The Paper-Shuffling of Paleontology

In a defunct cement quarry on the outskirts of Buffalo, New York, one can find dozens of children scrambling over rock shards heaped twenty feet high. For the fretful parent reaching for their cellphone to make sure I am not writing about their kid, don’t worry - there are a handful of volunteers eyeing the site from lawn chairs near the entrance. This is Penn-Dixie: one of the most famous fossil quarries in the world.

The children, with veteran collectors wielding tile saws and crowbars interspersed, are collecting Devonian fossils from the Windom Shale. Although brachiopods and corals can be found among the rubble, the prize of the day is a prone Eldredgeops rana trilobite. Despite movies like Jurassic World and perennial Friends reruns, the discussion of paleontology is not one of the modern era. More pressing environmental issues can be found almost everywhere: the Great Barrier Reef is dying, the Colorado River is disappearing, and the EPA is all but gone.

This is not to say that paleontology does not have its 21st-century problems. Nicolas Cage had to give back a Tyrannosaurus bataar skull to Mongolia that he paid more than a quarter of a million dollars for. Eric Prokopi spent three months in jail for importing a skeleton of the same species. There are increasing restrictions on private collection in the United States (many countries already have harsh punishments in place for pelf-hunting paleontologists). Calamities in the invertebrate world tend to be restricted to scuffs and scrapes, at least at Penn-Dixie. And paleontology, like most sciences, is severely underfunded.  But with the myriad of problems faced by sciences, it is easy to see why paleontology does not have people clamoring for marches. I certainly agree that there are more pressing environmental concerns than species extinct for 360 million years - the ones going to be extinct in as many days, for example - but all issues are issues.

Through a communal lens, paleontology is broken up into two facets: the institutional and governmental lack of funding and support faced by all sciences and the comparative obscurity that leads to significant issues being overlooked. This is not a problem seen by polar bears or pipeline activists (it is worth noting that Keystone XL runs through plenty of fossiliferous areas). In New York, the home of Penn-Dixie, it is illegal to collect fossils on public lands; the same goes for Bureau of Land Management property that covers the West. The $10,000 fine does a good job encouraging prospective collectors to stay in their trucks.

This has two, again unscrutinized, problems. The lack of information and the minimal push to publicize laws and regulations on fossil collection leads to speculation and hearsay - Prokopi’s Tyrannosaur was deemed illegal only because of the recent exportation (in fact, it has been illegal to export fossils from Mongolia since 1928). This is more justifiable for Mongolia, a country 5,000 miles away with the population of Kansas, than for the United States. One can find many discussions about supposed laws and rules that range from plausible to ludicrous, but all are unfounded. A pamphlet offered at Penn-Dixie from 2005 guides against travelers from digging into the cliffs at the nearby 18 Mile Creek site (which is now largely restricted due to erosion from - as expected - digging into the cliffs). And, lastly, at the time of writing, the BLM website for fossil collecting regulations leads to a 404 page.

Furthermore, by limiting the collection of potentially important specimens, regulations on fossil collection does a disservice to the scientific community. I like to imagine that fights have broken out at conferences over this statement. However, the casual collector’s contributions to science have been immense, infrequently popping up in the news but nonetheless critical. For the same funding issues that befall all departments but Tony Bennett’s, there simply aren’t enough professional paleontologists. Those vehemently opposed to this, largely tenured beaux esprits, contend that amateur collectors are uninformed on processual standards, and even if they found something valuable they wouldn’t be able to recognize it (this second claim, while not universally falsifiable, has several poignant counterexamples). There are other charges made against commercial paleontologists, but these aren’t at the forefront of American discussion due to the paucity of commercially and scientifically valuable sites (not to mention - accessible) in the States. The answer to these arguments is simple: education. Avocational collectors do not wake up with the intent of shelving away a new genus in their basement, nor of destroying it with a misplaced wedge; the latter with more digestible information available than the former.

The Tragedy of the Commons, as seen with 18 Mile Creek, is a worthwhile consideration with public collection of fossils. While the majority of the collectors are respectful of the site and of what they collect (because no one needs a five gallon bucket of crinoid stems worth less than gas money), as with any hobby there are collectors who overstep their bounds. This is an issue of self-regulation. Information, however, falls to the government to distribute it - the dissemination of half-truths in the community reflects a desire to learn the laws and rules, but fossil collectors struggle to do so because they’re difficult to interpret even when they can be found.

So for now, with collectors left largely in the dark as to the rules of their pastime, many are content with Penn-Dixie, but the fossils aren’t relegated to a fifty-four acre rectangle.