Hot rocks 

Black markets and blue scientists: inside the underground trade in fossils

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Text and Photos By Leslie Anthony

The wall mural in the bar of the hotel in Patricia, Alberta, says it all. Kitty-corner to a raucous birthday celebration and a cue-ball's hop from a pool table where ranch hands are getting drunk, the floor-to-ceiling rendering is an amateur but endearing attempt to reconcile the natural and commercial histories of the province. In earthen tones, cowboys herd cattle across a range studded with oil wells while groups of bison are chased by First Nation hunters on horseback. There are combines and trains and mines and antelope-pretty much what you'd expect in a simple ode to the area. But wait: what's this in the corner?

Almost cartoonish in its snarling countenance, a toothy Albertosaurus - slightly detuned cousin to the ever-popular Tyrannosaurus Rex - takes in the scene. To a casual observer, the dinosaur most obviously conjures the province's deep geological and natural heritage; something both studied by scientists and enjoyed by the public. And though this was almost certainly the artist's intent, irony exists in the graphic juxtaposition: in some circles - and very much so in Alberta - fossil remains are also viewed as commercial substances. Like other natural resources depicted here, the extraction and sale of fossils represents sustainable business and, in some cases, very big money.

These two views of the mineralized remains of extinct organisms - public trust versus private enterprise - underlie a long-simmering debate that often sees heated clashes between governments, individuals, and scientists over access to important fossils. Patricia was the penultimate stop on a winding tour one recent summer through the fossil-rich southern tier of Alberta with cohort Dr. Michael Caldwell, a professor of vertebrate palaeontology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Together, we'd set out to plumb the extent of conflict in the increasingly popular business of mining ancient life.

Our mutual interest in the problem was established years before near Joggins, Nova Scotia, one of the world's most revered paleontological deposits and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Highlighting the convoluted and often emotional milieu surrounding fossil rights, here we'd witnessed a confrontation between eminent paleontologist Robert Carroll of McGill University's Redpath Museum and a group of local fossil entrepreneurs. Collecting under permit from the Nova Scotia Museum, Carroll was searching for remains of Hylonomus lyelli - the earliest known reptile - typically found encased in fossil stumps embedded in the dramatic red-sandstone cliffs lining the shore. The locals, who'd been leading "stump" tours and operating a small museum nearby, reacted by harassing Carroll, accusing him of vandalism, calling in print and TV media, and eventually persuading the province to rescind his permits.

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