Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Conversation With An Ecologist About Fossils And Conservation

T R Shankar Raman, an ecologist who blogs at View At Elephant Hills and tweets @mizoraman wrote in last week with a question about fossils, field work and conservation. It ended up being a long conversation via email and so with his permission I am posting our conversation below.

In geology, field sampling does lead to outcrops being damaged and in-situ context of important fossils being lost. At least when I was a student, these issues about how to go about working an outcrop so as to cause least damage to the outcrop and what are the ethics of fossil collection did not come up for any discussion. Do faculty discuss this with students these days here in India?  I don't see these issues being widely discussed in the geology community here. I will be talking to a palaeontologist to get her views about the legality and ethics of collecting fossils from private and public lands in India which I will write up as a blog post.

In the meantime, below is our exchange.

Shankar Raman-

if you have the time. If geologists find something like this, how do they decide whether to leave it in situ (conservation) or remove (collection) for study? How many of the scientific collections are then actually subject to study and make it into publications and how many are simply lost? If locations of such fossils are made public/advertised, does it lead to their loss or a kind of vandalism? (I ask because there are parallels from ecology/field biology of collecting animal or plant specimens and related ethical and conservation concerns.)

Suvrat Kher

you raise interesting and important issues. I do feel conservation issues in the sense of leaving fossils or minerals in situ have not been widely discussed in the geology community yet. On a broader scale geologists do agree that some sites are of great importance as a geological heritage and those should (and some are) conserved. The Geological Survey of India is working of an expanded list of geological sites that they will ask for protected status. But at an individual level, a geologist or palaeontologist working in a field area is likely to sample whatever is available (the feeling may be that someone else would sample it and scoop my research :) ).

Regarding whether fossil collections go unstudied, the answer is the age-old "it depends" on who did the collecting and when. For example the GSI has enormous collections of fossils from more than a century of mapping the country. Much of these lie in museums and archives, unstudied, although some GSI geologists do describe them in monographs and such. But more value addition in terms of their ecological and evolutionary significance remains to be done.

On the other hand academic departments have shorter term goals, limited funding and a pressure to publish (esp in recent times). Their sampling programs hence tend to be limited and focused and much if not all of the fossils eventually will be published. In some cases though palaeontology departments are on the wane and so yes their collection may remain unstudied.

In terms of keeping fossil sites secret, not sure how that will work. If you publish then the location has to be disclosed. That is scientific practice. Vandalism however is a real threat and is happening with private collectors making of with a bounty (example minerals like zeolites found around Pune are providing a fortune for dealers). I guess one can't protect the entire sedimentary basin but demarcating protected areas and provided funds to secure such sites is the best one can hope for. Perhaps we need to make a distinction of collecting fossils from private lands (with permission) versus protecting public sites which fall within National Parks and such. The U.S has such a distinction.  In any case unfortunately this is not given enough importance and if there is a law against collection nobody seems to be aware (including me!) of it and am sure it is widely disregarded.

thanks for making me think aloud about these issues!

Shankar Raman-

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I see the parallel concerns and differences that you describe. In our field of work, there are serious concerns regarding (a) collection of specimens (a significant number languish without final description with scientists who dont want to be scooped and dont want to share or deposit in museums), (b) possible impacts on the habitat and the population of the species in the area where the study or collection is carried out. So it is a matter of both ethical and conservation concern.

And this is not just restricted to India... listen to this NPR broadcast for instance, triggered by a paper in Science:

In our field (wildlife conservation), there is also the related issue of tourism in natural areas and other threats such as poaching. So we always try to be careful and sometimes decide to not disclose a specific location of an endangered species (a rare orchid, say, the nest of a breeding hornbill, or a wild male elephant with huge tusks) or do so after some kind of embargo period or with less specific geographic coordinates. Striking a balance is tricky... one does not want to end up with a situation that further stifles genuine research and also creates more bureaucratic red-tape for permits.

Hence my email and reticence regarding specific details about the fossils before I understand how things play out in geology. About law: the Indian wildlife act does prohibit removal of plants, animals (even dead, body parts etc) or destroying habitat in any way. But if someone chips away a bunch of fossils or pockets/bags a few... will they be caught? If caught, will they be fined or acted against? No idea! You should do a blog post about this someday! Conservation is a general enough word to be relevant to artistic heritage, geology, and

Thanks for the discussion!

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