When it comes to collecting, there’s old, and then there’s old. We’re not talking Mid-Century Modern old, or Victorian old, or Colonial American old, or even ancient Chinese or Egyptian old. No, we’re talking prehistory old, from the Pleistocene (11,000 to 2.5 million years ago), to the Cretaceous (66 to 145 million years ago), to the Permian (250 to 300 million years ago).
“If you were a triceratops in Alberta, you had about two minutes before you got vaporized.”
People who want to own a piece of prehistory generally do so by collecting fossils, which include bones, shells, or chunks of wood that have been petrified (turned to stone), and trace fossils, which occur when a creature or plant’s impression has been mineralized and preserved (footprints in mud, for example). Because they are usually composed of substances like iron pyrite and silica, which are harder than the clay, shale, or sandstone matrix surrounding them, fossils are often found poking through the surface of the ground when these softer formations erode away.
This happens every spring, after snow melt and rains have washed away yet another layer of our planet. “You need two things for good erosion,” says South Dakota-based paleontologist and author Japheth Boyce (his shortened first name is pronounced ‘Joff’). “You need the freezing-expansion action in winter to fracture the surface of the soil and break it up, and then a heavy rain to scour that loose dirt away. As the surface dries during the summer, the integrity of the formation begins to deteriorate and it becomes fractured and soft. And if you get a summer rain, it’ll scour the ground again and reveal more material, washing away more earth around the fossil. So it’s very seasonal, but it requires constant collecting so that you find the fossil when it’s at its best, instead of after it’s been sitting in the weather for 50 years.”
The frequency of this cycle of erosion and revelation helps explain why fossil hunters like Boyce, who are often referred to as commercial paleontologists, believe the world is positively lousy with fossils, whether they’re from the millennia before the last ice age or the roughly 150-million-year stretch when dinosaurs roamed the earth before abruptly going extinct. Most conventional paleontologists who are exclusively engaged in scientific research (“academic paleontologists,” one might call them) believe the collection, sale, and ownership of fossils should be tightly controlled and, in some cases, prohibited outright—you never know, these scientists say, when a single fossil might supply that one missing puzzle piece that suddenly reveals a clearer picture of the past to help us deal with problems we face in the present, particularly climate change.
“Honestly,” Boyce sighs, “there are more fossils than people want. The supply of fossils is greater than the demand.”
To illustrate the overabundance of fossils in our midst, Boyce points to the bounty of Hadrosaur and Triceratops dinosaur fossils that remain unexcavated at just two sites in the western United States. “Duck-billed dinosaurs,” Boyce says of one type of Hadrosaur, “were basically the deer or buffalo of the Late Cretaceous—they were prey animals for just about everything. There’s a mass-mortality site at a privately owned quarry near Faith, South Dakota, about 100 miles north of Rapid City. The duck-bills there were probably migrating and got caught in a flooding river or plains-delta area. There are perhaps 3,000 Hadrosaurs in that one quarry. In central Montana, along the Missouri River, there’s a quarry of Triceratops, the dinosaur with three horns on its face. That one Triceratops quarry contains about 300 specimens. There aren’t 300 museums in the world that want a Triceratops.”
On the other side of the argument is Kenshu Shimada, a professor of paleobiology at DePaul University in Chicago, and the co-author of a recent screed describing fossils as “nonrenewable natural resources” that should be “conserved in perpetuity.” For Shimada and his co-authors, “the battle against heightened commercialization of fossils” is “the greatest challenge to paleontology of the 21st century.”
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” Shimada elaborates when I ask him over the phone about all those unwanted fossilized Triceratops skeletons. “The reason why there are so few museums that can take the specimens,” he says, “is because the job market for paleontologists is shrinking, as is the funding to collect and house fossils in museums. It’s not that they don’t want to take them—they don’t have the resources.”
These days, the folks with the most resources are private individuals, including movie stars like Nicolas Cage, who outbid Leonardo DiCaprio at a Beverly Hills auction in 2007, when he paid more than a quarter-million dollars for a roughly 70-million-year-old Tarbosaurus bataar skull (T. bataar is thought to have been a close Mongolian cousin of North America’s famous Tyrannosaurus rex).
Bidding wars among wealthy celebrities for high-end collectibles are not unusual, and as first-world problems go, who cares? But this one became noteworthy when a former director of the auction company that sold Cage his prized dino skull recently revealed that the artifact had been supplied by a commercial paleontologist named Eric Prokopi, who pleaded guilty in late 2012 to smuggling a full T. bataar skeleton (among other fossils) out of Mongolia.
The shady provenance of that fossilized skeleton, which was sold at Heritage Auctions in May 2012, had been flagged by a number of paleontologists, including Neil Kelley, who posted a petition at Change.org to call attention to the sale (he has since earned a Ph.D. from University of California, Davis, and is now doing his postdoctoral research at the Smithsonian, studying the evolution of land mammals that evolved to live in the ocean and became things like whales, dolphins, and manatees). Events came to a head during the bidding on the skeleton, when an attorney retained by the Mongolian government tried to stop the sale, backed by a restraining order issued by a Dallas, Texas, judge. The attorney was escorted from the room. A few minutes later, the hammer came down at just under $1 million (once the buyer’s premium was added, the final price was $1,052,500), but it didn’t matter. The bones were seized, crated, and returned to Mongolia. As of this writing, Prokopi is still awaiting sentencing—he faces 17 years behind bars. (Update: After cooperating with authorities, he was sentenced to three months.)
The notion of a dinosaur skull perched on a pedestal for the private amusement of an action-film actor, let alone a full T. bataar skeleton displayed in some rich guy’s private pad, is probably not the picture most of us have of dinosaur fossils. We have learned to treat these artifacts of a former age as almost sacred relics, requiring the constant attention of teams of conservators, who, we imagine, scurry about behind the scenes at places like the Field Museum in Chicago or the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Indeed, museums are where most of us got our first up-close look at a dinosaur skeleton, so that’s where this idealized stereotype comes from. But increasingly, thanks in part to the lack of resources at places like the Field and AMNH, well-heeled individuals and high-profile auctions houses, including Bonhams, Heritage, and Chait, which is where Cage picked up his fossilized bauble, have gotten into the dinosaur buying-and-selling game.
This makes scientists like Shimada extremely nervous for a number of reasons. First, it creates a market for fossils, making them even more expensive than they already are, which is bad news for cash-strapped institutions, be they museums or universities. Second, and even worse, the pieces collectors like Cage want are the rarest of the rare—the very objects that scientists like Shimada have the most difficulty accessing, regardless of resources, for their research. The reason for the scarcity is actually easy to explain.
“If you look at the modern-day ecosystem,” Shimada says, “you have fewer species like lions and lots of prey. That’s what it was like with predators like Tyrannosaurus rex and plant-eating dinosaurs like Hadrosaurids. There’s a big discrepancy in populations, so those rare specimens are what the commercial collectors [Shimada’s phrase for ‘commercial paleontologists’] want. They’ll collect whatever they encounter, but if they find a rare species, they know they can make a lot of money from it.”
If sellers on eBay and retailers such as The Evolution Store in New York and By Nature Gallery in Colorado and Wyoming are any indication, plenty of people are making money on the common stuff, too. These sorts of retailers sell ammonites (sliced, polished, and mounted for display), petrified wood, and megalodon shark teeth by the score.
Until recently, many natural-history museums made extra cash selling fossils, too, until they got the message from people like Shimada that trafficking in such materials was at odds with their curatorial missions. “I was in a museum once,” Shimada remembers, “and walked into the gift shop, where I found real fossilized shark teeth for sale. I knew the director of the museum, so I called him up and said, ‘Why are you selling real fossils?’ He didn’t realize they even were and said, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s right, we shouldn’t be selling real fossils.’ After that batch of merchandise was sold, they never bought any more fossils to sell.”
Compounding the problem presented by the market for fossils and the inherent scarcity of the most sought-after pieces is their often sketchy acquisition by unscrupulous commercial paleontologists, whose favorite poaching grounds are places like Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, which is where Cage’s prize and the skeleton Prokopi admitted to smuggling came from. Some of this contraband even makes it to retailers—earlier this year, the owner of By Nature Gallery pleaded guilty to conspiracy to smuggle rare dinosaur fossils from Mongolia for sale in his stores. From a scientist’s standpoint, this cherry-picking not only removes important pieces from the knowledge base of science, it skews the data about the source area overall.
“The commercial collectors are specifically looking for the rare specimens because they bring in the big bucks. But if they remove all the rare species, and then years later, some scientists happen upon those sites, the fossil record of the site will be incomplete. For example, right now climate change is a big issue,” Shimada continues. “If we really want to understand the interaction between organisms and the climate, then we need a large collection of samples, regardless of whether they are rare or abundant species.”
In fact, the Gobi Desert is a fossil-poacher’s paradise—the area is vast, while the resources to patrol it are rarer than, well, Nic Cage’s T. bataar skull. Meanwhile, a different set of challenges face paleontologists studying dinosaur fossils in the United States.
“In the United States,” says Shimada, “we have the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, which protects fossils found on public lands like those managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service, and USDA Forest Service. Before that law was passed, any commercial collector could ransack public lands, collect all the fossils they wanted, and then make a personal profit on them. Paleontologists were concerned that we were losing an important part of our natural heritage. So the idea that fossils found on public lands should belong to the public became a reality.”
Which, of course, has not exactly stopped poachers and vandals from despoiling public lands, either in search of a quick dino buck or maybe just for kicks. This February, for example, a vandal chiseled a famous trace fossil of a theropod track (T. rex is a member of the theropod family) from its spot along a Jeep trail known as Hell’s Revenge on BLM lands near Moab, Utah. The thief removed a one-by-three-foot section of stone that was formed as long as 190 million years ago. A Utah construction-company owner has been charged with the crime, and it is believed the fossil was dumped in the Colorado River, though the motive for this act is unknown, and efforts to retrieve the artifact have so far failed.
That same sort of rupture in the knowledge base occurs every day when fossils excavated from private quarries are cleaned up and sent who-knows-where. “If fossils are found on private lands,” says Shimada, “we in the scientific community have absolutely no control over them. My personal view is that we should not commercialize fossils whatsoever, but I know on a practical level that’s just not possible.”
“There aren’t 300 museums in the world that want a Triceratops.”
As one of those commercial paleontologists, Japheth Boyce would certainly never condone removing a theropod trace fossil, or anything else, from public lands, but he argues that the situation is not quite as dire as Shimada paints it. People in his profession, he says, know when something is important enough to bring to the attention of their colleagues in academia, and for the most part, that collegial spirit of common sense works. “The truth is every specimen is research-quality because each specimen is new and unique,” Boyce says, “but at the same time, there are very few new complete specimens that are worthy of a description.”
While Boyce has excavated for fossils in places as far-flung as the Gobi (during which he joined a Discovery Channel crew), he mostly likes to work close to home. “The majority of my time is spent in the White River Badlands, which contain layers from the Oligocene Epoch,” he says of the South Dakota formations that regularly cough up fossils 23-to-34 million years old. “It was a time period when mammals really started to bloom—lots of rhinos, horses, cats, dogs, squirrels, deer, and antelope. My family has a cattle ranch that’s filled with the Oligocene.”
This mammalian bounty was made possible in no small part thanks to a “bolide,” the generic term for a heavenly body colliding with the Earth, which in this case is believed to have been the Chicxulub asteroid. That bolide crashed into the Yucatan peninsula at a speed of 45,000 miles per hour about 66 million years ago, creating an explosion that is thought to have been a billion times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Whatever the actual measure of its destructive force, the 150-mile-wide crater left in its wake is evidence of some sort of impact, while the dust and debris that was immediately hurled into the atmosphere is thought to have triggered the extinction of roughly 75 percent of all plants and animals on the planet.
The complete extinction may have taken a few years, it may have taken a few thousand, but the dinosaurs that were living at the time in North America probably went first. According to a version of the extinction event published in Elizabeth Kolbert’s eye-opening new book, “The Sixth Extinction,” Chicxulub hit Earth from the southeast, which means North American theropods were among the first to be wiped out. “A vast cloud of searing vapor and debris raced over the continent,” Kolbert writes, “expanding as it moved and incinerating anything in its path. ‘Basically, if you were a triceratops in Alberta, you had about two minutes before you got vaporized’ is how one geologist put it to me.”
“For every hour I spend in the field, I spend about eight hours in the lab.”
Somehow, a few small mammals survived this holocaust, which opened the door to Boyce’s beloved Oligecene tens of millions of years later. “It was the first really bountiful time for mammals,” he says. “Most of the ancestors of the animals we see today originated at that time. For example, the first dog, the first true canine, came from that period.”
Currently, one such dog-like creature has caught Boyce’s eye. “I’m working on a specimen now that looks like a fossil wolf,” he says. “It’s not related to wolves at all, but it just happens to have that appearance. I believe it is not only a new species, but a new genus.” Dogs and wolves are species within the genus Canis. If Boyce is correct about his new find, his wolf-like fossil would be much more than a breed apart from these familiar forms.
“There are so many differences with it,” he adds, which makes it an obvious example of something to show to a scientific colleague rather than just another piece to clean up and put on the market. “I’ll do some of the basic research myself, so that when I show the specimen to somebody, they’re not starting blind. That way they can look at some written data and have some measurements and photographs, and then decide for themselves whether they find it interesting. And then,” he adds, “I’ll try to find a home for the specimen that’s relevant. The last thing people who discover new items want is to give them to a place where they’ll be stuck away in a drawer to become a footnote in some archive. You want to be careful where you donate your specimens, especially if they’re scientifically important, because they’ll just get lost and forgotten.”
In fact, most museum basements are crowded with countless crates of stuff they don’t have the room or resources to show, whether it’s fine art or fossils. Natural-history museums have the added complication of being the custodians of items that are both extremely fragile and terribly bulky.
Take a Tyrannosaurus rex: Though by no means the largest dinosaur, it can stretch 40 feet from head to tail. If you were a natural-history museum and had a spare one in your basement, though, you probably wouldn’t store it fully assembled, which means you’d have to catalog and crate each of its 200 or so bones so that it could be reassembled or retrieved for study at a future date. Once in storage, the inertia to remove a particular specimen from this curatorial purgatory is fierce. In addition, the sheer volume of material available for scientific study already greatly exceeds the number of scientists doing this sort of work. So, the commercial paleontologists ask, what’s the harm if a few rich people want to own some old bones before they die, after which they’ll probably donate their treasures to a museum, anyway?
“It is true,” says Neil Kelley carefully, “that there are a lot of wealthy philanthropists who have donated to museums and academic institutions. But we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we’re purely at the whim of those who have the resources to buy scientifically important and unique fossils, and then they can decide what they want to do with them.”
“The problem is the uncertainty of the permanency,” agrees Shimada. “There is no mechanism to assure the long-term stability of the specimen. That’s the major issue. The person might say, ‘you can have access to it now,’ but then in 10 years he might decide to restrict access. And what if the person dies? The sons or daughters might want to sell the fossil, which could make it that much harder for scientists to study it. Fossils cannot be treated like art objects because scientific materials require accessibility and permanency—if it’s not accessible, then its scientific data cannot be reproduced and verified.”
In fact, while paleontologists get a lot of attention for their work in the field, lab work consumes most of their time. This is just as true for Kelley as he tries to figure out how whales evolved as it is for Boyce as he prepares a specimen for a client.
“For every hour I spend in the field, I spend about eight hours in the lab,” Boyce says with a groan. “The fieldwork is much more fun because you’re outside, there are birds flying overhead and antelope and deer running around, and you get to find fossils. That’s the best part. The bane of the fossil business is the lab work, sitting in a dusty lab for hours and hours, and at the end of those hours you don’t have much to show for what you’ve done.”
Restoring fossils, especially those intended for display, is not as instantly gratifying, Boyce says, as restoring things like antique furniture or vintage cars. The work tends to be exacting, fussy, and slow. Take teeth, a favorite object for fossil collectors.
“The most famous teeth are either saber-toothed-tiger teeth or T. rex teeth,” Boyce begins. “On all teeth, dinosaur and mammal alike, cementum makes up the core of the tooth, which is covered by an outer layer of enamel. The enamel on the teeth is very thin, and because there are two different materials in the living animal—the core of the tooth and the enamel—the same is true of the minerals that replace those materials and create the fossil. They will separate and delaminate, so you’ll often find a T. rex tooth whose enamel has chipped or flaked off. You have to locate the chipped pieces, which can be as large as a thumbnail or as small as an eyelash, align them on the core, and then glue them in place.”
Skeletons need not be quite so detailed since the viewer is looking at more than just a single tooth. “I’m talking about display specimens, not research specimens,” stresses Boyce. “With the research specimens, it’s best to just leave those alone unless you have a very clean and obvious break because it’s very easy to put things together incorrectly and create the wrong specimen. An early example of that is a dinosaur discovered in England called the Iguanodon. It’s an herbivore dinosaur, about the size of a duck-billed dinosaur. The Iguanodon was unique because it had something called a thumb spike, a bony, horned thing that stuck out of the inside of the wrist, about where the thumb would be on humans. But when that first Iguanodon was discovered in the early 1800s, they only found one of the two thumb spikes. They didn’t know what to do with it, so they glued it on the nose and turned it into a rhino.”
When skeletons are excavated from a private quarry, the Gobi Desert, or anywhere else, they are usually removed from the ground in a big block of matrix (the surrounding rock), since extracting bones in the field can be dicey. “The matrix can be quite hard or it can be as soft as potting soil,” Boyce says. “I use everything from dental picks to camelhair brushes to miniature sand blasters like the ones used in the Silicon Valley to clean computer chips. I run talcum powder and baking soda through them. I may also use pneumatic sculpting tools, miniature jackhammers that vary from the size of a rolling pin to a pencil. Of course, this is all done under lots of magnification.”
Other fossils prized for their display value are less controversial and easier to come by than T. rex teeth. Fossilized ammonites, which resemble present-day chambered Nautilus’s but were wiped out 66 million years ago along with the dinosaurs, are sometimes sliced and polished to reveal the mollusk’s beautiful, internal, chambered structure. Other ammonites, such as those found in southern Alberta, Canada, are collected for their colorful, iridescent surfaces.
Nor are all fossils found in scorched-earth landscapes like South Dakota’s Badlands or Mongolia’s forbidding Gobi. Natural-history collector and dealer Greg Hupé of Nature’s Vault—who is best known for the meteorites he has found or acquired from around the world, including Africa, Europe, and the United States—got his start hunting fossils in the rivers of Florida, where anyone with five bucks can get a permit to look for evidence of the mastodons, mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, camels, and llamas that called Florida home in the Pleistocene, 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. The permit is good for one year and covers fossils on state land, but if you are looking for megalodon shark teeth, which can reach seven inches in length, well, Florida’s got so many of those that a permit is not even required.
“I moved to Florida almost 10 years ago,” Hupé says, “and I had no idea there were even fossils here until a scuba-diver friend asked if I wanted to go fossil hunting. I said, ‘Fossils? What kind of fossils are there in Florida?’ And he said, ‘Oh, all kinds.’ Since then, I’ve done most of my fossil hunting in rivers.
“Fossils are heavy,” Hupé continues. “They’ll collect in low spots in a river, just like gold. Some spots will have just a whole mish-mash of different fossilized bones from many different animals, along with all the gravel and everything else that collects there. Almost all of it is completely out of context, so they don’t have any real scientific value. But over time, 12,000 years of hurricanes and storms wash those fossils out—in Florida, stuff doesn’t sit still for very long, unless it was buried in a deep spot of the river or a sink hole.”
According to Hupé, when a Florida fossil hunter finds a particularly rich cache, he or she is obliged to report it. “You fill out a form to tell where you found the fossils, the river or creek you found them in, what the material at the bottom was like, the depth, even GPS coordinates. Then someone in Gainesville will determine whether it’s worth having scientists check it out. Nobody complains about having to do all that—the private sector has always helped contribute to these sorts of discoveries. It’s a great thing and the way it should be because major things, no matter what kind of material they are, deserve to be in museums for all to enjoy. Yeah, it’s an honor system, but for the longevity of the hobby, it really is important for people to play by the rules.”
That’s not good enough for Shimada and Kelley, who believe that we’ve reached a point where the incentive to bend the rules, or discard them altogether, has become stronger than the glory gained by reporting a major fossil site and then maybe having your name attached to it (probably, alas, as a footnote in some scientific journal that few will read).
“I don’t want to offend any collectors,” says Shimada, “and I know I have no right to say ‘don’t buy fossils.’ It’s a free country. It’s free market. But if people decide to buy a fossil to display it in their home, I want them to understand the ramifications.” In addition to his main complaint—buying fossils encourages a market for them, thus making fossils more expensive to acquire—when fossils are in private hands, it removes them from future study by scientists.
“I’ve worked on many projects in which the fossils I was studying were collected 40, 50, sometimes even 100 years ago,” says Shimada. “That’s the idea behind public institutions like museums—they are about the preservation of data waiting to be found in natural objects. One fossil’s value might not seem obvious at a particular point of time, but the beauty of the museum system is that we can save those specimens, and then, maybe someday, someone will be able to use the data in that fossil to generate a scientific discovery. Sometimes an object’s scientific significance needs time to emerge, to wait for the right person—a scientist—to come along and ask the right questions.”
Which brings us back to those questions about climate change and extinction events. Fossils have a lot to tell us about both, which could help make sense of, if not prevent, the extinction event we are in right now. For example, as you are reading this, amphibians are being wiped out across the globe by a chytrid fungus. Is there evidence of such contagions in fossils, and, if so, what might we learn from them? Turns out that understanding extinction is something of a prerequisite to understanding evolution. “Extinction wasn’t widely accepted in the late 1700s,” says Kelley. “It was really the discovery of fossil forms that clearly were not around anymore that made extinction a reality for early scientists. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the concept of extinction preceded evolution by a few decades.”
In fact, Kelley says, “the whole geologic time scale was originally developed by geologists and paleontologists who were going out and recording the fossils they found and the rock layers they were found in. Most of the major divisions of geologic time correspond to mass-extinction events because that’s where you got a sudden switch in fossil groups—one group of fossils disappears and a new group shows up. Mass extinction events were convenient places to draw boundaries.”
For example, there are lots of trilobite fossils from before the Permian-Triassic extinction event that occurred around 250 million years ago, but zero trilobites after, which isn’t too surprising since the Permian extinction obliterated more than 90 percent of all life in the oceans plus another 70 percent of all land vertebrates. “Trilobites were already dwindling by the end of the Permian,” Kelley allows. “They had been one of the dominant groups in the ocean through most of the Paleozoic Era, which lasted about 250 million years. Then they went extinct. In their place, during the Mesozoic Era, more familiar crustacean groups like crabs and lobsters emerged. That’s one type of extinction-event replacement. Obviously, the replacement of dinosaurs by mammals and birds, which really are descendants of dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous is another. Those are pretty interesting patterns, and we can follow them in the fossil record.
“It’s only through careful, reproducible study of materials that are held in publicly accessible collections that we can go back and check the magnitude, timing, and duration of these events,” Kelley adds. “If all of the material was distributed in people’s private collections, we wouldn’t really have a good way to develop a concrete understanding of those events. That’s just one example of why a scientifically accessible fossil record is important.”
From where Boyce sits, there’s still plenty of research that could be done to help make sense of prehistoric ecologies and extinction events. Shimada would cite a lack of funding as the main reason why scientists still have a great deal of research before them, but for Boyce, the problem is that no one is interested in doing this sort of nose-to-the-grindstone research in the first place. Finding theropod skulls in the Gobi is a much sexier pursuit.
“There are fossil woods in western Wyoming from the Eocene,” Boyce says of the epoch that preceded his beloved Oligocene, between which there was yet another extinction event. “There are perhaps millions of tons of this wood. It’s beautiful, well preserved, very easy to collect, and it sits in distinct layers, so it’s easy to study geologically. Yet nobody has. None of those trees have been studied or named. None of the layers they come from have been studied or named. Nobody knows anything about them. You could fill volumes of books about that one location and group of trees, but nobody has.”
(To learn more about dinosaur fossils, read Michael Novacek’s “Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs.” And if you are thinking of prospecting for dinosaur bones in South Dakota, find a used copy of “Japh’s Pretty Good Fossil Book of the Dakota Territory” by Japheth Boyce and Terri Haag.)