Internet Blamed for increase in Fossil Thefts

Officials from the American Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are blaming the Internet and the web auctions for an increase in vertebrate fossil thefts from public land in the United States.

Federal officials from the BLM in conjunction with the local law enforcement agencies are investigating another incident of stealing fossilised dinosaur bones in what has been termed a “brazen theft” from what was thought to be a secret location in Central Utah where a team of scientists were excavating a number of specimens.

Sadly, such incidents are becoming increasingly common as amateurs and other fossil prospectors try to extract fossils, either for their own collections but more likely to sell on at a huge profit.

Experts say the raid on the Utah location is another glaring example of fossil theft, a widespread problem in the age of the Internet, where auction sites and specialist forums for fossil sales are common place.

Speaking on behalf of the BLM, paleontologist Scott Foss said, “the theft like this, it happens quite a bit. And when it does, it’s very tragic.”

Foss doesn’t want us to say where the theft occurred.  However, he was prepared to meet reporters at a separate location, where a team of scientists are working on another dinosaur discovery.  At this site, he explained to journalists how the palaeontologists carefully excavate the precious fossils and then protect them with burlap and plaster jackets to protect the exposed parts of the fossil from bad weather and as preparation for lifting and removal.

Commenting on the fossil theft Mr Foss stated: “the thieves found some of these jackets. Whether it was malicious or just curiosity, they removed the jackets.  Some bones were stolen and some of the bones that were left behind were vandalised”.

What would somebody do with stolen dinosaur bones? Sadly there are plenty of people around ready to pay large sums of money to get their hands on a rare specimen.  For Foss, he had heard of fossils being sold for up to $20,000.

Fossils are commonly sold on eBay, on private collector Web sites, and sites run by commercial companies. But the BLM suspects much of the merchandise is stolen from public land.

Under U.S. legislation, collecting fossils is allowed on public land for personal use if the fossils are remnants of plants, such as petrified wood, or of invertebrate animals, such as trilobites, ammonites or belemnites.

However, collecting with the sole intention of selling is not allowed.

For dinosaur-related fossils on public land, even dinosaur footprints, it’s against the law to collect them at all.

“Vertebrate fossils cannot be sold legally if they came from public lands. There are no exceptions to that rule,” Foss said.

The BLM says many Internet buyers either don’t realise or don’t care that they’re encouraging theft of treasures owned by the public.   Such acts not only deny scientists the opportunity to carefully remover and study a fossil, but also deny the public from ever seeing that fossil on display.

On private land there are no laws against collecting and selling fossils.  Buying fossils on sites such as EBay can be fraught with problems, especially for the unwary.  Although there are a number of genuine and legitimate retailers, our own team members at Everything Dinosaur have come across incidents of fossils not turning out to be quite what they seem.  Crocodile teeth have been readily passed off as Spinosauridae and some of the descriptions given have at the very least been very misleading.

Thieves can expect harsh punishments from the U.S. if they are caught and the same can be said for the dealers and sellers too.

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