure that your interests are not directly or inadvertently supporting shady doings (e.g. poaching and illegal fossil export, accidentally removing scientific access by buying a fossil, etc.) You are in luck. There are so many ways in which the Fossil Lover can support science, science education, and a sustainable use of fossil heritage resources!

1. Donate your time to your nearest natural history museum! Museum activities such as educational outreach, fossil archiving, fossil preparation, and even fieldwork thrive when there is a strong, dedicated volunteer base. Volunteers made field discoveries, lab discoveries, and inspire countless children with their enthusiasm and dedication. This is a great way to become part of the story of the fossils you love!

2. (If you are financially able) Donate funds to your nearest museum! In these times of budget cuts and downsizing (particularly focused on research and collections of museums) museums are expected to rely more heavily on external donations. These donations pave the way for renovations and research chairs (guaranteed funding for paleontology research), which are necessary to bring the story of fossils to life. Imagine this: a new dinosaur is discovered because you funded an endowed research chair, or funded an ongoing field project. You have the power to enable these advancements.

3. Support public outreach events: attend talks at your local museum! Fossils are a great gateway to exposing people to science and nature. Fossils are not just a remote part of our past from which we are disconnected: the story of fossils is our story. I recommend checking out the outreach work of Dr. Scott Sampson (yes, Dr. Scott from Dinosaur Train): he makes fantastic connections between fossils and science outreach. The more information you gather, the better you can promote your own love of our past life!

4. Purchase fossil replicas instead of fossil heritage resources! There are several places where museum-quality replicas of your favorite dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures can be purchased. Fossil replicas are great: they are renewable, they are durable, and they are much less expensive than an original fossil. Here is a small (and not complete!) list of companies who sell fossil replicas of dinosaurs, and their replica work can be viewed in natural history museums worldwide. [DISCLOSURE NOTE: some companies also sell original fossil material. I want to encourage and promote the sale of fossil replicas whenever I can.]

Gaston Designs - We have two of their ankylosaur skeletons (Gastonia and Animantarx) in our display gallery.
Triebold Paleontology, Inc. - A large selection of replicas of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, flying reptiles, and more.
Black Hills Institute - A cast of their Acrocanthosaurus is in our display gallery, menacing the Gaston Designs ankylosaurs.

There is also a growing trend of 3D digital sharing, where, if a person has the right equipment, can download a 3D image file and print off their very own fossil replica. As more museums are able to secure the funds to digitize and publicly upload their collections (this takes a great many staff hours and equipment upgrades, and is a slow process - I'm in the process of getting just 2D images of our collections online, and even that takes time), and as the technology becomes more accessible, I see 3D digital fossil replicas being an ethical alternative to purchasing original fossil material. Check out these sites for downloadable 3D digital replicas and information: - featuring artifacts and fossils from West Africa
Digital Morphology - information on their scanning work and digital files of several animals
University of Arkansas Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies

5. Are you a private land owner who has fossils on their land? Contact your local schools and work with classrooms to help them create their own teaching collections. Better still, involve a paleontologist from a nearby museum - that K-12 driven display could be a great collaborative project that is displayed in a museum, or become part of a student's museum studies project.

6. For private land owners: if you charge museums to prospect on your land, please be aware that museums cannot afford the same access fees or the "market value" of vertebrate fossils that commercial businesses can afford.

7. Are you a K-12 educator? There are many ways in which to inspire children in paleontology that do not involve the purchase of a single fossil. Contact your local museum, or your closest university: there are many researchers and student-researchers who are passionate about science education, and who would love to work with you to develop a natural history-themed curriculum.

8. Are you a heavy equipment or technology company? You can make a huge impact by donating equipment time and your own expertise to field, display, and archiving projects! Much of our helicopter time and crane operator time has been donated, and we would not have been able to complete many projects without such in-kind donations.

9. Are you often out of doors on public lands? Be aware of what fossil heritage resources are around you, and keep a sharp eye out for poachers and vandals. Report any suspicious activity to the local state/provincial public land authorities. The same goes for fossil discoveries on public lands: report these right away to the land management authorities. Many people make the well-meaning but ill-advised mistake of trying to remove new discoveries to protect them. This ends up damaging the fossils and surrounding data. It's hard to say "I'm sorry" to 110 million year old information.

This is just a small handful of ways in which you can express your appreciation for fossils without having to purchase them. It is my great wish to see appreciation and respect for fossils not expressed in terms of ownership of fossil heritage resources. One does not have to own a thing in order to love it, and the ethical alternatives to fossil ownership have the potential to provide meaningful, lasting connections to the life of the past. How you will influence the future of paleontology remains to be seen, but the best way to start is to get involved. That chapter of Earth's history is waiting to be written.

(This post and the information contained within would not have been possible without great info and links from Andrew Farke, John Steward, and yes, even ThinkGeek. Without their sale of vertebrate fossils online and their tissue paper thin reasoning behind said sales, the inspiration for this post would have come in the unforeseeable future.)

UPDATE 01-11-14:

Lee Hall at the blog Extinct Los Angeles posted his letter to ThinkGeek regarding the subject. Lee details exactly why selling fossils is a dangerous precedent to set for science education, and his post also contains links to other great places to purchase research quality fossil replicas.

Also, my comment on the ThinkGeek site was quoted by The Mary Sue in their coverage of ThinkGeek's fossil faux pas. (As of this update, the comment section is open.)

As of now, ThinkGeek has put the sale of these items on hold. Here is the statement on their website:

"Many of you have concerns about these dinosaur bone fragments and we want to take a moment to address that. We agree that harvesting fossils from federal and public land is not only wrong, it's illegal. The vendor that supplies us with these specimens has confirmed that they have been obtained from privately leased lands and out of situ.

An independent scientist has also examined our specimens, and has determined that there is no scientific value that can be gained from the fossils in their current state, which confirms what a large number of you have also stated.

Here's what is going to happen next: We've put the sale of the fossils on hold for now because next week there is an annual gathering of paleontologists and we are expecting that they will publish a letter on the topic of selling fossils. We will abide by their decision. For now, thank you for your thoughts and passion, and please be sure to respect each other in the comments."

Who is the paleontologist, and is ThinkGeek quoting their assessment accurately? I'll explain why I ask this question. Many paleontologists are shown material once it has been removed from the surrounding rock. If a paleontologist has not had the opportunity to investigate the source locality for this bone, they are missing a great chunk of the information: location, rock formation, the relationship of that fossil to other fossils (other dinosaur bone, plants, pollen, invertebrates). Fossils removed from the rock without having the site examined are therefore considered "less scientifically valuable" than those fossils that are investigated while still in the ground. Note: this is not a loop-hole to start ripping fossils out of the ground in order to sell them. This is a reminder that, by simply removing fossils from their source without a thorough examination of the source is the equivalent of ignoring or destroying data.

ThinkGeek does not have to wait for the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting to know the stance of members of the paleontology community: there are official Society statements that have been made in regards to the sale of high-profile specimens, such as T. rex. The issue with these statements is the "scientifically significant" wording. Scientifically significant does not always mean complete and showy, which is what many people think when they hear "significant". Also, unless the site and the source of the material is assessed by a trained professional (not just the individual pieces), how is anyone to know the significance?

ThinkGeek, you have the opportunity to do the ethically sound thing: sell casts of fossils. I am sure any one of these companies would be happy to work with you.


  1. I wrote something about this topic without being very good at looking for prior content. So I missed this write-up of yours without knowing. My apologies, as this is a great write-up. I have edited my write-up to link to you, and I want to thank you for spelling out some issues that I failed to spell out in my write-up.

    1. No problem, and thank you! I enjoyed your coverage of the issue. I would have little issue with the sale of vertebrate material if there were a system in place that offered third party, professional (actual paleontologists) verification of ethical sourcing and scientific potential of vertebrate material. I would also like to see price regulation for fossil material: the final price of fossils at rock and mineral shows and auctions is still high enough to encourage (or at least not deter) illegal fossil removal from other countries. There are ways commercial fossil sales can ethically work.

    2. "There are ways commercial fossil sales can ethically work."
      Yeah, if everyone involved can all agree to some set rules and actually work within those rules instead of making up excuses for not doing so.

      e.g. I had a commenter come and give a fairly good semi-balanced perspective and then admit as a disclaimer that he or she owns Chengjiang fossils. ... which are fossils from a UNESCO World Heritage Site. ... and are (I think?) protected by a slew of Chinese laws.

      If we (the royal we of everyone who's interested in fossils) wants to set up laws governing their fair trade and ownership, then we also have to be prepared to potentially put a lot of privately owned fossils into the public trust. Or there's going to be a lot of fossils in the West that are going to have to get shipped back to China and Mongolia. Or whatever turns out to be the best way of handling all these ill-gotten gains from before China and Mongolia got stricter with their laws.

    3. Agreed! Setting up laws is going to require a mental shift for everyone. My personal attitude is that, if I found out my museum had an illegally-gotten specimen from China or Mongolia, the repatriation of that specimen would be a fantastic interpretative display and a great teachable moment. I do not know how private fossil owners or commercial dealers would react, but their more vocal supporters are not helping with a cooperative image. Unfortunately one of the attitudes that we hear floated around, even on the official listservers, is that "once the fossils are in North America it's OK - it's the other country's responsibility to make sure they don't get here."

      Rather than seeing fossil conservation as a global, cooperative effort, there are pro-commercial activity people who are supporting an "every man for themselves" attitude, which is detrimental to cooperation and workable compromises.

  2. I commented on this via JBHD, but awesome post Lisa! Hope all is well!