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The Downside of Good Fortune

Posted by | February 1, 2011

The rates of China’s economic growth are often reported in a wide variety of sectors. But China is experiencing another bonanza, too. It doesn’t get the headlines commanded by economic figures, but it catches the attention of geologists and anyone with an interest in the history of life on Earth. What’s at issue is the absolute tsunami of fossil specimens that are dug up in China and make their way around the world.

The main period for discovering important fossils in the U.S. is probably in the past. To be sure, there are dinosaur finds in Montana from time to time, and other fossils come to light on occasion around the nation. But simply because we’ve had scientific expeditions looking for fossils within our national boundaries for well over a century, the rate at which we discover significant fossils these days is rather small.

In contrast to the U.S., China didn’t have people looking for fossils within its borders until quite recently. Locked in poverty and separated for a time from much of the world through the Cold War, the Chinese had other issues to deal with besides trying to unravel the ancient history of life on the planet.

But all of that has changed in recent years. Both scientific and private efforts have been mounted to find fossils in certain Chinese rocks, and the efforts have been enormously successful. The flood of fossils that has emerged is flowing into Chinese museums, into museums overseas, and into the hands of private collectors.

There’s a lot of money at stake these days in the world of fossils. A complete specimen of a transitional type of species of a dino-bird fetches a king’s ransom on the international market. Ditto for certain specimens of enormous swimming reptiles or pretty nearly any other species that’s large, interesting or fierce-looking.

But here’s a simple fact about fossils. Usually what you find in a rock is only part of one individual’s remains. In other words, it’s not so hard to find a part of a dinosaur – I stumbled across one isolated dino bone myself when I was younger. But it’s truly rare to find all the bones and teeth of a particular individual, laid out neatly and just waiting for you.

There often is real scientific value in just a part of a fossil. Incomplete specimens can mean a lot to experts. But, for obvious reasons, the price of a complete fossil is extremely high compared to the price an isolated bone or tooth will fetch.

Many of the fossils being found today in China first come to the attention of farmers who simply find a rock in their field with part of a fossil in it. From the point of view of some farmers, adding to that first rock with part of another is not so difficult. Just for example, imagine you and I both become fossils in the same siltstone bed, but the fossil version of me ends up missing an arm because a predator carried it off after my death. It might occur to a farmer to “add” an arm to my fossil remains from another specimen – like you. This creates a mixed fossil, one that represents the same species, but that has two individuals in it.

Even more problematic is that a farmer might not have another human bone to complete the fossil version of me. In that case, he might add whatever he has on hand that seems most suitable, something from another species of animal. This creates a chimera, an animal that never lived at all.

Farmers and local fossil dealers can fetch high prices for specimens they create in such a way. And according to a recent article in the journal Science, it looks like the majority of fossil specimens coming out of China have been doctored.

It’s all a crying shame. It would be better to have incomplete evidence of an animal than to have “specimens” that have been carved, forced together, or otherwise corrupted.

I surely don’t begrudge Chinese peasants any extra income they can get. But I do regret the loss of scientifically meaningful evidence of life’s rich history on Earth.