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A sad story
I have wrestled with my conscience about the commercial collecting debate
for a long time, with no clear result. I know of some professional fossil
dealers who have gone out of their way to make specimens available for study,
and so I cannot make a blanket condemnation of the practice of selling fossil
vertebrate specimens. On the other hand, I can tell you a story about what
the existence of such a market has meant for me.
Two summers ago I learned that a local real estate developer had bones
of a mastodon that (I was led to believe by an informant) were likely to
disappear quietly because he didn't want anybody to know about them. The
implication was that he feared this would result in an invasion of paleontol-
ogists and archaeologists that would slow down his construction.
I paid him a visit, and although he grilled me about how I'd learned of
the find, he readily admitted it was true. It turned out that the bones
had actually been found a couple years before that at a different but
nearby site, and the developer had had them re-buried where they were now
interred "to protect them." (!) He agreed to let me dig them up; in fact,
he called in the local newspapers and television stations to cover the
It so happened that a new science museum is being built here in Fort
Wayne, and they were interested in getting a mastodon to display, because this
is perhaps the most common large vertebrate found as fossils here in Indiana.
I suggested that the bones we were digging up be donated to the museum. The
developer agreed, and in his television interviews made a big deal about how
the bones were going to be put on display, etc.
Unfortunately, one of the newspapers that carried the story also reported
that another mastodon skeleton, this one found in Ohio, had been sold to the
Japanese for something like $625,000. The Ohio specimen was complete and in
great condition, having been excavated from its original burial place by a
team of professionals. In contrast, the Fort Wayne mastodon was only 1/3-1/2
complete, and some of its bones rather banged up (being dug up in a backhoe,
and then dumped into another hole and re-buried, is not a generally approved
method of fossil bone conservation).
Even so, the developer went on and on about how interesting it was that
a mastodon was sold for that kind of money. He no longer said that he was
going to donate it, only that he would give it some thought.
After cleaning, measuring, and photographing the bones I turned them
over to the developer. That was a year ago, and I haven't heard anything
more about the beast.
I recognize that commercial and amateur collectors find specimens that
would otherwise weather and erode away. I also recognize, and am grateful
for, those instances where commercial dealers in vertebrate fossils make
specimens and data available to myself and other professionals.
But I now have first-hand experience with how the existence of a commercial
market poisons the relationship between potential donors of specimens and
museums and other public institutions that do not have the funds to compete
when specimens become high-price items of commerce. Once an object becomes
a valuable item, it makes it harder for all but the richest institutions to
be able to obtain it for scientific research and the education of the public.