INTRODUCING STUDENTS TO THE CONTROVERSIES SURROUNDING THE OWNERSHIP AND SALE OF FOSSILS
Classroom lectures about the laws and ethics of fossil collecting and purchasing of fossils can create an engaging environment that allows students to wrestle with this complex topic. Several approaches can introduce the laws passed to protect historic artifacts, starting with the Antiquities Act of 1906 to the formation of the National Park system. There can also be a debate about the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act introduced in 2001 and the resulting attachment to the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. The discussion can then move on to fossils found on federal land versus private property, and what a landowner “can” vs. “should” do with a fossil discovery.
The classroom discussion can address the selling of fossils through fossil shows or online bidding. For example, fossils can be purchased through eBay, and students can discuss whether it is appropriate to have online sales of Earth’s natural resources. Students can also be introduced to entire dinosaur skeletons that have been auctioned online, such as the Tyrannosaurs rex “Mr. Z-Rex” on eBay in July 1999 and Lycos/Millionaire.com in January 2000. More recently, the possibly fossil-trafficked Tarbosaurus bataar was auctioned in the United States in 2012 for $1.05 million. At a minimum, students should review the classic case study of dinosaur ownership and sale, the Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue, currently on display at The Field Museum in Chicago.
Should fossils always be handed over to scientists for study? Can fossils go to the highest bidder and be hidden away from the public? Are the laws adequate to protect fossil specimens? These questions and more can lead to a lively classroom discussion relating to Earth’s geologic and biologic history, and an opportunity to show students the connections between science, politics, and society.