Who Owns the Fossils?

On Monday, I had the privilege of joining a classroom of 10-year-old-ish students and introducing them to the science of paleontology.

Like most classroom visits, the kids were excited and wanted to touch everything I brought. They were fairly disappointed when I wouldn’t pass around the rock hammers (but, yeah, we all know how that would end).

There was one question that arose for which I could not provide the students with a satisfactory answer, and it occurs to me that it’s an important question that even many adults struggle with.

Why don’t I just take the fossils home and keep them?

It’s obvious to all involved that whomever owns the land, owns the fossils. In this case, we’re talking most specifically about vertebrate fossils. You know, dinosaurs and mammoths and all the cool, giant, bony, thankfully extinct critters.

If the land has no person listed as owner, then they’re ‘public’ or government owned lands, so those fossils belong in a museum. Obviously. This is why there are special permits required to collect fossils on public lands.

What about private land? Well, the land owner owns the fossils. They can sell the fossils and make money. Or just put the fossils on their own shelved and enjoy them. Why wouldn’t this be what land owners do?

Let’s take the next step. I collect fossils on private land. The land owners give me permission. Why don’t I just keep the fossils then? Or sell them? Or put them on my shelf?

Why would I put them in a museum? Why does that even make sense? What good are fossils if you can’t just look at them whenever you want?

And yet, every ethical paleontologist makes sure that his or her fossils wind up as often as possible in a museum, safely locked in a cabinet resting quietly as life goes on.

This baffled the students. They simply could not imagine why I would not just keep the fossils, especially when it was perfectly legal to do so.

This problem is, as I have noticed over the years, equally baffling to adults as well. The difference there is that adults often own the land and are reluctant to give up their fossils. They own them, after all.

It’s about ethics, and the continuation of the science. If I keep the fossils, then no one else can ever really look at them. Unless, of course, they know me and can arrange a visit to my house. That can work, but it would result in tremendous travel expenses for research and would likely stifle the scientific process.

Plus, at my house, there’s no telling if I’ve curated the specimens properly, with acid free paper and a climate controlled environment with all the specimen metadata carefully saved into a large database. Geez, at my house it’s likely that the cats will make toys of my fossils and screw everything up.

Putting the fossils I collect into museum collections means that 1) I know they’ll be safe, 2) I know I can find them again, 3) I know they’ll be curated properly and, 4) (and perhaps most importantly) I know that they are accessible to anyone else who might ever want to look at them.

This is really important. My entire postdoctoral research project was dependent upon collections housed in museums. As a graduate student, I spent a summer traveling to museums to look at their collections to compare with my own specimens. Even now, I have specimens from three different museums sitting in my office for projects I’m working on (Learn more about them here and here). Without those specimens, I wouldn’t be able to do any of those interesting projects.

The moral here is that even though I could potentially legally keep some of the specimens I collect, I won’t. Because, as Indiana Jones said once or twice, ‘They belong in a museum.’

Vertebrate fossils have much more than monetary value. They are greater than their aesthetic beauty. They form the basis of many important scientific projects, and because of that, they must be protected yet made available for study. This is best accomplished by museums.

Admittedly, there are some fossils that are so abundant that museums aren’t all that eager to have more, but they’ll tell you that and let you take the fossils home.

But if you really did find a hadrosaur in upstate New York, that really does belong in a museum. Please don’t roll your eyes at me when I tell you that. Understand that you could be making an important contribution to science by doing so.


  1. I think this is very much a cultural thing, and fortunately seems fairly limited to the US and a handful of other countries. In Canada, for example, where all fossils are property of the crown, there is a general appreciation for national heritage. This includes a sense of both cultural heritage and natural history heritage. When I worked in Saskatchewan, I didn’t need to explain this to the kids or adults that visited the quarry. They knew why fossils went to the museum, and could articulate that there was a benefit in knowing and studying the shared heritage. It’s a lesson we would do well to learn from our northern neighbors (and southern, come to think of it).


    1. Penny says:

      Maybe it’s a western Canada thing, because these kids were in Ottawa and they seemed just as confused as typical American kids. Or maybe it’s a ‘big city’ problem.


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