“Amateur” collectors that have contributed enormously to the science of paleontology include August F. Foerste, a high-school physics teacher for 38 years, that specialized in Ordovician and Silurian fossils (including, thankfully, nautiloids) and Harrell L. Strimple who, without a college degree, published extensively on echinoderms particularly late Paleozoic crinoids and in 1962 became curator and research associate at the University of Iowa. The award presented each year by The Paleontological Society to a deserving amateur that has contributed to the science of paleontology is named after Strimple.
Current professionals should consider these private collections as they would their own collections–a resource to be utilized in scientific research (many, of course, already do). How can this be accomplished? Outreach to amateur clubs by professionals giving talks on their research interests is a way to start. By attending club meetings and giving presentations, professionals show that they respect amateurs and encourage their systematic collecting. In this way, academic professionals can instruct and cooperate with amateurs to insure that specimens collected are correctly documented. I and others have presented programs on collecting, documenting, and preparing fossils to members that are just starting out so that they understand the importance of responsible collecting. This message has even more impact when presented by an academic paleontologist familiar with publication requirements.
But the real value of such cooperation, as well as the encouragement of amateur collecting by academic professionals, is the collection of fossil specimens before they are lost to weathering and erosion or the quarry crusher. Fossils are our data. Without the collection of fossils new data will not be forthcoming for research. With the decline of academic paleontological positions, the relegation of paleontological field investigation to an ancillary position or to a scientist’s “free time” due to academic responsibilities and lack of funding, and the ephemeral nature of collecting sites, to limit or curtail entirely the collecting of fossils by amateurs (and by responsible commercial collectors, for that matter) is tantamount to paleontological suicide. I abhor the possibility that any fossil could be lost to science forever because it remains uncollected. Even if a scientifically important specimen, vertebrate or invertebrate, is collected by an uninformed or casual collector and stuck in a shoe box in the basement, there is obviously a much better chance of that specimen ending up in the hands of a knowledgeable amateur or academic professional than if that specimen were not collected at all–a fossil left to weather into obscurity is lost to everyone forever. More.
Well, in the age of Darwin’s Doubt vs. the tenured fossil in the prof’s chair, not everyone loses if challenging new fossils disappear.
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