A Few Notes on Amateur Paleontology
by Bruce L. Stinchcomb, Ph.D.

"Amateur" in its original meaning refers to someone who does something for the love of it rather than doing it for profit. Amateur paleontology is just that: doing something fossil related (often collecting) for the love of it rather than for a profit. Amateur paleontology also has a rich and long history in its contribution to geology and the consequent documentation of the fossil record. For 200 years amateur paleontologists have located and obtained a sizeable part of the fossil record. Most of these fossils ultimately find their way into academia (museums, geology departments and other scientific collections). Lately, however, amateur paleontology has been getting some "bad press". Terms like hoarding and pillaging of the fossil record are heard being applied to the "non-professional". Amateur collecting is thus being cast in a negative light by a vocal minority with a possible hidden agenda. Such epithets are being leveled even though the same cooperation exists today with the scientific community as existed during the last century.

What has happened? Enter political activities and dinosaurs. Until the dinosaur craze, ALA Jurassic Park, paleontology received a minimum of public attention, and what went on in the field was of little interest except to its small coterie of aficionados. Things today, however, are different. Paleontology today in some ways is in the "lime light". Showy fossils currently can bring "big bucks" as designer items for persons who twenty or more years ago wouldn't even have looked at a fossil.

Movement of fossils and paleontology into the marketplace has both its good and bad consequences. A good outcome, which has unfortunately so far failed to materialize, would be more support for the science of paleontology. A good side that has materialized is that a lot of fossils which otherwise would be destroyed by weathering and/or mining are being saved. Unfortunate but true, the fact remains that unless a fossil is readily convertible into cash, quarry workers and owners usually don't care if what they uncover goes into the crusher or not. But now fossils can be a sort of profitable byproduct of these activities. With a cash value, some scientifically valuable and fantastic specimens are being saved which would otherwise be destroyed. Look at the sharks teeth, fossil turtles and crocodiles from phosphate mines in Morocco. The plethora of trilobites, early ammonites and other Paleozoic fossils also coming from Morocco would also be unavailable and would remain in the rocks to weather away if they were not collected.

The down side of this marketplace attitude is that specimens become expensive for science, and available funds for science are limited. Also, landowners become less inclined to allow scientific collection of fossils without some sort of financial reward. Dealers in fossils also may become less inclined to donate scientifically valuable specimens to science if their monetary value is jacked up.

Some members of the paleontological community, particularly in vertebrate paleontology, have bemoaned this trend and have proposed legislative solutions for it. The Baucus Bill and proposals of SAFE (Save America's Fossils for Everyone) are recent examples. To someone unfamiliar with geology, these legislative solutions seem appropriate and reasonable. "After all, shouldn't something millions of years old be treasured and legislatively protected?" From this mindset has crept various state and provincial anti-collecting legislation, the goal of which is to prohibit collecting by amateurs on public land, but which has also aided in the increasing difficulty of access to private lands. This driving of a "wedge" between amateurs and academics by legislative proposals is hurting paleontology. Proponents for "paleontological regulation" envision federal legislation similar to the 1979 Archaeological Resource Protection Act. This act in itself has also contributed to reduction of paleontological access, as many landowners are unclear as to the distinction between archaeology and paleontology.

Nature has emplaced enough hurdles and barriers for acquisition of her fossils without manmade ones! The enthusiastic person will sometimes transcend nature's barriers and discover scientifically new and interesting specimens. This should continue into the future if unimpeded, since there are vast numbers of fossils in the rocks of the earth's crust, and vast numbers of fossils of organisms in the rocks are still unknown to science. What is really the most valuable commodity in the acquisition of scientifically new material in paleontology is the enthusiastic person (amateur or academic) who as a consequence of this enthusiasm transcends those barriers nature has placed on the acquisition of her fossils. [The consequence of additional manmade barriers] is that much less is collected! -- and more is destroyed. Thus the potential available paleontological data base thins. With manmade barriers, wedges are also often driven between the "professional" and amateur effectively limiting or even destroying communication between these two groups; it is science that in the long run suffers. This sorry state has happened in many instances in archaeology and its embryonic stages are beginning to be felt in paleontology.

If activist groups such as SAFE want to constructively assist paleontology, focusing upon the amateur in a positive rather than negative way will be more fruitful. The organization and encouragement of amateur paleontologists of the Chicago area by Eugene Richardson of the Field Museum for combing the Braidwood and Essex spoil piles might be alluded to. Here members of ESCONI and other geohobbyist groups scoured these areas for their unique fossils which consequently enabled the Essex and Braidwood faunas to become one of the world's "paleontologic windows". [Also,] the bus loads of amateurs who comb the Lee Creek phosphate mines of North Carolina and the Eastern Missouri Society for Paleontology's salvaging [of] Mississippian echinoderms from the Hannibal cement quarries are current examples of this working relationship. A coalition between amateur and academic paleontology would be a much more positive undertaking than is the confrontational atmosphere which seems to be in the process of developing.

A few examples of localities which have the potential of producing scientifically valuable fossils by amateurs but which have become almost inaccessible because of manmade barriers are as follows:

1. Silurian dolomites and Waterlimes quarried near Kokomo, Indiana. Giant eurypteroids and Silurian land plants. Current quarry operators have been uncooperative for years.
2. Mudstone layer in late Chesterian strata exposed in the working Goreville Quarry, Illinois. Could produce articulated Mississippian amphibians and lungfish.
3. Dimension stone quarries in late Precambrian? and Cambrian blanket sandstones in the southern part of the Canadian Shield of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Could produce "new" vendozoan fauna.
4. Slabby layers in St. Louis and Salem Formations of the St. Louis, Missouri area. Unusual echinoderms and unique land plants.

A Few Notes on Amateur Paleontology
MAPS Digest, March & May-June 1999; Vol. 22, No. 3 & 5
Bruce Stinchcomb

Bruce L. Stinchcomb is a retired professor of geology; he taught at St. Louis Community College, Florissant Valley (in the St. Louis metropolitan area), for 35 years. Dr. Stinchcomb also worked in the mineral industry as an exploration geologist in Wyoming, Montana, Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Alaska. He has published extensively on early fossil mollusks, specifically monoplacophorans and multi-plated mollusks of the Ozarks, as well as on Precambrian stromatolites and problematic fossils. He also worked with Mesozoic rocks in his home state of Missouri, as well as in Arkansas, Alabama, Texas, South Dakota, and in Germany and Mexico.. He holds a B.S. and Ph.D. in geology from the University of Missouri (now Missouri University of Science and Technology) in Rolla, and an M.A. from Washington University, St. Louis. He is a member of the Paleontological Society and MAPS (Mid American Paleontological Society), and is also a founding member of EMSP (Eastern Missouri Society for Paleontology).

A Few Notes on Amateur Paleontology
Bruce L. Stinchcomb
MAPS Digest, March & May-June 1999; Vol. 22, No. 3 & 5

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