Paleontology Ethics

This page was written by Ewan Wolff, Montana State University Geoscience Education Web Development Team

Paleontologists huddle around a plaster jacket at a Petrified Forest NM digsite. Details

What is this page about?

Although some types of fossils are harder to reach or recognize, is easy to learn how to collect them. However, paleontology is not just 'digging up fossils.' The difficult part is knowing whether it is legal and/or ethical to do so. If no information is recorded about the fossil when it is removed from the ground, the specimen is lost to science. Over the years, much information has been lost about fossils through innocent collecting by tourists on vacation, commercial collecting, looting, and haphazard data collection. At one point in time, concerns about fossil ethics were mainly felt by scientists, but now with strict collecting laws and permitting requirements in place, unethical collecting may lead to a stiff fine, and even imprisonment. For instance, in England you can collect dinosaurs between the high water and low water marks on the beaches, but if you tried to collect a mosasaur without a permit on the shores of Fort Peck Lake in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana, you would find yourself in prison or heavily fined.

Knowing the Boundaries Between Legal and Illegal

The instilment of fossil collecting ethics does not mean that the days of fossil collecting are over, but that amateurs and professionals alike must be aware of the rules that apply to the type of land one is on (private, federal, state). Some general guidelines are:

  • It is often legal to collect many fossils (brachiopods, trilobites, clams and most invertebrates, petrified wood), BUT one must be careful as laws vary.
  • It is ALWAYS illegal to collect fossils or even rocks in National Parks and Monuments.
  • Collecting on private land is at the discretion of the land owner.
  • Even if on private land, if a find seems unusual or unique, collectors are encouraged to bring their finds to the attention of researchers, as there is important information in precisely how and where the fossils are in the ground.

Government organizations have a permitting structure in place for people to apply to surface collecting or excavating fossils on public land if there is a scientific purpose.

If you can not manage to get a permit, please do not collect illegally!

There are other ways to satisfy your thirst for paleontology. Consider the numerous digs going on around the nation and the world with universities or natural history museums.

Also, if you have to have that shark tooth, or a clam shell, think about visiting a state park where you can collect legally like Flag Pond Nature Park in Calvert County, Maryland, or collect 25 lbs. of fossil wood on a day excursion in Montana on BLM land for personal use.

If you find something significant, leave it in place!

Go and tell an official about the location, and give them your contact information. If you keep in touch, they will probably send you pictures if it turns out to be a good find.


Knowing the Boundaries Between Ethical and Unethical

Ethics are of great concern to academics and other professionals in paleontology. You can not belong to a single major professional society without being conscious of ethics. Some ethical codes are more severe than others, but one thing is clear, you can not collect illegally, and in some cases, you can not trade in fossils and be a paleontologist in the organization because it is a conflict of interest.

Many associations are quite clear on their ethical guidelines. Here is one important example: