In contrast to other dinosaurs in the Carnegie Museum of Natural
History collection, this oviraptorosaur was discovered by
commercial fossil collectors, who search for fossils in order
to sell them. Because of their unique scientific significance,
the museum purchased the only known skeletons of this oviraptorosaur
in 2004. However, our acquisition of these superb examples
of a new and rare type of dinosaur highlights several issues
confronting science and society.
prohibits anyone from collecting or disturbing
fossil vertebrates (animals with backbones, such as dinosaurs
and mammals) found on public lands without a permit issued
by the appropriate federal agency. Normally, such permits
are issued only to qualified scientists working closely with
natural history museums or other permanent repositories for
fossil collections. In contrast, US law does not regulate
the collection or sale of fossils that are found on private
land. It is therefore legal for commercial collectors to sell
American fossils, so long as the fossils were found on private
land. Consequently, unique and scientifically important fossils
from the United States are sold to private collectors each
year. Others, like our oviraptorosaur, are acquired by natural
history museums so that they can be studied and publicly displayed.
scientifically significant fossils be bought and sold on the
open market? Like many controversial issues, there are at
least two sides to this debate. After you consider both sides,
feel free to contact elected officials in the US Congress
to voice your opinion.
There are so many fossil vertebrates distributed across the
American West that many will be destroyed by erosion and weathering
if they are not collected rapidly. Because there are so few
scientists searching for these fossils at any given time,
commercial collectors are harvesting specimens that would
otherwise never be collected.
Detailed studies have shown that fossils do not degrade rapidly
through normal weathering processes. Parts of individual specimens
have been collected decades apart in the field, yet they fit
together seamlessly once they are reunited in the lab. Hence,
there is no compelling reason to collect these specimens rapidly.
The United States is a capitalist society that places a heavy
emphasis on the rights of private property owners. Landowners
should therefore be allowed to sell any fossils found on their
property on the open market.
The educational and scientific value of certain fossils is
so great that society as a whole should have the right to
regulate commerce in fossils. Fossils yield the only direct
evidence bearing on the history of life in the United States.
They are therefore an important part of our national heritage.
Commercial fossil collectors stand in the long American tradition
of “making a living off the land.” Their labor
should therefore be honored rather than put down.
Fossils are a nonrenewable and scientifically precious resource.
Whenever an important fossil specimen is sold to a private
collector, it cannot be studied and its impact on understanding
the history of life on Earth is compromised or lost.