January 23, 2009
The recent case of amateur paleontologist Nathan Murphy illustrates how complicated fossil-collecting can be. Murphy ran a for-profit organization called the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, which took paying customers to dig at fossil sites. According to a New York Times report, Murphy had an arrangement in 2002 to dig on the Montana land of Joann and Howard Hammond, under which he would share profits from his business with them. During that year, one of Murphy’s customers found a Velociraptor-like dinosaur there.
That customer has since said that Murphy told him to keep the discovery secret from the Hammonds, according to the Times. In 2006, Murphy showed parts of the raptor fossil to colleagues and said he had found it only recently and at a different site. Then his customer talked about the find to the Hammonds—who, it turns out, did not own, but rather leased the land on which the fossil was found. The owner of the land filed a complaint against Murphy, who is scheduled to stand trial on theft charges in March. He told the Times that he had assumed he had an agreement to excavate on the property, but that he felt that he had no choice but to plead guilty.
Even under the best of circumstances, determining who can remove fossils from what where can be a tricky business. Every year paleontologists must carefully navigate the tangle of laws and restrictions on fossil collecting. Even though scientists have been clamoring for a more clear-cut system for years, none is on the horizon.
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