David Cook

Book Reviewed: 
Sidetracked

David Cook, BC Nature Magazine

Primarily a prolific travel writer, Vivien Lougheed was unexpectedly side-tracked into the field of investigative reporting when she was approached with the suggestion that she write a book about Dr. Garnet Fraser MD, an amateur palaeontologist, who had discovered a dinosaur trackway in a remote part of northeastern BC. He was having trouble gaining recognition and cooperation from scientists and various levels of authority to record and work on his discovery. Lougheed soon recognized the broader issue, the need of professional palaeontologists, amateur palaeontologists, fossil collectors and government to be able to work together, if the rich fossil history of BC, Alberta and beyond were to be discovered, recorded and preserved in an amicable and scientific manner.

Using the trials and tribulations of Fraser and others as they progress towards these ideals, Lougheed tackles solutions to the various issues that arise in the battle of all fossil discoverers and collectors in their efforts to progress in the field to which they are so passionately dedicated.

The author is adept at outlining the history and value of fossil hunting, the discoveries and importance of amateurs in finding these sites, the vulnerability of sites to erosion, and the problem of not having enough experts to work on them and to keep up with the rate of discovery. The author introducres the main argument in her thesis; the high potential for conflict between amateur collectors and the scientists each of whom has their own agenda mainly revolving around recognition and ownership.

There are in-depth discussions of the evolution of legislation regarding fossils in Canada both at the Federal and Provincial levels, with USA comparisons. The author points out how many of these laws had their birth in self-regulating professional organizations such as the Royal Society of London and more recently the BC Palaeontological Alliance. She points out the low level of recognition for amateur fossil hunters who have made significant discoveries and the fact that, unlike the USA, there are no awards for amateur palaeontologists in Canada.

There are many examples where discoverers have in good faith told others of their finds only to discover that recognition for their discovery has been stolen. Such experiences have taught many fossil hunters to "do their own thing" and keep their discoveries to themselves. The result can be a hindrance to the advancement of science.

The reader is drawn into the drama of how the experts and people in aurthority can squeeze out the efforts and enthusiasm of a dedicated amateur collector. The climax of the book describes how Fraser and his team, while keeping to the letter of the law as they understood it, made castings of a dinosaur trackway in Kakwa Provincial Park. After sucessfully completing their work and still in the field, they are invaded by park officials who confiscated their cassts, tracings and photographs, an action which subequently proved to be illegal. The amateurs had won that round.

The Epilogue summarises the problems of palaeontology in BC, particularly that of large vertebrate fossils and emphasises the need for the training of amateurs, the establishment of museums and research centres in the areas of discovery for public education, and above all the need for cooperation among the small number of scientists and the potentially large numbers of non-professional fossil hunters. Achieving these goals are not easy tasks mainly because of a dependence on funding. Legislation is essential in BC to protect our fossils, to give incentive to and facilitate cooperation between amateurs, collectors, private commercial sellers and professionals.

Reviewer bio: 

David Cook, is Chair of the Nature Vancouver Geology Section and Coordinator of the Botany Section Lectures.