Scientific advancements may help catch fossil thieves

The area around this two-toed ancient raptor footprint located at the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite is lighter in color than the surrounding rock signifying that someone has vandalized the print, according to BLM paleontologist ReBecca Hunt-Foster.

A hiker in the Needles Section of Canyonlands National Park.

As tourists walk the dinorsaur trail behind him in Mill Canyon, Bureau of Land Management ranger Rich Lloyd talks about the challenges for law enforcement in the popular recreation area around Moab. Lloyd is the district superintendent of law enforcement rangers for the Bureau of Land Management’s Canyon Country District, and he and his small staff are in charge of covering more than three million acres of public land in southeastern Utah.

Paleontologist ReBecca Hunt-Foster with the Bureau of Land Management uses the handle of her brush to point out the indentation across the top of a rock that once held a large dinosaur bone that has been stolen along the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail north of Moab, Utah.

The problem of not being able to trace where paleo resources originated may be solved soon, with scientists developing methods of studying the chemistry of fossils and using that information to track where they came from.

Celina Suarez, a University of Arkansas assistant professor of geosciences, started studying geochemical paleontology when she was a master’s student at Temple University in the mid-2000s. The purpose at the time was to analyze a group of trace elements in bone to determine whether they came from different time periods, and the research centered on analyzing jumbles of bones that may have been deposited in a place at different times.

“We discovered that you could use the geochemistry to analyze these fossils for law enforcement purposes,” Suarez said.

The technique matching a bone to its suspected site could come in handy in investigations of theft of paleontological resources on public lands.

The method uses a machine called an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, which is fairly common in university chemistry departments. The machine can analyze the elements that make up any sample — in this case, bone — and then scientists can compare the chemical signatures of naturally occurring elements that have seeped into the fossils to the possible source.

This fingerprinting of bones is a little bit like DNA analysis in crime-scene investigation, in the sense that comparing the mineral content of the bones to a suspected source can be incredibly accurate, but if you have no idea where they came from, it’s essentially a shot in the dark.

“You have to have something to compare it to,” Suarez said.

Essentially, scientists can compare the trace elements and the concentrations of those elements in the fossils and the suspected origin, and be able to say whether they came from that area with about 90 percent statistical confidence, she said. There’s one small caveat, though. If a particular bone bed spreads from public land into private land, the fossils would have the same geochemical fingerprint, and it would be nearly impossible to tell the difference between bones gathered legally on private land or illegally on public land.

Suarez is currently working on a project with colleagues based at California State University-Fresno, which would form a database of trace minerals found in fossils found in the Moreno formation. She hopes that someday databases like these will become a sophisticated and accurate way to track and analyze fossils, and to perhaps deter fossil thieves.

“The resources for law enforcement are fairly limited,” she said. “It’s important from an academic perspective for us to make this (method) valuable to law enforcement.”

Suarez doesn’t see this method being widely used for tourists who just pick up a chunk of bone on a hike, or a kid adding to his rock collection.

“I’m thinking more of those folks who are in the market of thousand, million-dollar complete specimens that are of great significance to science, that most people would never get to see because they want it for their living room,” she said. “I think it’s fairly important because as more and more people become fossil enthusiasts and want to get their hands on that stuff, it’s more of a problem and public lands in the West are so vast it’s really hard to keep people from doing that.”


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