The Fossil Black Market is Huge, Illegal, and Very Profitable

Nicolas Cage pulls up to a seemingly empty pier in the middle of the night and gets out of his car, flipping up the collar of his jacket to hide his face. He hurries to a dark corridor between two storage containers, where a mysterious silhouette is waiting. The actor passes over a briefcase full of money, and the figure opens his trenchcoat to reveal the skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar. This isn't a scene from the third "National Treasure" movie. It's (basically) something that really happened — and although Nic was caught, you'd better believe that business in the fossil black market is still booming.

A Big Problem, No Bones About It

Sometimes, black market fossils are stolen from legitimate collections. But most of the time, they're literally just pulled up from the ground. And that sort of begs the question — what's the problem, if the people selling them are the same people who dug them up?

For the same reason that you're not allowed to just sell cheetahs, whether you stole them from a zoo, caught them on the savannah, or raised them from cubs. There are only so many fossils in the world, and the paleontological community would appreciate it if laypeople would leave the collecting to them.

Many times, fossil sites are protected by laws meant to keep the bones in the academic world. When poachers roll through in search of valuable claws and teeth, they leave broken bits and pieces in their wake. Many countries that have an abundance of dinosaur bones, including the United States, have laws on the books to explicitly prohibit removing significant finds from the ground. So when a set of prehistoric footprints goes missing, for example, officials take recovery very seriously.

A Scientific Loss

Here's why it's so important to keep valuable fossils out of the hands of private collectors: they just don't know what to do with them. It's vitally important that fossilized skeletons are properly documented, and very few laypeople have the background (and tools) it takes to do so. That means keeping track of the condition that the fossil was found in, plus keeping a record of tests and conservation attempts carried out to ensure that whoever handles the piece in the future will do it right.

Without that documentation, the fossil becomes essentially useless for science. Even if the fossil finds its way back into the hands of the experts, it doesn't do them much good if they don't know what's happened to it in the meantime. Maybe this T. rex is a subspecies with fewer teeth than others — or maybe they were just given away to the previous owners' frat bros.

To be clear, it is possible to purchase fossils for yourself without breaking laws or endangering the practice of paleontology. You just have to be aware of what you're getting. Are you buying a trilobite from a museum's gift shop? They've probably already determined that there's nothing more they can learn from it. Find a triceratops skull on eBay? Maybe you should alert the dino-police.

Want to learn more about black market fossils? Check out John Long's "The Dinosaur Dealers", a true crime investigation into the theft of several valuable footprints from a sacred Aboriginal site. When you make a purchase from that link, you help to support Curiosity.

Inside The Dinosaur Fossil Black Market

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 23, 2017

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