Thursday, September 1, 2016

Responsible Fossil Stewardship: You Might Not Get To Do Exactly What You Want With Fossils

One of the mostly pleasurable tasks on returning from a long field expedition away from the Internet is checking out the latest fossil news and posts. I say mostly because, every once in a while, I am alerted to such posts that reinforce all of the negative attributes that most palaeontologists I know try to remove from fossil heritage conservation: greed, selfishness, and short-sightedness.

I have to thank my husband for this hat tip. He was browsing fossil-related news and said "Oh, you'll love this. Check this out." It is a piece entitled "Exploring Canada's Socialist Dinosaur Paradise." I was immediately skeptical of the "socialist" part of the title. Last time I checked, Canada was a federal parliamentary representative democracy. This alerted me that, somewhere in this article, someone was going to complain that they weren't allowed to do something they wanted to do with fossils. I had hoped to be wrong. I had hoped that maybe it was just a bad case of the headline not matching the article. What I was NOT expecting was to read these complaints from the author themselves. The author is supposedly a science writer and spent time in the field with someone who takes their responsibility as a steward of Canada's fossil heritage seriously.

Please read the article for yourself, but the tl:dr message from the article was this: the author thought that not being able to do what they liked with dinosaur bone from Alberta was "absurdly socialist" and couldn't (or couldn't be bothered) to understand why these laws were in place. Rather than turn this revelation into a teachable moment that could have educated many on why fossils (and other heritage resources) are important to conserve and protect, they did the mature thing and got snarky.

Life is hard when you don't get to do exactly what you want, when you want, especially when you have to consider the long-term well-being of the most non-renewable resource on our planet: our heritage.

Let's hit the "highlights" of the article.

1. Researchers don't want bone fragments, so everyone should be able to fill their pockets.

This section from the article made me choke on my tea because it was clear that, even though the author went into the field with a trained palaeontologist, they didn't actually pay attention to the methods of prospecting.

"Paleontologists have little interest in the scattered fragments at the surface, which retain little information about where they came from and are unlikely to be connected back into a larger skeleton. They focus efforts instead on excavating bones still stuck in place on the hillside, where it might be part of a more complete animal hiding deeper within."

Do you want to know how palaeontologists actually know where to dig up the intact bones? They follow the bone fragments that have already weathered out from the skeleton to their source. Those bone fragments are every bit as important as the skeleton itself. The idea that palaeontology is all about collecting the most complete and eye-catching specimens is a rather Hollywood, Indiana Jones view of how fossil conservation works.

Museums regularly archive what they jokingly refer to as Underwhelming Specimens: those specimens that look kind of blah, but are actually treasure troves of data. Our own research center has its share of Underwhelming Specimens: bone fragments, pieces of leaves, smudges of Triassic fish. We archive them as diligently as we archive the complete specimens. We're not just filling cabinets with pretty fossils: we're collecting data. Heck, I'm not an expert at identifying all fossil bones (no one is): that thing I identified as a bone fragment might turn out to be a skull bone of a previously undescribed fish or reptile. There may be biochemical data that can be extracted from bone fragments that tell us about the dinosaur's ecosystem. I do not know exactly what data a future researcher or student will be able to collect from bone fragments, but I want them to have that opportunity. If we don't archive these Underwhelming Specimens, those opportunities won't exist. Saying that bone fragments are of little interest to palaeontologists - especially when that person is not an expert in what can be accomplished with bone fragments - is ignoring data, which is bad science and bad science reporting.

2. Canada's Heritage Laws/Policies: They're Speaking for the Fossils

The author states: "It’s nearly impossible to legally pick up a fossil and put it in your pocket in Alberta. The province has among the most restrictive regulations for fossil collecting in the world."

Let's take a closer look at Canada's heritage laws. Canada's fossil heritage laws are governed province by province: each province has jurisdiction over their fossil heritage. One aspect that is common for all the provinces is this: fossils from Crown Land (Canada's version of public land, for my American readers) and/or from provincial and national parks and protected areas are the property of the Government of Canada. The government gets to decide the who, what, where, why, and how of fossil conservation and fossil resource management. This is because - and I'm going to say this slowly so that everyone can follow -


This is a very simple concept. No one person has the right to sell, destroy, or alter a piece of our country's (and our world's) heritage unless they plan to get permission from each and every person who calls Canada home. There is universally more leeway for fossils found on private land, but even so, it is recognized that, on private or public land, the fossils there are part of the country's heritage.

Had the author done their homework, they would have known that Alberta's fossil heritage laws are not even the most restrictive in Canada. This section is basically a "Here, let me Google that for you" for fossil heritage acts in Canada. I found it at 11pm by Googling "fossil collecting laws Canada".

I was going to provide a link to each of the province's relevant heritage acts, but I don't have to. The best resource comes from The Fossil Forum. This post highlights the heritage laws, province by province, and their policies on fossil collection. The link also provides the sources (and links!) for each of the excerpts of the provincial heritage acts. If you, like me, enjoy reading pages of heritage law, you're welcome. It's an interesting read.

Keeping track of provincial fossil heritage regulations is not just a hobby for me: the researcher staff at our facility have long been working with various provincial branches for clear, concise regulations as they relate to managing British Columbia's fossil heritage. Progress is being made. The most helpful statement for British Columbia's fossils that has been clarified is that fossils collected from Crown Lands are property of the Crown. We do not own ANY of the fossils curated in our archives. We do not want to own any fossils.

Fossil Stewardship versus Fossil Ownership

What disappointed me the most in this article was the lack of consideration of what it means to be a fossil steward, rather than a fossil owner. A person who owns a fossil has physical possession of that fossil for their lifetime (or as long as their interest and resources last). There is a small pool of people who derive any benefit from that owned fossil: immediate friends and family. There is no demand or expectation that the fossil owner will use their fossil collection for educational outreach. There is little continuity from one fossil-owning generation to the next. There is no guarantee that your children or grandchildren are going to be interested or able to care for your fossil collection once you are unable. There is no expectation that records of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the fossil's past will be meticulously kept. In short, the personal ownership of fossils is finite and fraught with uncertainty.

A steward of fossil heritage knows that their time on this planet is finite and minuscule. You cannot escape the idea of your own mortality and impermanence when you look at a fossil that was a living animal 115 million years ago. That fossil existed long before you, and has the potential to exist long after you die. Caring for fossils is the realization that this collection must outlast not only your generation, but countless future generations. We merely hold vigil over The Dead, over our Past, and will do our very best to pass the source of that knowledge on the future generations. I cannot express both the honor and humbling weight of this responsibility.

Sadly, this responsibility of being a good fossil steward was neglected in the article that chose to complain about "socialism" just because the author could not take a piece of bone home with them.

3. Montana is not absurd because there, people can make money on dinosaurs.

Another thread I was waiting for when I saw "socialist" in the article title was how the commercial fossil trade system in the United States is better because people can do what they like with fossils found on private lands. The author did not disappoint:

"The rules are almost absurdly socialist, especially when compared to just south of the border in Montana, where commercial fossil hunting is both big money and big controversy. The idea that a chunk of rock in my pocket should still be subject to such intense government regulation seems a little silly."

Big controversy indeed. The issue of resolving commercial fossil collection with responsible and ethical fossil heritage management is ongoing, and frustrating as hell to those of us who are trying to champion for the best practices for managing our fossil heritage. I have written previously on the issues that academic palaeontologists have with the commercial system as it stands. Here are the links where I discuss

- the issue of Propoki case and the illegally exported Tarbosaurus
- the issue of the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs and the importance of fossil archive continutity
- the critique of the commercial fossil system, the predicable rebuttal, and ways I think we could move forward, along with ways to appreciate fossils that do not involve ownership

My personal opinion is that, as it stands, the commercial fossil trade, which promotes not only treating heritage resources as luxury items but the illegal fossil trade plaguing other countries, is broken and needs a complete overhaul. Unfortunately, the groups involved are not there yet, or ready to accept critique of the system as anything other than personal attacks. The current incarnation of the commercial fossil trade needs to be overhauled for the sake of not only one country's fossil heritage, but for the fossil and cultural heritage of all of the other countries that have been negatively impacted. This is not "silly".

4. What the Article Got Right
The article does state why these fossil heritage protection laws are in place: there is a black market for fossils, and people will go to extraordinary means to thwart those laws for selfish financial reasons:

"But paleontologists here...say the law works well to reduce conflict over bones, and to ensure that dinosaurs stay close to home where they can benefit science, public museums, and local tourism."

THIS is why we have these laws. The laws recognize that documenting and conserving our fossil heritage isn't just stamp collecting. It's ensuring that these resources will be present - in their home areas - for science, science education, and public outreach.

Here's an example from my home province of British Columbia. Prior to the overhaul of the previous fossil heritage resource management plans, the best collections and displays of British Columbia's fossils were not within the province. There was a long history of out-of-province and out-of-country institutions traveling to British Columbia, making research-level collections, and then leaving the province with the fossils. Small collections were kept here and there, but the best place for people to see British Columbia fossils was outside of British Columbia.

From a research and fossil conservation stance, this was fine: these institutions had the will to commit resources to British Columbia's fossils. I thank them heartily for this. However, from a public awareness stance, this fossil drain resulted in a net loss for British Columbia. There was no opportunity for British Columbians to develop a sense of cultural appreciation and pride in British Columbia's fossils because the fossils were not there to appreciate. People need to see to appreciate, and the fossils have to be in British Columbia to be seen by British Columbians. This is what the fossil heritage laws recognize.

This trend is slowly changing. We display fossils that we have collected in British Columbia. We offer fossil-related educational programming for children, as well as do many many public presentations to spread our excitement for British Columbia's fossil heritage to everyone we see. In fact, the next lecture tour we do will be on the work we did this summer on a great 115 million year old dinosaur track site near Hudson's Hope.

We will continue to work with British Columbia to not only establish clear fossil heritage protection laws, but also to enact management strategies that detail not only how to responsibly care for our fossil heritage, but to responsibly monitor its use for private collection, public outreach and education, and research. It's painstakingly long-term work, but British Columbia's fossil heritage is worth the effort and diligence. All fossil heritage is worth this level of effort. After all, we only get one shot to do this right.

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