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Fossil collecting is a rewarding and educational hobby enjoyed by people of all ages, but paleontologist opinions on amateur collecting are mixed. A new study in Palaeontologia Electronica highlights the invaluable contributions of amateur fossil collectors to vertebrate paleontology, providing recommendations to improve this essential collaborative relationship.

The study focuses on fossil collecting from the Santa Margarita and Purisima Formations (Miocene-Pliocene) of Northern California, finding that amateur collectors contributed 75.9% of Santa Margarita Formation specimens in museum collections, and over a third of Purisima museum specimens. Their contributions were included in 40% of publications in this study area, demonstrating the high quality and scientific importance of their finds.

figure2Typical localities and collecting in the study area [Figure 2 in publication]

Study author Dr. Robert Boessenecker of Mace Brown Museum of Natural History calls for improved collaboration between paleontologists and amateur collectors. While many paleontologists cooperate with amateurs, dismissive attitudes are unfortunately common, particularly among American vertebrate paleontologists. Given the results of this study, the author concludes these attitudes are unwarranted and a synergistic relationship is critical to paleontological discoveries.

“Someone needs to get the fossils out of the ground or off the beach. There are far too many fossils out there for professional paleontologists to salvage and they are continuously being exposed,” said Boessenecker. This exposure leads to fossils being eroded and lost to science, unless amateurs continue to collect. “If we don't collect the fossils, and we're rude or dismissive or simply not proactive about our amateur outreach efforts - then donation streams have a very real danger of drying up,” he said.

The study provides some key recommendations and examples of how paleontologists can improve this important collaborative relationship. For instance, paleontologists can use social media, local events, or museum exhibits to proactively share information on collecting etiquette, donations, stratigraphy, identification, or recent scientific publications with the collector community. Boessenecker emphasizes positive encouragement, and recommends offering identification help and providing painted casts upon donation as a token of appreciation.

“I view any time teaching amateurs anything as an investment. At minimum, you have the opportunity to build good will with the local community - and at the maximum, you might get some scientifically significant specimens,” said Boessenecker, who himself started as an amateur collector in high school and early college, and now makes efforts to engage local collectors in his own community.

As stated in the study, “Unless active amateur collectors are respected, supported, and celebrated by vertebrate paleontologists, amateurs have little to no reason to donate fossils.” Learn more in the full paper here.

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