Monday, August 08, 2005

Fossil poaching

Fossil Poachers Find Easy Pickings on Remote Federal Land - New York Times:
Evidence of poaching shows up nearly every week, Ms. Beasley said. Exposed holes and excavation tools are routinely found on the federally protected grasslands. Of more than 162 grassland areas identified in the 1990's as holding fossils, about 30 percent showed evidence of poaching, Ms. Beasley said.

Dinosaur fossils also turn up by the hundreds at fossil shows, in catalogs and on Internet auction sites.

"We have researchers and academic scientists who find our permitting process difficult and just decide to go around it," Ms. Beasley said. "But a lot of them just want to sell fossils."

The sales can be lucrative. Fossilized skulls of prehistoric animals can sell for thousands of dollars. In June, a saber-toothed-cat skull sold for $32,312 at a Bonhams & Butterfields natural history auction.

The three poachers who were convicted in the 2003 case were ordered to pay $2,000 each.
There are occasional moves in the museum world to restrict sales of fossils. It's a tough issue. A lot of scientists got started by wandering around out in the hills, poking under rocks, digging up fossils, skinning small birds and mammals or pinning insects. That's where the next generation of scientist comes from, and I think people should be encouraged to do those things as adults or as kids.

In principle, no one minds if someone picks up the skull of a road-killed wolverine, or a feather that fell off of an eagle. If a person from the Fish and Wildlife Service finds either, though, you're going to get to know your lawyer really well. You can't collect the remains of endangered species or migratory birds. It's illegal. The reason is that it's impossible to distinguish a skull taken from roadkill from a skull taken from a wolverine you shot and skinned. Allowing the ownership and trade in those specimens without a clear permitting process was letting too many specimens get taken by scientists, amateur collectors, and professional traders alike.

The same problem would emerge even if commercial sales were banned. A population of endangered butterflies would turn up, and nerds like me would show up with nets and killing jars, all trying to add the rare whatever to their personal collection. Net result: a more endangered butterfly.

I don't know the answer to this. I tend to feel like the increased reach of the law into the wilderness makes it harder for kids to get into the outdoors.

I think that this disconnect actually feeds the inability of people to appreciate the logic of evolution. Remember, the discoverers of evolution, Darwin and Wallace, were both notable first and foremost as collectors. The more they saw of the diversity of life, the more a particular pattern started to emerge.

The pattern was of variation within a species that was at times indistinguishable from variation above the species level. They also started seeing the hierarchy of species not just as the ad hoc Linnaean groupings, but as a pattern of small variations from common ancestors.

When people only know birds from the the field guides and binoculars, they get used to typological thinking, the idea that all the robins are made in the same mold. When you handle a few birds, a few mice, a few flies, you see the error of that mode of thought, and evolution clicks in a way it wouldn't otherwise.