David Raup

Book Reviewed: 

Dr. David Raup, paleontologist

This book is a triumph of investigative journalism – even though I doubt its author thinks of herself as either a journalist or an investigator. She has tackled a minefield of contradictions and conflicts. Who should collect fossils? Who is qualified to excavate ancient bones, shells or plants? Should fossils on public land be treated differently from those on private property? Is it appropriate to buy or sell fossils? And should these questions be legislated and policed or left to local custom?

Unfortunately, these questions and many more like them have led to serious conflicts, court battles, and in at least one case, prison (though not in British Columbia). In its simplest guise, the conflict pits dedicated amateurs (perhaps collecting on weekends or vacation) against professional paleontologists (professors or museum curators). The amateur wants help with identifications and maybe some credit for the find. The professional may want to be able to prepare and study the fossils and perhaps publish papers about them. It could be a win-win balance.

But behind this seemingly simple scenario lie innumerable points of friction and conflict. I remember some of my colleagues in paleontology complaining bitterly a few years ago about a popular book about fossils that gave detailed directions to good collecting localities. My friends didn’t want good localities messed up – this despite the fact that over the years amateurs have been responsible for most of the really important fossil finds, for the simple reason that only amateurs can afford the time it takes to find the rarest species.

Lougheed has delved deeply into a nest of such problems involving BC fossils – most notably the spectacularly preserved tracks of dinosaurs in Kakwa Provincial Park. And she has done a splendid job of putting these incidents in a broader context of BC and Alberta paleontology as well as cases farther afield – including Pete Larson’s prison term in South Dakota. Partly because the broader context is so well developed, this book should be required reading for all amateur fossil collectors and, especially, the professionals. I am not aware of any treatment as broad or as balanced as this one.

Reviewer bio: 

David Raup (retired University of Chicago paleontologist and a former curator of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago) Washington Island, Wisconsin May, 2011