Fossil Facts
One of the joys nearly every child discovers in the out-of-doors is picking up rocks. This curiosity about the natural world in which we live has historically led to many of the important fossil discoveries being made by amateurs. From Archaeopteryx to Tyrannosaurus rex, more than eight out of ten of all the significant fossil finds even today are discovered by amateur fossil enthusiasts. Many of these amateurs become tomorrow’s earth science teachers, geologists, biologists, and paleontologists.

Questions such as who should be allowed to collect, prepare, and own fossils have generated a storm of controversy over the past two decades or so, that continue to be debated heatedly in the halls of academia and legislative bodies in the United States and many other countries. The debate involves fossils on private lands as well as those on public lands. Several factors make it difficult to resolve this disagreement with simple laws, rules and regulations

For an extensive look at just some of the issues involved, you may wish to download and read this paper entitled, "Poor Sue" written by Marie C. Malaro and published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1994.

One thing is certain. No matter who collects or owns them, fossils will continue to excite, enthuse and educate children and adults, amateurs and professionals for many, many years to come.

On this Page

 - BHI's Viewpoint
 - Debate Overview


 - Law and Policy - A description of policy regarding collecting on 'public' lands.

 - Download Page - Downloadable material concerning collecting on 'public' lands.

The Debate "In a Nutshell"

The primary issue underlying all the debate about public policy and fossils is "Who should be allowed to own fossils?" How you answer that question determines, in large part, your stance on all the sub issues such as "Who should be allowed to prospect for, collect, prepare, study or sell fossils?" — or — "Who should be allowed access to public lands to collect fossils?" — or —"What regulations should govern fossil collecting on public lands?"

On one side of this debate are those who say that

    ...all fossils within the borders of any nation are the common property of that nation’s people and should be held in 'public trust' for the academic paleontologists of that nation to study.

    ...private ownership of fossils and a free market in the sale of fossils should never be allowed because important fossil specimens and site information will be lost to science. is best served by leaving fossils in the field until degreed paleontologists can study the fossils in the context of their location and choose whether or not to excavate and preserve them.

    ...important fossil specimens may be damaged or contextual locality information may be lost if collected by an amateur or commercial paleontologist.

    ...all fossils are rare and vertebrate fossils are even more rare.

    ...unauthorized and illegal collecting of fossils causes serious losses to the science of paleontology.

On the other side of this debate are those who say that

    ...ownership of fossils should be decided by various factors such as where they are discovered and how abundant a resource they are.

    ...private ownership and a free market in the sale of fossil specimens has proven to be a major impetus in the discovery of significant, new fossil specimens and locations as well as provided the means to finance the excavation, preparation, and preservation of those fossils for scientific research and public display. is best served by using every possible eye and hand to find, collect and preserve fossils in order to provide the greatest number of specimens for study.

    ...though some fossils may be damaged or site information lost due to inexpert collecting, allowing all interested parties to collect fossils will vastly increase the number of fossils discovered and collected and available for research including new species and locations.

    ...fossils, both vertebrate and invertebrate, are abundant and only a small percentage are truly rar Some fossil localities are rare. Academically trained and degreed paleontologists are rare.

    ...the number of fossil specimens lost to science because of unauthorized and illegal collecting of fossils is a tiny percentage compared to the vast quantity of fossils lost to the forces of weathering every day. Nearly all exposed fossils are eventually destroyed by the same forces that originally exposed them.

The Black Hills Institute Viewpoint

As a private, for profit, earth science supply house, the Institute has consistently supported the premise that commercial paleontologists and commercial trade in fossils make important and significant contributions to all the earth sciences and particularly to the science of paleontology by:

    Providing hands on access to fossil specimens for a vast portion of the general public which in turn leads to more interest in many of the sciences.

    Providing the financial means, as in commercial quarries, that yield numerous new species that would otherwise never be discovered.

    Providing the opportunity and training (usually at no cost to the amateur) for amateur fossil enthusiasts to learn proper field collection techniques and identification of probable fossil deposits and fossils found in the field.

    Providing at minimal cost numerous common fossil specimens for earth science instructors and classrooms.

    Providing open access to their collecting sites and collections to researchers.

    Providing major specimens for exhibit in museums at costs far below that of funding their own staff for exploration, excavation, and equipping a laboratory for preparation.


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