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Research at CMNH

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.

US law prohibits anyone from collecting or disturbinga new oviraptorosaur 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.

Should 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.

Pro: 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.

Con: 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.

Pro: 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.

Con: 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.

Pro: 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.

Con: 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.

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