Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Is it time for a Palaeontological Resources Preservation Act in the UK?

When the global recession hit the UK back in 2008 there was to be a dreadful side effect that has had significant implications for vertebrate palaeontology throughout the country. Many working quarry localities have been closed and with them any more chance of vertebrate material being recovered from these exposures has now gone forever.

And because of these closures, the search for fossils has increased the focus on the already heavily pressured coastal venues. The Jurassic Coast, the Isle of Wight, the cliffs around Whitby and other similar sites have been under the most intense scrutiny in recent years and the pressure is unabating now as more and more collectors descend on the unprotected cliffs and beds.

It is a fact that during the winter, and especially during storms and scouring tides, the competition is at its fiercest and most intense. Indeed, the Isle of Wight has been described to me as “unbelievable” during stormy conditions as an army of lamps and torches turn the cliffs into something akin to a Christmas tree covered by fairy lights – and at 2 o’clock in the morning as well!

How much material of scientific importance has been lost forever? Of course, there are many ethical collectors out there, both professional and amateur and they have made significant contributions to our science. They are not the problem – it is those without any moral obligations that are plundering the sites, collecting for themselves or, as is more and more common these days, collecting to order for clients who are willing to pay a small fortune for a complete ichthyosaur or a partial iguanodontid.

So what is to be done? Can anything actually be done? Well perhaps we can learn a lesson from the United States and use their experience and ideas over here. Early in 2009, the Palaeontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) was passed by the House of Representatives and signed by Barack Obama to become law. The PRPA actually consolidated existing practices within the USA by simply making them legally binding, thus enabling the courts to prosecute and sentence those who broke these laws.

It is worth describing the main features of the PRPA before we look at the possibility of utilising some or all of it here in the UK. The main features are:

1) That fossils are a unique and non-renewable resource that provides clues to the Earth’s history and ultimately its future. Very important point this – “non-renewable” – so many people forget this. When they are gone, they are gone forever.

2) Fossils can still be collected from public land but these can only be invertebrate and plant fossils. A reasonable quantity can be taken but they cannot be traded, bartered or sold to anyone else.

3) However, it is forbidden for ANY vertebrate fossils to be removed from public land regardless of whether they are for personal use or to be sold. A permit must be obtained before vertebrate fossils can be collected and these are nearly always issued to professional palaeontologists and they, in turn, must deposit their finds into a professional repository such as a museum or university.

There are other things on the bill but those items listed are the fundamental principles. Interestingly, fossils collected from private lands are not affected, provided you have permission from the landowner – so the commercials and some private traders appear unaffected. And, it must be repeated, that the public can still collect some fossils from public land, provided that it is done sensibly and does not involve the physical alteration of the surrounding rocks to remove the fossils. Surface collecting is the norm.

There have been objections to the bill but these appear to be unjustified and now that the PRPA has settled down, it appears to be working well (I am happy to be corrected here if you know different). The USA has vast palaeontological reserves and these include some of the richest dinosaur hunting grounds in the world and it makes sense to protect them. The UK, on the other hand, is a very small country by comparison and has extremely limited exposures available for research and the collection of vertebrate fossils.

So can the UK implement its own PRPA? Firstly, there are already some initiatives in place but these have only met with limited success. Without the force of the law behind them, people ignore these initiatives and collect. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) offer some protection and have some legal powers but these appear to be seldom enforced and despite the fact that UNESCO declared the Jurassic Coast a world heritage site, it remains constantly scoured for its treasures.

The south west side of the Isle of Wight - still free to plunder.
Should an almost identical PRPA be adopted in the UK then? Personally, I don’t think it is that necessary whereby all vertebrate fossils are declared “off limits” to the public. I would not want to see the day where a child may pick up that first water rolled ichthyosaur vertebra and be told that they must leave it where it is. Odd elements, teeth, fish spines and scales – I see no problem with these individual fossils being picked up by anybody. It goes without saying that invertebrate and plant fossils could be taken as well.

No, the protection is needed for the more exceptional specimens such as partial and complete skeletons, complete skulls, other associated elements, track ways and other similar fossils. For me it needs to be illegal to remove these specimens without a permit and the proper permission but perhaps, unlike the American system it could be allowed that some non-professional collectors could be licensed because some of them have made fantastic contributions to science over the years. However I would quantify this by agreeing with the PRPA and would insist that all specimens must be deposited into a professional repository.

There will always be the problem of how would we would know when a significant specimen had been removed? Well apart from the physical clues one would hope the public would notify the authorities if they saw something suspicious. And the local collectors aren’t daft – they would know when something is amiss. Someone will always tell someone what they found and excavated – they always do and this will get back to others in the paleoworld. That is why we know that there are so many important specimens in private hands, not just here but all over the world.

I appreciate that a law of this nature can affect a lot of decent avocational palaeontologists out there, people who do have extensive collections and will actually leave their collections to museums, universities and the nation for the benefit of science. It is unfortunate that it could come to this and I would include myself in your number but what is the alternative?

The United States has considerable palaeontological resources – some relatively untouched. They are bigger and so much richer with the amounts of remains in some bone beds defying imagination. The Americans have done something about it and moved to protect them. The UK has little in comparison but is equally as important – and done nothing.


Please accept this post for what it is - to promote healthy discussion. It is not intended to offend any well meaning amateur collector or palaeontologist. I simply believe that perhaps it is time for some form of legislation to protect out dwindling fossil resources – before it’s too late.


Anonymous said...


This is a topic I've been following for years. There are so many conflicting points of view, value judgements, variables and "grey areas" that I don't think there is a single good answer. (Disclosure: I'm a professional geologist, but an amateur palaeontologist, in Alberta, Canada). A few random points as examples:

--Laws against amateur collecting protect fossil resources by preventing undocumented collecting. Do they really? Or do they just drive it underground? If you're an amateur collector, are you going to stop doing something for which you've had a passion all your life, just because some politicians and academics got together and said you can't? Or are you going to keep doing it (on the sly), but not report anything to the proper authorities, because your specimens are now contraband and could get you in trouble? As one example, the province of Saskatchewan (an area more than twice the size of the UK) bans ALL non-professional fossil collecting, period. Do you honestly suppose that no amateurs collect fossils there? The area is vast, and enforcement resources practically nil. Certainly if someone does collect something interesting, they aren't going to report the fact, because theoretically it could land them in jail. So how does driving collectors underground help science? Another thing: the number of professional palaeontologists in Sask. can probably be counted on one hand. So what happens to all those fossils that go uncollected? Does rock powder and ions contribute something valuable to palaeontological knowledge? Are fossils on someone's mantelpiece or display cabinet of less value than those that have been dissolved into dust?

--Who decides what's an "important fossil"? The PRPA has decided that all vertebrate fossils are more important than invertebrate and plant fossils. This includes countless billions of shark teeth, fish scales, etc., whereas "common invertebrate fossils" (what does that mean?) can be collected without restriction--presumably that would include anything new to science or extremely rare--perhaps a newly discovered Burgess Shale-type deposit? Using an example of my own home province, dinosaur bones are so common in many areas that you can hardly walk without stepping on them; meanwhile, echinoids (sea urchins/sand dollars) are so rare here that they've only been documented a few times in the literature. So how would a PRPA-type restriction make any sense in this sort of situation? (In fact, Alberta law allows surface collecting except in parks/protected areas, but bans excavation--of any sort of fossil--and commercial collecting, a reasonable compromise in my opinion. As a result there is a good, if imperfect, degree of communication between amateurs and professionals, unlike in some jurisdictions, where I would suggest that the atmosphere has been poisoned by counter-productive legislation).

--Fossils should be deposited in accredited museums, where they are available to everyone. You hear this all the time, but are they really available to everyone? How many museums allow the general public to access their collections? I suspect most museums have written policy restricting access to accredited academics (and perhaps rightly so; no doubt chaos would ensue if every Tom, Dick and Shirley were allowed to poke through the collection drawers!). If you, as an amateur, were to donate some interesting brachiopod specimens to a major museum, are you ever going to see them again? The probable answer is "no" unless it happens to be displayed in the public galleries, which is very unlikely in most cases. If, for example, you found more brachiopod specimens at a different locality, and wanted to compare them to the ones you had earlier donated to the museum, would you--as an amateur--be able to?

Anyway, there are some points to chew on--you asked for it! :-D


Mark Wildman said...

Hi Howard and thanks for reading the post in the spirit I intended and for some great comments. If I can take your points one at a time.

One of the biggest problems of all is how to enforce such legislation and you are quite correct. Where do you draw the line? But this is why I commented that some form of limited collecting regarding isolated elements and teeth etc should be permitted. To do otherwise is probably impractical. But places such as Saskatchewan have a multitude of bone bearing fossil locations, as you have pointed out. The UK is small and has very little exposures that are not vetted at some point on a weekly basis at least - or in the case of Lyme Regis as an example - on a daily basis. In your case, bone simply eroding away is unfortunate but I assure you that it is extremely unlikely to happen here.

I can't argue with you with regards to what constitutes an important fossil. Plants and invertebrates are equally as important and I admit that this is a grey area that can easily throw a spanner into any PRPA-type scheme and I confess that the answer escapes me. I was aware of the Alberta scheme and agree that it is quite a good compromise and is similar to what I would like to see here.

And, again, a good point regarding accredited museums but just because the general public may not get to see certain specimens, it does not mean that rare specimens should not be preserved for both the national heritage as well as science. I reiterate that the UK is a small country compared to some, and exposures are few, but some of the fossils are exceptional and still new specimens are coming to light and my concern is that they should be preserved for all and not the private collector.

The point about somebody who donates his fossils to the required repositry not being allowed to access them in the future is fair and perhaps highlights yet another grey area where further cooperation between the scientific community and both amateurs and general public should be exploited.

Again Howard, thank you so much for your comments and real food for thought as well.

Stu Pond said...

As an amateur palaeontologist who's been going to the Isle of Wight for around 17 years I've noticed the situation on the island change over the years. I've come to know some of the island palaeontologists and collectors quite well and they've given me some insight regarding this issue. Although I've never experienced a massive number of collectors on the beaches some days are certainly busier than others and the signs of illegal excavations are everywhere. I run any significant finds past professional palaeontologists and would gladly donate any gratis if asked but although we've lent specimens to Dinosaur Isle to display they've not been wanted for the permanent collection. They'll get all my collection when I die anyway.

It's illegal to take fossils from the cliffs without the landowners permission but this law is openly flouted. The landowners often make deals with commercial collectors and I shudder to think what is being lost to dealers; some of the stories I've heard are truly depressing and I think there is a bone from at least one undescribed species of large theropod out there. Of course much of this stuff ends up on eBay, and occasionally turns up at shows like Bakewell with little or no provenance data and erroneous identifications.

The law as it stands in unenforceable and I can see no way of enforcing it effectively enough to be a deterrent to robbers. Also, I'm not sure that a blanket ban on amateur collecting is desirable as many of the collectors on the island do report significant finds and these are often excavated by responsible and knowledgeable people. If collecting on the island was banned there's no doubt significant material would be lost to the sea, and that's as bad as loosing it to dealers.

However, the thieves are ruthless. I know of one crocodile skeleton being excavated on the island which was being saved for science. Half of the animal was dug out and when the team returned a few weeks later to retrieve the rest it was gone. It seems someone saw then digging and went back later, rooted about and took the back end of the skeleton. Now, aside from the fact it was a criminal act, what was the point of having only the back end of an animal? The team couldn't excavate the site in one go as they simply didn't have the resources.

Perhaps a more practical approach might be to make resources available where professional research palaeontologists can actually get into the field and deal with the problem by actually prospecting themselves, talking to collectors and the public on the beach to win hearts and minds and if they did find something worth digging out, actually having the time to do it. Perhaps some sort of compensation scheme might discourage landowners from making deals with shady characters. . .

But in support of further legislation the type of which discussed above, I think that new laws prohibiting removal of fossils from the cliffs might have an effect if prosecutions could be brought. My wife and I went into the Hell Creek badlands last year with a not-for-profit foundation to dig for dinosaurs. Whilst prospecting we crossed Bureau of Land Management property to get to our site (on a private ranch). We found the fossils of dinosaurs, crocodiles and champosaurs on this land, and the dig leaders made it quite clear that not a shard of bone was to be removed from the public lands. They were rigorous in enforcing this rule even though it meant these fossils would be lost to weathering, and often weren't scientifically valuable as they had many specimens or were in poor condition; if there was any doubt as to whether we were even on public land, the fossils were left untouched. The guys over in the US were well informed about the laws they work under, is that always the case for collectors on the UK?

So perhaps education might play a role in protecting our heritage too?

Mark Wildman said...

Thanks for the excellent comments Stu - really useful input. The same thing that you mentioned regarding the crocodile specimen happened to an almost complete specimen of Peloneustes that was in the process of being collected a couple of years ago in the Oxford Clay and I blogged about here - really quite disgraceful.

Everything else you have mentioned is more or less spot on and I completely agree with what you have said. Education is a large part of the solution but still the biggest problem, as you say, are the illegal collectors. Until something can be done about them, the biggest problem remains. And right now it is hard to believe that the will and the resources are there to do anything about it. Sad but true.

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