DinoByte Wednesday: Who Owns the Fossils?

So you’ve managed to stumble upon a fossil, either intentionally or unintentionally. As an amateur paleontologist you are thrilled with your discovery, but now what? Do you own all rights to this fossil? Well, the short answer is no.

DIG Field School participant holds microfossil found in the Hell Creek. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
DIG Field School participant holds a Triceratops tooth microfossil found in the Hell Creek. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

Fossil ownership primarily depends on whether it was found on private or public land. Let’s use the state of Montana, the site of the DIG Field School as an example. In Montana, every piece of land is owned by someone. This could mean an individual land owner, a nature preserve, the residents of the state of Montana, or even all the people of the United States. For this reason, it is imperative to get permission to search for fossils. During the DIG Field School, we dig on private land at the generosity of the landowners, on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge local nature preserve, on state land run by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. As you can see, there is a diversity of landownership where fossils are collected during the DIG. If you decide to further explore Montana or return later and dig on your own, it is wise to check with local authorities, museums, collectors, and a map to know exactly who owns the land you want to explore.

DIG Executive Director Greg Wilson shows undergraduate students land ownership, latitude, and longitude for sites of the DIG Field School in the Hell Creek. Green on the map indicates the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, blue is state land, and yellow is federal land. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
DIG Executive Director Greg Wilson shows undergraduate students latitude, longitude, and land ownership for field sites in the Hell Creek. Montana is a patchwork quilt of landownership: green on the map indicates the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, blue is state land, and yellow is federal land; each little square is 1 sq mile. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

DIG Field School Executive Director, Greg Wilson, obtains permits and/or permission through the Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle to dig so if you’re out collecting with us, we’ve got you covered. Many of the fossils we find in Montana are collected on either state-owned or federally-owned public lands. Specimens collected in Montana must be stored in Montana’s official state repository, the Museum of the Rockies. The Museum of the Rockies loans many of the fossils we find to the Burke Museum of Natural History so we can continue our research once we return to Seattle. Collecting from state and national parks remains prohibited.

Students touring the Burke Museum of Natural History examine the mammoth tusk found at a construction site in Seattle. Photo credit: Burke Museum of Natural History.
Children on the DIG behind-the-scenes tour of the Burke Museum of Natural History examine the mammoth tusk found at a construction site in South Lake Union Seattle this spring. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

If a fossil is collected on private land, it belongs to the landowner and they reserve the right to keep anything found on their property. Earlier this year, a fossilized mammoth tusk was found underneath a construction site in Seattle. This discovery was made on private land, and suddenly the residential developer who owned the land also owned a mammoth-sized tusk! Luckily, the company donated the tusk to the Burke Museum of Natural History, and skilled paleontologists excavated the material in a quick three days to best preserve the tusk before construction resumed. Based on pollen, soil, and the context of the find, the nearly 9 foot long mammoth tusk is estimate to be between 16,000 and 60,000 years old! Now safe in the Burke Museum, it is currently encased in plaster to facilitate drying and preserve the tusk. In a year, it will be opened again and further studied. Such a find gives paleontologists important information about the paleoenvironment during that time.

Members of the Burke Museum of Natural History team, prepare to lift the plaster encased mammoth tusk found at a construction site onto a palette for transport to the Burke Museum. From left to right, Vertebrate Paleontology Curator Christian Sidor, Dave DeMar, Bruce Crowley, and Burke Volunteer Bax Barton. Photo credit: Burke Museum of Natural History.
Members of the Burke Museum of Natural History team prepare to lift the plaster encased mammoth tusk found at a construction site in Seattle onto a palette for transport to the Burke Museum. From left to right, Burke Vertebrate Paleontology Curator Christian Sidor, UW Graduate Student Dave DeMar, Burke Preparator Bruce Crowley, and Burke Volunteer Bax Barton. Photo credit: Burke Museum of Natural History (view more pictures).

Watch the CNN story about the discovery here.

Next week, we’ll get an update from the field where the DIG Team is currently leading a UW undergraduate course, Paleontology Field Methods and Research!

 

 

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