Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks
Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks

ThinkGeek selling fossils illustrates the problems of selling fossils

Update Note: no longer an active sale, apparently because ThinkGeek has sold all the items they purchased.

So ThinkGeek, for maybe a week and a half or so, has offered up this item for sale.


As you can see in the comments there (Update Note 1: comments removed ... Update Note 2: sales page also gone now), some members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP, an organization of which artiofab is a member) did not take this sale of fossils very well. It started getting ThinkGeek some not-so-good press (e.g. paleontologist Lisa Buckley writing at her blog three days ago, paleontologist Lee Hall writing at his blog two days ago, and Victoria McNally writing at The Mary Sue yesterday). So as of yesterday1, apparently, ThinkGeek has, at least temporarily, put the item off of sale, with this note:

Many of you have concerns about these dinosaur bone fragments and we want to take a moment to address that. We agree that harvesting fossils from federal and public land is not only wrong, it's illegal. The vendor that supplies us with these specimens has confirmed that they have been obtained from privately leased lands and out of situ.

An independent scientist has also examined our specimens, and has determined that there is no scientific value that can be gained from the fossils in their current state, which confirms what a large number of you have also stated.

Here's what is going to happen next: We've put the sale of the fossils on hold for now because next week there is an annual gathering of paleontologists and we are expecting that they will publish a letter on the topic of selling fossils. We will abide by their decision. For now, thank you for your thoughts and passion, and please be sure to respect each other in the comments


To translate some of that for all y'all:

`US federal law currently says that any vertebrate 2 fossils found on, or in, federal land (aka public land) are owned by the US federal government. It doesn't matter if it's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, or National Park Service (NPS) land, or US Armed Forces land. Fossils are treated like any other natural resource, and their ownership can only be leased to private individuals/corporations/NGOs/whatever with the US federal government's consent. So if ThinkGeek was selling fossils collected on public land they'd be in trouble.


`Therefore ThinkGeek explicitly states that these fossils were collected from private lands (meaning that US federal and state laws allow them to be harvested and sold) and were ex situ, which ThinkGeek calls "out of situ". In situ basically means "in place". An in situ fossil has not been moved by recent human or geological activity; it still has its original location in three-dimensional space, which paleontologists care about when trying to interpret fossil localities. Ex situ therefore means "out of place", so these fossils have weathered out of a rock and were probably just collected on a surface.

`ThinkGeek says an independent scientist (a paleontologist? maybe?) has examined the fossils for sale and determined they have no scientific value. This phrase shows up because when vertebrate paleontologists discuss fragmentary vertebrate fossils we talk about their scientific value. Here's another way of saying that, from the SVP's bylaws:

The barter, sale, or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust. Any other trade or commerce in scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is inconsistent with the foregoing, in that it deprives both the public and professionals of important specimens, which are part of our natural heritage.


Is ThinkGeek being bad?

It looks like ThinkGeek is doing everything they can to sell dinosaur fossils without upsetting the constraints that the SVP wants commercial fossil operations to operate within. They're probably not selling scientifically significant vertebrate fossils; they're selling fragments of what they're identifying as hadrosaurid dinosaur bones from Montana, presumably from Late Cretaceous-aged rocks in Montana.


Where the issues lie are in two things.

Firstly, who is determining whether these are or aren't scientifically significant vertebrate fossils? ThinkGeek says they're using an independent scientist, but they don't indicate what discipline this scientist is in. And ... ... and I hate to say this like this, but commercial paleontologists do sometimes lie about where they find fossils or what they are. Obviously #notallcommercialpaleontologists is in effect here but it's happened enough that companies which sell fossils should be diligent and double-check things if they can. Just in case they're selling an illegally-harvested Tyrannosaurus bataar from Mongolia which was imported into the US from the UK illegally as well. Ahem and ahem.


Secondly, some members of the SVP have ethical problems with the sale of fossils if these sales do not place the fossils into a public repository3. In short, they would much rather that there be as little of a commercial market for fossils as is possible, and they view sales of fossils very warily and critically. Having spoken to several fellow members and having read discussions of others, there is no Official SVP Ruling on the sale of fossils besides the section of the bylaws I quoted above. Some members wish that things were less restricted, whereas other wish that things were much more restricted.


The reasons why some SVP members want tougher restrictions on fossil sales are illustrated in the comments over at ThinkGeek.

`Unless a fossil locality has a particular geochemical or radioactive signal to it, it's difficult to determine (and often impossible to determine from sight alone) that a fossil is definitely from a particular location. Hadrosaurs are common from Late Cretaceous rocks of Montana ... and neighboring Alberta, where all fossils are legally not allowed to leave the country without the direct permission of Queen Elizabeth II and/or her officially-designated representatives. If these fossils are from Alberta, ThinkGeek is in violation of international law. Hopefully they trust their dealer.


`Illegal commercial paleontology, or to be less wordy, fossil poaching, has literally stolen fossils that legally-operating field operations have partially uncovered. Like, literally. This practice has been going on for a long time but it is trending towards being a more noticeable drain on fossil resources over time.


`Some practitioners of commercial paleontology try to sell preferentially to museums, but not all do, and fossils end up in private hands. Mika McKinnon on the io9 frontpage has written about some of the problems with this, but, in short, fossils in private hands are in dire threat of losing their scientific value and are (usually) off-limits to scientific research. If fossils are objects of scientific value, not commercial value, then it's a major problem if Nicolas Cage owns a tyrannosaur.


`The tragedy of the commons and/or slippery slope arguments. Some of the people who want to push for the SVP to push for stronger restrictions on fossil sales do so from one of those two places. They, correctly, point out that one person selling one fossil fragment is not a problem, but 1 million selling 1 million fragments can be. Fossils are a limited non-renewable resource, and mining for them in large quantities should be regulated. Relatedly, once consumers think that scientifically insignificant fossils have a commercial value, then they might think scientifically significant fossils have a larger commercial value. So, semi-hypothetically, a private landowner who, say, has a tyrannosaur on their property might want $$$ for it, when a local museum can only afford $$. If a private commercial paleontologist offers $$$, then the tyrannosaur ends up in private hands...

What can ThinkGeek do to positively move forward

The solution that would please the strictest members of the SVP would be if ThinkGeek took its dinosaur fossils off of sale, immediately and forever. While part of me recognizes the value in such a wish, I think that ThinkGeek can salvage itself from this situation and also make some ethical cash, if they do something along the lines of the following:

`Get in touch with at least two professional paleontologists who represent different institutions. These at least two paleontologists don't have to be employed in academia but it looks better if at least one of them is.


`Have these at least two paleontologists verify that the fossil locality where these fossils are coming from is a fossil locality, on privately-leased land, and that the fossils are of low-to-no scientific significance. Basically have professionals assure potential that these are "ethically-sourced" fossils.

`Donate some of the profit to a good cause. ThinkGeek is apparently headquartered in Fairfax Virginia, a half-hour drive away from the Smithsonian Institute. The SI would like money. They could use it to properly curate the millions of fossils they curate which have been legally collected on US public lands! (Update Note: they did contribute profits from their sales to the SI's science education program)


Are fossil sales doomed to be unethical?

Illustration for article titled ThinkGeek selling fossils illustrates the problems of selling fossils

I get rattled when I see fossils for sale. But right now commercial paleontology is a big business, it's getting larger every year, and I don't think that that non-commercial paleontology is going to be able to ever stop its more revenue-driven partner from existing.

And honestly we shouldn't be interested in stopping it. Some of the greatest fossils that are in the public trust, inside museums, are fossils which were collected by commercial paleontologists. People have made their careers on finding fossils, carefully digging them up, and preferentially selling them to museums.


Those people need to be encouraged, not shunned by implicitly or explicitly lumping them with fossil poachers.

I think it's possible to have ethically-sourced fossil scrap sales. Like the fossil elephant chunk from Indonesia in the above picture. If someone wanted to sell that, and they followed all national and international laws concerning fossil sales, I do not think it would hurt paleontology to do so.


I applaud my fellow members of the SVP for being critical with ThinkGeek. They did something without thinking very thoroughly, and they needed to be told that they were stepping on very thin ice. But if paleontology is trying to restrict unethical fossil sales, it has bigger fish to fry.

UPDATE 1: Most everything above I wrote on 2 November, and either today (15 November) or yesterday (14 November), ThinkGeek put the hadrosaur chunks back on sale. Here's their new block of green text.

Thank you, everyone, for the passionate discussions that have been taking place over the last few weeks. Ultimately, we're going to ask you to trust us. Our vendor has guaranteed us that the fragments that we are selling are from private lands and are also found ex situ. Further, we have had an independent scientist in the field personally review the fossils for us, with the sample hand delivered. His conclusion was that these fragments held no scientific value because of their condition.

ThinkGeek will continue to sell our remaining inventory, the profits of which will be donated to the Smithsonian Institute's Q?rius program. Not only is the Smithsonian our local museum, but it hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and is well worth it.

Finally, we're going to be turning off the comments section on this page. Unfortunately, while much of the discussion has been thoughtful, there have been a few people making personal attacks on others and that is something that we cannot abide. We know you'll understand.

When it comes down to it, the fossils that we're selling are meant to inspire a whole new generation of paleontologists. Thank you for helping us accomplish that.


Here's my thoughts on this new block of text.

UPDATE 2: I guess the remaining inventory is gone, as the sales page is gone as of today, 17 November.


This write-up first published circa 14:30MST on 2 November 2014. If any updates occur because ThinkGeek changes their practices, then times of updates will be mentioned here. The update about ThinkGeek putting the fossils back on sale was published circa 9:30MST on 15 November 2014. The update about ThinkGeek removing the sales page was published circa 1530MST on 17 November 2014.

Image of a fossil elephant chunk from this blog.

1 This post originally mistakenly claimed that Think Geek removed the item for sale today. Lisa Buckley's blog tells me it was yesterday, and in that blog post she offers lots of great ideas for how people can financially support paleontology without purchasing fossils.

2 This originally made it sound like any fossil collected on public land in the US can only be collected with the express permission of the US federal government. This is not true, as was pointed out by a comment. My apologies for this initial mistake. Current US federal law allows for collecting of non-scientifically significant invertebrate and plant fossils on National Forest and BLM land. If you really want to go out and collect fossils be responsible and check the laws before doing so.

3 I initially wrote this section in a way that made it sound as if some members of the SVP never, ever, want any kind of fossil, ever, sold. I have rewritten to make it sound less extreme and to better explain this position. Thanks to this thread for showing me where and why I needed to correct this section.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter