Fossils: Lost and found...and lost again
When dinosaur fossils survive the elements for millions of years, it’s outrageous to know that looters and vandals can destroy them in the span of a couple of hours.
Last week, a Hadrosaur dinosaur skeleton was smashed overnight in Peace Country, Alberta, the area’s fourth fossil crime in the past six weeks. The Hadrosaur, which was found on June 15 and partially prepared for display in the new Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in northern Alberta, was discovered shattered on July 5, robbing paleontologists and the general public of new knowledge that could be gleaned from the find.
Stolen fossils can be sold online, with a Tyrannosaur tooth fetching up to $5,000 on sites such as eBay and Sotheby’s. Vandalized dig sites with smashed bones might be the mark of people who oppose evolutionary theory and see fossils as fraudulent. Anti-evolution slogans sometimes accompany smashed fossils and vandalized signs at track sites.
“It’s hard to fathom what’s going through someone’s mind when they’re doing that,” says Phil Bell, Peace Country Dinosaur Initiative (PCDI) project paleontologist. “They had to put a lot of effort in to exhume this dinosaur, which was covered in several layers of plaster and burlap. When that solidifies, it’s hard to get through — and they also had to unbury the site, tear up the bones, then throw them down a hill.”
Protecting fossils is important not only for the paleontologists that unearth them, but for the communities that benefit from their presence in museums and the knowledge they bring future generations. So far, provincial and federal legislation have done little to protect them (see CG’s January/February 2012 issue for more on the fossils of Tumbler Ridge, B.C.).
Paleontogists tend to depend on the remoteness of their sites, a certain element of secrecy and moving quickly to protect fossils. However, due to a recent rise in vandalism, Bell is considering adding motion-sensitive cameras to dig sites. They’re inexpensive and can be set up at remote sites, so they capture any visitors — wanted or otherwise — that might turn up.
The RCMP has started investigations on the Hadrosaur fossil destruction and has already found Hadrosaur bones at a local campsite along with other evidence. These criminal acts are punishable by up to $40,000 in fines or a year in prison under the Historical Resources Act, an Alberta law that helps protect historic locations. Bell says even with Alberta’s laws governing fossil collecting, among the world’s most stringent, paleontologists are hampered when it comes to enforcing security.
“Paleontology consists of a small group of committed individuals,” he says. “It’s not a business, so there’s no big investment money — we get by through donations, in time or equipment. We don’t really have a budget for security.”