Dr Anjana Khatwa and Richard Edmonds raise questions about fossil collecting and how to maintain environments for a sustainable future.
At about this time of year, many schools will be taking students on field trips, some of which may involve collecting fossils. In this article we discuss the relationship between fossil collection and environmental concerns. We go on to explore how wider issues of long-term heritage protection and shorter-term factors can work together to promote a sustainable future.
Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site
The Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site (also known as the ‘Jurassic Coast’), stretches for 95 miles along southern England’s coastline and is one of the most popular sites for fossil collecting in the UK. The internationally renowned coastal exposures of the Jurassic Coast were awarded (inscribed) World Heritage Site (WHS) status in 2001, based on the near complete sequence of Mesozoic rocks that records evidence of early reptiles and their development through to the age of the dinosaurs.
For a site to obtain WHS status, it must exhibit cultural or natural features that are ‘of outstanding universal value’ and must be protected for present and future generations of humanity. Protecting the integrity (or condition) of the site is essential to maintain the qualities that led to site inscription. Natural erosion, which maintains the geological integrity of the Jurassic Coast, exposes fossils that are then washed out onto the beaches. The fossils are an important part of our geological heritage but, with continued natural erosion, the sea will damage them and wash them away.
Conservation or preservation?
Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Certainly in this respect, World Heritage Sites need to be protected to maintain the very quality that makes them unique. For example, if fishing and tourism along the Great Barrier Reef WHS in Australia were not regulated then irreversible damage might occur to its ecosystem. This would then threaten the values that led to its inscription onto the World Heritage List. It is our duty to ensure that the geology of the Jurassic Coast remains exposed and retains its natural quality and condition. Coastal defence structures interfere with natural coastal processes and therefore could threaten the integrity of the site. Landslips and coastal erosion are not welcomed by everyone (particularly private landowners!) and can be a cause of conflict between local people, engineers, planners and environmentalists.
Controlling these processes can often conflict with what we value in our environment. For example, what if site managers at Glacier Bay National Park WHS attempted to control the number of icebergs calving into the glacial lakes to make shipping traffic lanes safer? How would this method of control affect the beauty of the environment? The natural erosive processes of our coastline are essential to maintain the unique quality and beauty of the site. We need to find a balance between the needs of the environment with the needs of its users in order to maintain a sustainable future.
Although conservation methods can be implemented to ensure protection of the site, preservation is a very different issue . It not only encompasses protecting the site from loss or damage, but also raises issues about whether that site can or should be protected from change.
In the case of the Jurassic Coast, preservation is not appropriate since we need change to maintain the integrity of the site. Erosion is the process that gives the site its value. Coastal defence structures would disrupt these natural processes, the geological value of the site could be harmed and ultimately the WHS status could be put at risk. In an extreme comparison, it would be similar to allowing an amusement park to be built next to the Taj Mahal!
The fossils that are revealed are a direct result of these erosional processes and provide the key to understanding past environments. The geological sequences along the Jurassic Coast chart monumental changes encompassing hot deserts, deep oceans, shallow warm seas, dense forests, swamps, lagoons and salt lakes. The fossils are crucial to our understanding not only of past environments but also how life adapted and evolved over time. Wave action erodes the cliffs, washes out the fossils and carries them away. Once this happens, potentially scientifically valuable specimens will be lost forever. But what is the best way to ensure that the fossils are saved?
Fossil collecting has been popular along the Dorset coast for centuries. In fact some of the specimens found by renowned fossil hunter Mary Anning from Lyme Regis, 200 years ago, still help to answer key scientific questions today.
Precisely when scientifically significant fossils emerge along the Jurassic Coast is impossible to predict. We do not know which cliffs or geological sections will yield a specimen that will be new to science. For visitors, ammonite and belemnite fossils are easily found on the beaches, particularly in winter and early spring. But who owns these fossils? Under English law, fossils in situ belong to the owner of the mineral rights who is also usually the landowner. Once the fossil is washed out onto the beach, then it may be regarded as abandoned by the owner, and can be freely collected.
Collecting fossils from a WHS raises certain ethical and controversial issues. If we don’t allow visitors to take away bits of the Taj Mahal, why should we allow collectors to search for, collect and even sell Jurassic Coast fossils? This is due to the characteristics of the site. The Taj Mahal is a unique building, its beauty lies completely in its structure and form. Removing blocks of marble would ruin its integrity. However, the Jurassic Coast is dynamic and robust, every year producing a renewed supply of fossils thanks to erosion. The fossils collected along the Jurassic Coast represent a fraction of what will be available for thousands of years into the future.
For professional collectors, significant time is required to search for and clean specimens. This serves as a source of income that supports a range of cottage industries for a number of local people. By selling commonly found fossils, collectors are in a position to find the more scientifically valuable fossils along our coast that most palaeontologists (who are constrained by time and funding) cannot. In many cases, important finds are donated to museums or universities by collectors. Some scientists feel that fossil collectors are not knowledgeable or skilled enough to search for and prepare specimens; that it should be left to the specialised few. But over the last 12 years, fossil collectors have helped to discover several new species of ichthyosaur that have contributed to our understanding of the Jurassic Period. In fact, a potentially new specimen of ichthyosaur was discovered as recently as March this year on the Jurassic Coast by a local collector.
In some countries, unauthorised fossil collectors can be fined or even jailed. In the United States, many fossil-rich areas fall within National Parks, which are owned by the federal government. These large expanses of land are patrolled by rangers who can arrest and prosecute anyone who tries illegally to remove fossils. Along the west Dorset coast there is a Fossil Collecting Code of Conduct by which landowners agree to transfer ownership of fossils to the finder, provided they are collected according to the terms of the Code. Collectors who do not abide by the Code may be regarded as stealing the fossils. According to the terms of the Code, scientifically important finds should be registered. The fossil is photographed, a record is taken and then the specimen is handed back to the collector. Collectors (and visitors) should not collect fossils in situ (stable cliff exposures) and advice is given on safe and sustainable methods of collecting.
How can we balance the issues?
Natural World Heritage Sites are subject to change from physical or biological processes, so it is important to ensure that conservation is tailored to that environment. There is no ‘one-size-fits all’ management strategy that we can apply to the care of our World’s heritage. For example, protecting rare petroglyphs (rock art) on a cave wall from being washed or eroded away would require a very different approach from that of managing natural cliff erosion. The former has a very high sensitivity to change while the latter does not. Sites need to be classified according to their sensitivity to collecting pressure and the nature of their exposure. A fossil site in a cave would be sensitive to change since the resource is limited (finite). In this case, access and entry to the site should be controlled and collecting should almost certainly be restricted to scientists. Disused quarries would also be sensitive to collecting as this type of fossil resource is not continuously renewed. Robust sites such as the Jurassic Coast or a working quarry are constantly under change and renewal exposing new discoveries. Fossils are either washed away by natural processes in the former or crushed to form aggregate in the latter. Building sites or road cuttings can also offer opportunities for timely fossil explorations. These temporary exposures can yield rare finds that would otherwise remain undiscovered. In such cases, the challenge is to ensure that any specimen retrieval for the benefit of science is carried out as quickly as possible. One way of controlling fossil collecting is by restricting access to sites. In a quarry or enclosed environment, access can be monitored. However it is impossible to do this along the 95 miles of the Jurassic Coast. Attempting to police the coastline will not stop collecting but drive it underground and many specimens would not then come to the attention of scientists.
Heritage under threat?
Balancing the value of natural heritage against the needs of the local community is difficult. WHS status provides an opportunity to protect the environment against damage or exploitation. However, for local communities struggling to make ends meet, it may mean a challenge to their source of income. How would restricting and controlling fishing in a WHS affect local fishermen? Would they share the same ethic as an environmentalist who wanted the coral reef protected from exploitation? What if a large reserve of oil was discovered beneath a rich dense tropical forest? Would more local jobs and an increase to the global oil reserve outweigh environmental concerns to protect our natural heritage? The biggest danger to the beauty and integrity of the Jurassic Coast is coastal development, and this can generate conflicting views on what has more value (long term heritage protection or shorter term considerations). The World Heritage Convention strives to ensure that countries adopt suitable management plans to care for the world’s heritage. It exists to give protected status to natural environments and cultural landscapes that are constantly under threat from development, exploitation or modernisation. In managing the Jurassic Coast, we endeavour to work with our local communities to generate a sense of pride and ownership about our environment. In doing this, we can ensure that the WHS will continue to be available and valued by the generations of people who will come to enjoy its beauty and its amazing geology and fossils.
We thank local fossil collector David Sole for his comments on this article.
Fossil Collecting www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Fossil Collecting in West Dorset www.soton.ac.uk/~imw/colrule.htm
National Fossil Collecting Code of Conduct www.discoveringfossils.co.uk
Natural History Museum www.nhm.ac.uk
For further information contact: Dr Anjana Khatwa, World Heritage Education Coordinator and Richard Edmonds, Earth Science Manager, Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site,